BY T. C. JONES
The day before the school year started, my mom took me to meet my first grade teacher, Mrs. Stinson. Walking into East Elementary, I was excited and hoping she’d resemble my Kindergarten teacher from the last year, who I had very much adored. I hoped she would have the same encouraging voice, the kind that quelled those back-to-school anxieties.
Mrs. Stinson recognized the disappointment on my face when I saw her. I thought she was hideous. She reminded me of the decorative witch my mom hung in our living room every Halloween with the same lines on her face, the boney nose, and even the same mole near the left side of her mouth. Proof of what too many years in a classroom could do to you.
"He can practically read already," my mom bragged. "He can spell his name too. Did I mention that he is a wonderful basketball player? A prodigy really. His father works for the district. At the high school. Tommy will always be able to get extra help at home."
And to this Mrs. Stinson merely nodded, grunting after each remark, with a look on her face saying that she had heard this same song and dance many times before.
My mom turned toward me and said, "Shake Mrs. Stinson’s hand."
I reached my palm forward and, as she gripped it, she quickly pulled back.
"Go to the restroom and wash them," she demanded, then proceeded to pull a bottle of sanitizer from her purse and lathered it on her own hands furiously.
In the bathroom, I looked at my hands and wondered what the problem was. Sure, they were covered with sweat, but wasn’t that normal with the anxiety of meeting someone new?
On the walk home from the school, I told my mom I was sorry about my sweaty hands. She grabbed my palm and held it tight.
"I told Mrs. Stinson you’d grow out of it," she said, reassuring.
I tightened my grip, feeling the sweat glide from my hand to hers.
After the incident with Mrs. Stinson, I began positioning myself so I could hide my hands. I’d stuff them in my pockets, ball them in little fists, or sometimes I’d sit on them so nobody could see. But I stopped after the sweat soaked through my pants and Bradley, a chubby boy about as wide as he was tall, yelled from his seat in the back row, "Oh man! Look at Tommy! He peed his pants!"
Kyle, the boy who sat next to Bradley, had lost his hand in a car accident. He now had a mechanical claw in its place. Naturally, he had trouble picking up his pencil and couldn’t write. Much was forgiven, however, because of his claw-hand, and Mrs. Stinson praised him for trying.
"Why doesn’t Kyle try to write with his left hand?" I asked. It was an honest question, but Bradley thought it was hilarious and broke out laughing. Mrs. Stinson thought we were in on some sort of cruel joke.
"Get up and sit in the hall for the rest of the day!" she yelled and slammed the door behind us. It was an inch away from hitting Bradley in the butt.
Banished to the corridor and perched on the cold floor, we took turns punching each other in the balls until Mrs. Stinson opened the door and glared at us. After school she made me take a note home that said I made fun of my disabled classmate and tried to touch Bradley’s privates. She left her home number asking my mom to call.
That evening, after my mom got off the phone, she made me sit at the kitchen table across from her and my dad. He sat in silence with a frown. He was angry that this meeting was taking him away from his recliner and TV shows.
"Time for a family meeting!" my mom exclaimed. "Explain yourself."
I said, "I just wondered why Kyle doesn’t try to write with his left hand."
Then I said, "I hit Bradley in the balls cause he dared me to."
To this, she told me to go to my room and think about what I did. I sat on my bed listening to my parents mumble to each other through the heating ducts. My mom said, "This doesn’t come from my side of the family."
Then my dad got really mad. I could only make out some of the words, but he said something about the only things his family had when they came to this country were the dirty shirts on their backs. He started yelling and I didn’t have to put my ear to the ducts anymore. "Don’t overreact! They’re just boys being boys. You’re acting like we have a serial killer in the making!"
"But it’s disturbing!" my mom screamed back. Then I heard her crying and had to put my ear back to the ducts again.
My dad’s voice was softer now, consoling. "Boys do crazy stuff. I’ve done crazy stuff when I was that age too."
"Well when I was in parochial school, we used to stuff comic books in our Bibles to read during religion class. We liked to draw dicks on the characters. This one time I drew this huge dick on a villain who had a human body with a moose head. It was so perfect I started laughing. You should have seen that nun’s face when she saw me laughing hysterically in Religion class. When she scurried over and found that comic between the Bible pages her face turned so red I thought it was about to explode. The entire time while she beat me with her ruler I couldn’t stop laughing."
My mom laughed and my dad joined with her and they laughed together for a while. They stayed down in the kitchen laughing until I fell asleep.
Later that school year, sometime around Christmas, after the ball-punching incident was nearly forgotten, Mrs. Stinson said we were going to make wreaths to decorate the room. "Trace your hands on this paper then we will tape them together in circles," she pulled the paper from her desk. It was bright white.
She passed the paper by row, and when Kyle picked it up Mrs. Stinson told him that he didn’t have to participate and let him play games at the classroom computer instead.
I looked around at the other kids, placing their little hands on the paper and tracing them out, showing each other, comparing hand sizes and laughing. Then I turned my eyes and watched Kyle play Oregon Trail at the computer for a while.
Finally, I placed my left hand on the paper and took my pencil and outlined as fast as possible. I cut it out with scissors and turned it in with the others on Mrs. Stinson’s desk.
We returned to our seats and watched as Mrs. Stinson held up each hand and examined them one by one.
—How nice, Holly!
—Great scissor work, Jackson!
Her face grew brighter with each hand she held up.
—Be proud of this, Ryan!
—You are really improving, Bradley!
Then her face changed, it sort of contorted and a frown appeared under her wrinkles. I knew she had come to my hand.
"This is disgusting." She pinched the edge just barely between her pointer finger and thumb for the entire class to see. It was brown and wrinkled at the edges from sweat. "Filthy." She looked directly at me before tossing my hand in the garbage.
I looked over at Kyle playing at the computer, his good hand maneuvering the mouse and his claw scratching at the keyboard like a hen pecking at seed. There was a strange smile on his face, like the worst had passed and everything following in his life would be cake.
I turned my eyes to my soaking wet palms, I wished I had two claws instead. Maybe then Mrs. Stinson would be proud of me.
T. C. Jones is the assistant managing editor at Gulf Stream Magazine, the associate editor of fiction at Burrow Press, and a fiction reader at the Indianola Review. In addition, he is an English instructor at Florida International University. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the Pacifica Literary Review, The Atticus Review, The Monarch Review, Straylight Magazine, Dos Passos Review, Sliver of Stone, Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland (Ice Cube Press), and others.