Peckerwood

by Chris Schacht

When none of the parents volunteered to come to Indian Bend State Park, the principal was ready to cancel. But I insisted, no, it will be fine. They’ve gotten so much better. I can handle this. I said this even though my kids should not go on a field trip under any circumstances, including being tethered to their own parents. The kids could not be controlled in the classroom, much less spread out over a state park, where they could do maximum damage. Might as well just give them chainsaws and offer a reward for most trees felled in an hour. I imagined them, by the end of the day, holding a baby bobcat hostage and demanding candy bars or video games. But every class was going at some point during the week, and I didn’t want my class singled out. I didn’t want to be singled out, like I’m a bad teacher, like I’m the newbie who can’t be trusted to do his job. So I doubled down, insisted that I absolutely could do it, even though every twitchy muscle around my left eye told me to cancel. We should have canceled.  

There have been so many “should haves” this year.

Trouble started the moment I tried to load them on the bus. Mrs. Carson, the other third grade teacher at Bennett, had already successfully corralled her kids aboard. When it came time for my kids, however, Justin and Robbie began a little tiff about who was actually first in line to get on the bus.

“Stop,” I said, and they stopped in mid scuffle, both of them bending into the door to keep the other out. “Robbie was first in line when we left the classroom.”

“But he said I could go first,” Justin said. The kid was a pathological liar.

Robbie denied this news, and I could feel the beginning of a long day already taking its toll.

“Justin,” Mrs. Carson said. “Please do as Mr. Brandt asked you and let Robbie through. You may follow after him.”

And just like that, Justin did as he was told and the kids got on the bus.

Once we were seated, I told her, “I’m going to need your help today.”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “We’re in this together.” That was my one consolation for this trip. The classes would be together, and Mrs. Carson and I could manage them, as a unit. Everything would be okay.

I assume that, by now, you can see where this is going.

***

Theoretically, Mrs. Carson’s group of third graders shouldn’t be any more well-behaved than mine. They are all of the same demonic Legion that ran roughshod over the second grade teachers last year, rising from the murk of Nebraska City with equal measures of sass and stupidity. But there is something about her, or how she handled the class, that brings them in line. Maybe it’s that she’s pretty. Maybe it’s the whole mom factor, where kids are afraid to make mom upset because she might cry or get mad, both of which are terrifying. Or maybe it’s that I’m still a newbie teacher and she has more experience. I don’t know. I studied her all year, from a distance, trying to figure out how she makes it work. Why does Aiden eagerly answer her questions, but refuses to talk in my class? Why is Abby a nice little girl for Mrs. Carson, and queen bee bitch in my class? I asked Mrs. Carson what I should do differently, and she said to remember my training and trust myself. I asked her how to teach, not how to be a Jedi. But I accepted that she was my Yoda, and I just had to decipher her riddles if I was to improve and not be stuck face down in the swamp of my mistakes.

***

A lady ranger met us when we got off the bus and welcomed Bennett Elementary with open arms. She gave us a kid-friendly introduction to the park and told us what we would be doing that day. Then she asked us to split into two groups.

“One group can follow me to the visitor center,” she said, “and the other can wait here for Ranger Wooten, who will be along in just a moment to lead you for a hike.”

I’m one of those people who, when I get bad news, shuts down, like someone flipped the switch on the Mr. Brandt robot. Mrs. Carson looked my way to silently conference on who would go where. I refused to process the new information, though, so I couldn’t help. We’d heard other grades, earlier in the week, stuck together for the whole thing. Why were we split up?

“We weren’t aware that we’d be splitting up today,” Mrs. Carson asked the ranger, reading my mind.

“We have more rangers on today, so we thought we’d try it different and give the kids more individual attention.” She honestly thought this was good news. She left no window for me to tell her she was wrong.

Mrs. Carson, seeing what was going on, started herding her kids away. “Come on class,” she said. “Mrs. Carson’s third graders to the visitor center. Mr. Brandt’s will stay here for the hike.”

I broke out of my trance and got close enough to whisper in her ear.

“I thought we were doing all this together?” I said.

“Don’t worry, it’ll be fine,” she said. Then she and her students wandered off to the visitor center while my class waited in the dirt.

***

A man in his fifties approached us, wearing a khaki outfit that was a little too small everywhere, from the shorts up to the collar he didn’t button.

