the vowel sounds
by terri brandmueller
She sat on the edge of her desk with her back to her students. Her neck was sore and she wished she hadn't drunk so much wine last night. She would wait until they were quiet if it took until 3 o'clock. Past experience told her that after six or seven minutes they would get bored with making noise, and start wondering why she was perched on the rickety desk staring at the chalkboard. She wished they would forget she was there. Her temple throbbed slightly and she concentrated on her breathing. She cleared her throat and could taste chalk dust and something coppery. The din seemed to get both louder and farther away. The pain in her neck was getting worse and she resisted the urge to stretch her neck and shoulders and arms, and she resisted the urge to bang her head against the wall and pull her hair out.
Ms. Taylor, one of the Olivias shouted, Ms. Taylor!
Olivia3 was drowned out by the other Olivias and Aidens and Jaydens and Joes. Ms. Taylor’s first name was Kim and she found these long vowel sounds exhausting.
The names and the extravagant open vowels encouraged the children to be noisy, she thought. But quiet names like Kim and Len were out of fashion. Her neck was on fire.
Two more minutes should about do it. Two more minutes and she can stretch and turn and smile at the children of the long, howling vowels, say Good Morning, Class, and stop thinking about the thing that happened. Two more minutes. Two more minutes. Two more minutes. If she repeated it to herself over and over enough times, two more minutes would be up. She squeezed her eyes shut and dug her nails into the underside of her desk, willing them to stop talking.
But someone (a Joe, a Caden, a Caleb?) was pounding on a desk, a door, and now they were quiet and the pounding stopped. She opened one eye and a blurry, principal-shaped man put a hand on her arm.
Ms. Taylor, are you all right?
Yes, thank you, Mr. Potts! Just taking a moment. I like to let them blow off a little steam before we start the day!
It’s 9:07 and past time to start the day. Come see me at recess, Ms. Taylor.
Not now, not this, she thought. Of course, Mr. Potts, she said.
She closed the door behind him and hung up her jacket.
Good Morning, Class. Take out your books for silent reading.
While their heads were down, she did a scan of the Aidens and Avas and Chloes to take attendance. Six weeks into the school year and she still had no clue who these kids were, 33 of them and only 10 different names. She wanted to stretch and yawn, but now they were quiet she didn't want to distract them, so she shifted her head back and forth ever so slightly, and now the throbbing moved from her temple to her neck and shot down her spine. Len, a quiet name for a real prick, she thought. She had numbered the children on her master sheet, which was against district rules, and also useless. She still couldn’t get them straight. She wondered if she had a mint in her purse. Her mouth tasted like old pennies. She took a quick head count—33, thank God—and checked everyone’s name off. She shuffled through the papers on her desk looking for her lesson plan. Tuesday, October 7: Silent Reading, Telling Time, Healthy Eating, Recess. The last time she brought out the analogue clock props she had almost started a riot. These were digital kids and time passed for them in precise LED flashes, not with the gentle sweeping of hands in elegant quarters and halves. She crossed out Telling Time and scrawled Thanksgiving Art Project on the plan. As she was sorting construction paper into piles of leaf colours—orange, yellow, brown—her phone vibrated in her jacket pocket.
Ever since they had met after curriculum night at the Arrow he had been wearing her down with text messages and phone calls. She had needed a glass of wine that night after meeting the current crop of pushy parents, and Len walked in while she was ordering her third double bourbon. Well hello, Ms. Taylor, he said, like he had caught her smoking in the staff lounge. She opened her mouth to say she was just leaving when he said, please, sit down. Call me Len. Len. Such a quiet name: almost lend, blend, or friend. The end. She had known that precise second.
Ms! Your phone is buzzing, said Joe or Jayden or Aiden. Silent reading was officially over.
Please put away your books, class...quietly. Thank-you! Today, as a special treat, we are going to spend the next two periods on a Thanksgiving art project...I hope you can all use your imaginations to make something beautiful for your family’s Thanksgiving table this year. Olivia, please hand out the art supplies. Three girls came forward and started bickering over the Popsicle sticks and the glue, before randomly distributing the paper and pipe cleaners to the class...four sheets of paper for Chloe, two for an Ava. Five pipe cleaners for Aiden, three for Joe. Joe got more than me, squealed someone. Shit, she thought.
She wanted to leave, but couldn’t see how she could make that happen. She was responsible for these brats, after all. Someone (her doctor, her mother?) thought it was a good idea for her to work with children after she got out of the hospital and she was too exhausted to argue. But she hated children and noise, and was a truly lousy teacher. Now Len was punishing her for this almost every night.
Her phone was vibrating constantly, and this pipe cleaner slash Popsicle stick brawl made the clock riot look tame. She went to the supply cupboard and borrowed orange pipe cleaners from her Halloween stash and distributed them to the loudest whiners, which made the quieter whiners pump up the volume. When she ran out of pipe cleaners, she reached in her bottom drawer behind the bourbon for her secret container of gold glitter and waved it solemnly in the air. The only thing her students loved more than chattering like parakeets was pouring glitter on everything, and they already knew she only gave it to “quiet boys and girls.” She had already been warned about the glitter ban but it was the one thing guaranteed to make everyone shut up, and seemed well worth the time she spent cleaning it up with a dust buster and a lint roller after the 3 o’clock bell.
While the kids were gilding their turkeys, she sneaked a look at her phone: 23 messages before recess. She needed a drink and a nap and to give Len a good kick in the nuts. Nuts. It really was nuts coming back here. Thank you, Dr. Dawson. Thank you, mother. She reached down for her bottle, uncapped it and took a long swig. No one seemed to notice so she took another and threw the bottle and her phone back in the drawer and slammed it shut. It was time.
Time to clean up before recess! Quickly finish and put your projects on the art table to dry. The bell rang and within fifteen seconds every student was out the door. She looked at the spindly, sparkly turkeys and the globs of glue and glitter hardening on the desks. The room was quiet except for the buzzing of her phone. She grabbed her jacket and slowly walked down the hall, past the door that said Leonard Potts, Principal, and out into the schoolyard.
She walked diagonally across the field dodging balls and running, screaming kids. Out of the chaos one of her students appeared. Ms. Taylor, Ms. Taylor...Mr. Potts wants you in his office, now. I could easily slap this child of the trendy long-vowel sounds, she thought. One hard slap and he would just shut up. Then she thought about the thing that happened, is happening, will happen. No. She wouldn’t slap this child. No.
After recess she stayed out by the goalposts—near the woods—watching until the last child went back inside the school building. The situation called for a reversal of detail. She took off her jacket and shoes and belt, and laid them carefully on the ground near the chain link fence. She walked until the only sound she heard was the soft crunch of leaves—orange, yellow, brown—underfoot, then she stretched out on the damp ground and waited for the sun to move across the sky.
About the Author
Terri Brandmueller is a Canadian writer currently working on a creative non-fiction book about family secrets and Internet genealogy. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in various publications in the US, Canada, and the UK, including Barrow Street, The Toronto Quarterly, and Ambit Magazine. Find Terri on Twitter: @tbrandmueller