“Hi there, third graders,” he said. “I’m Ranger Wooten, and I’m going to lead you on a hike down the most magical trail in our forest. Come with me, and we’ll experience the magic of nature!”

That is not an exaggeration. He mentioned ‘magic’ in back-to-back sentences.

Ranger Wooten did not try to be a real person; he preferred to be the caricature of a ranger. He had a walking stick with little carvings and medallions on it. He had long, graying hair pulled back in a rough ponytail. Then there was the handkerchief wrapped around his neck, which I’m sure he thought made him look like a true outdoorsman but instead gave the impression he played lead guitar for an aging hair metal band. He talked in the broad, wondering voice adults saved for little kids, a voice that can be appropriate for kindergartners and first graders. Not with my kids. He also leaned to the right when he talked and put his fists on his hips, like Santa talking to the elves.

After one minute, I was both annoyed and on my most terrified full alert. My kids would eat this loser alive.

On the first stop of our hike, Ranger Wooten put his ear to a tree and pretended to listen to it tell him about a bird’s nest up top. The kids stared at him like he was insane, which I suppose I can be proud of them for doing.

He talked about magic and owls at the next stop, and I realized he was trying to do a Harry Potter thing, which at least provided some reasoning behind his madness. The problem was, my kids A) were too young to read Harry Potter, B) hated reading, and C) were unwilling to talk about it because class bully Justin Neemyer already declared the series “gay.”

By the fourth stop, I could tell Ranger Wooten was struggling to get them involved. That’s when he started asking stupid questions.

“Well, look at this, kids,” he said, squatting down on the trail. “Look at these little mounds of dirt.” He pointed at some ant hills. “These are the homes of some of the most important workers in the forest. Do you know what lives in these little hills?”

No one answered. They hardly looked at him.

“Come on kids, don’t be shy,” he said.

It wasn’t that they were shy. They didn’t answer because they hated questions with obvious answers. Half of them hated it because they take it as an affront to their intelligence. The other half hated it because they knew they were supposed to know the answer and didn’t. I stopped this tactic with them a long time ago.

“I’ll give you a hint,” he said. “They have six legs.”

He didn’t realize it, but he was begging for one of them to give him a wise-ass answer. Schonne is always willing to help out in that regard.

“Is it a raccoon?” Schonne said. A couple of the kids, mostly his friends, laughed. He looked over at me, a happy, expectant look on his face, like he thought I would laugh, too. I, of course, did not laugh. Not this time.

I had had a hard time disciplining Schonne ever since our run-in at the beginning of the year. He never told the principal or his parents that I’d grabbed him by the shirt and physically threatened him, and I hope he never will. It was a stupid situation, where he made fun of a kid who liked firefighters and I kept him after recess to tell him, in less that acceptable ways, that what he said was not okay. My uncle is a firefighter, after all. But that’s not an excuse. I’m lucky to still have a job. That was a fuck up I will never repeat. For a while he was a little scared of me and behaved exceptionally well. But after Christmas break he started stretching his mischievous legs again, and I pushed back with only the softest reactions. When I could, I ignored him, but it was difficult. He is uncommonly sharp, referencing national news or spinning little bits of wordplay into one-liners that go right over most of his classmates’ heads. As a practitioner of witty bullshit myself, I have a hard time not appreciating what he does. Hell, I’m often the only one who can. So I let him be, for the most part, as long as he isn’t insulting other students, or insulting them in ways they understand.

It took me a long time to see my mistake. He saw my leniency as approval.

“No,” said Ranger Wooten, completely serious, pretending that a kid had never made fun of him and the others weren’t laughing. He was of that school which believe you need to ignore something to make it go away. “Now that I think about it, this is a little small for raccoons.”

“Possum?” Schonne said. He looked to me again, wanting a smile or an eye roll or anything he could interpret as a positive reaction.

“Schonne,” I said sternly, and left it at that. I had resolved to not encourage him anymore, no matter the consequences. This was one of my jobs, as a teacher, enforcing proper manners.

“Serious answers only please,” Ranger Wooten said. “No need for smart-aleckry.” With that, the grumpy old man in him reared its wrinkled head. How impolite we all were for not going along with his Leave-it-to-Beaver shtick. It reminded me of visiting my great grandma Vera when I was little, how she’d offer up a bowl of rock-like butterscotch candy, then get indignant when I said no.

Kylie, ever eager to please, finally gave him the answer he was looking for, and he talked for a while about how ants were important for decomposition and something about magnesium oxide or some element thing that leached from the soil. Insult their intelligence with a dumb question, then talk over their heads. A real pro.

This went on for more than an hour. It was painful for everyone involved. Thankfully, Ranger Wooten had enough experience to know when an act wasn’t working and he seriously toned it down. But the damage had been done. Justin took to pointing at everything on the trail and asking “what’s this?” The second time he did it, I saw what he was building to and told him to stop. But no, Ranger Wooten wanted to encourage curiosity about nature, so he answered that question, and the next, and the next, until Justin started rapid fire pointing at rocks and leaves asking “what’s this?” Wooten looked to me for help, and I shrugged. Fuck you, I thought. I tried to stop this, so don’t expect me to bail you out now. So Old Man Wooten showed up again and told Justin to stop. After that, the ranger and I never made eye contact, which was fine with me.

I knew we were almost done when I spotted the visitor center through the trees. It was definitely our last stop, because he gave a wrap-up talk about how important conservation was for helping all of Harry Potter’s nature friends. Right around a comment on littering, a small jackhammer sound echoed through the trees. He stopped and told everyone to listen. It was the drumbeat of a woodpecker, eating bugs or doing whatever woodpeckers do.

“Do you all hear that?” he asked. “Can anyone tell me what that is?”

Schonne raised his hand, a big smile on his face. That smile meant he had some smart-ass comment on deck and he should not be called on, something Ranger Wooten had apparently not figured out. He called on Schonne.

“It’s a peckerwood,” Schonne said.

The kids all laughed, which could be expected from this group.

But here was the real surprise: I laughed, too, a loud, honking guffaw that stood out above their higher-pitched chittering.

I bottled it immediately. I actually clamped my hand over my mouth in order to choke the laugh back down, then turned my open palm to a fist and pretended to be coughing. Yes, I tried to cover up my obvious laugh. That’s how desperate I was. But too late.

I tried not to look directly at Schonne, but I could see him out of the corner of my eye, beaming up at me.

Ranger Wooten glared at me with a unique combination of disgust and fury. He’d finally had enough. There would be no answer to this stupid question. He said, “Let’s go back,” and walked us silently up the trail to the visitor center.

***

After the hike, we met up with Mrs. Carson’s class and the two of us herded the kids into a picnic area for lunch. They stood in line to accept their bag lunches and sat at the picnic tables without any trouble. It was enough like their lunch period at school.

I was about to get my own sack when a forceful finger jabbed at my shoulder. I turned and found Ranger Wooten had snuck up on me.

“Mr. Brandt, could I speak to you?” he said.

I nodded and walked with him thirty or so feet down a trail from the picnic area. The third graders were still in view through the underbrush, but their noise diminished. It’s amazing how little distance it takes to isolate yourself.

“What the hell was that?” he said. His hands were on his hips again, but not in the goofy, 1950s way he did before. Now he looked modern-day pissed.

“I’m very sorry,” I said. “This is a difficult class, and I couldn’t get any parents to help out.”

“You’re a new teacher, aren’t you?” he said.

“Yes,” I said, knowing where this was going. “But I don’t see how that matters.”

“Do you honestly think that this is how you’re supposed to handle a group of students? To let them run roughshod over a guest?”

“I have a master’s degree. I know what I’m doing.”

“Never, in my twenty-seven years at this park, have I seen as weak a disciplinarian as you,” he said. “And you can bet that that’s exactly what I’m going to tell your principal when I call in and talk about what happened here today.”

“Hey. I didn’t even want to bring them here. We only had to because all the other classes were coming.” A little white lie, told in the heat of an argument, followed by another. “I did everything I could to help you out, but you wouldn’t accept that help, so don’t blame me and tell me I’m a bad teacher.”

“And how are you going to explain laughing at that boy’s jokes?” He pointed behind me, and I turned to see Schonne and Jacob standing there on the trail, listening in on our conversation, eyes wide and staring like a couple of curious woodland creatures.

“Look at them,” he said. “They do whatever they want.”

“With all due respect, this is my class, and I know how best to keep them from getting out of control. It may seem—”

“This is control? This is what you call control?”

“Unfortunately, yeah.”

“He’s right,” Jacob said. He waited for the Ranger and me to both turn and look at him before adding: “We’re kinda a bunch of assholes.”

“Jacob!” I said. “Watch your language and get back with your classmates right now.”

Jacob turned and left immediately. He knew, when he spoke, that this would be the result and he had no problem enduring the consequences, which would likely be my anger and nothing more. He walked down the trail, but Schonne stayed put and stared up at me with one of those open, innocent, expecting kid faces. It is that look where I never know what the kid actually expects of the events coming next, just that something is fated to happen.

“Schonne, please go with him,” I said.

He stood his ground and said “I think you’re great, Mr. Brandt.”

Like I said, I never know what is coming next from a face like that.

“Thank you Schonne,” I said. “Now please go join Jacob.”

“That’s it?” Ranger Wooten said. “All the times he’s interrupted today, all the times he’s disobeyed, and you give him a please and thank you?”

“I’m teaching them to be polite,” I said. “I’m setting an example.”

“If I were you, I’d kick this little punk out of school. You need to—”

“Hey. Stop it,” I said. I stepped right up next to him and nearly headbutted him, I got so close. I may have been an inch or two shorter, but I was clearly the bigger man. He felt it and I felt it. He took a step back and I took that step with him, still right there in his face. “If you say one more thing about my students or the way I handle them, I…”

Thank god I stopped myself. It was the smartest thing I did all day.

We stared at one another for a moment before I broke away. I grabbed both Schonne’s shoulders, turned him around, and made him march in front of me like my prisoner, though I’m not sure he saw it that way. He trotted along in front of me, looking back every once in a while to see if I was still behind him. Jacob stood at the head of the trail, waiting for us.

“Is there something you two wanted?” I said. “Or were you just snooping where you don’t belong?”

Jacob looked down sheepishly. “My lunch sack didn’t have a Snickers,” he said.

“Your lunch sack didn’t have a Snickers,” I said. “Well I’m glad you interrupted us for that. Let’s go see if we can’t undo this tragedy.” I looked back at Ranger Wooten and found he had cut through the trees to avoid us and was power-walking to the visitor center.

I walked over to the picnic table the boys had been sitting at and they followed me.

“Is this it?” I said, holding up a sack. Jacob nodded. I poured out what was left in the bag, what looked to be just an apple and a napkin, but lo, when the napkin struck the table, what tumbled out of its fold but a bite sized Snickers.

“What is that?” I said. Neither of them responded, their eyes downcast. “It looks to me like a Snickers.” I picked it up and knelt down by them, holding it in front of me, ready to give a pointless and impassioned speech about putting effort into something before asking for my help. But when I knelt down, Schonne put one of his arms protectively in front of his friend. His action stopped me dead, because it dawned on me: he thought I was going to hurt Jacob. He thought I would physically threaten him, the way I had Ranger Wooten, the way I had Schonne all those months ago.

They were scared of me.

“Hey, boys,” I said. “Calm down. It’s not a big deal, okay? It’s just a Snickers.” I set it on the grass between us and put my hands on my hips in my best Ranger Wooten impression. “Boys and girls, what do we have here?” The boys looked at me like I was nuts. “Come on now, don’t make me go ask my owl friends.” I stuck out my tongue and crossed my eyes, and finally they smiled. Schonne dropped his arm.

“It’s a Snickers,” Jacob said.

“Are you sure boys and girls?” I said. I picked it up. “I think it could be a raccoon.” Finally, a little laugh out of them. “But it does look like a Snickers. Feels like a Snickers.” I smelled it. “Smells like a Snickers. I wonder if it tastes like a Snickers.” I acted like I was going to open it up.

“Hey,” Jacob said, but he still smiled. I handed it over to him.

“Finish your lunches,” I said, dropping the impression. “We’re going inside soon.”

I stood up and they took their seats at the picnic table. I looked around at the rest of the class, sitting and eating and talking, but noticed Ranger Wooten up by the building. He was talking to another ranger, the two of them looking my way. Standing beside them, listening in, was Mrs. Carson. She nodded her head as Ranger Wooten talked, then turned my way and our eyes met.

She looked worried. But I wanted to know, was she scared for what might happen to me or of what I might do?

***

Nothing else of note happened the rest of the day. Different rangers gave hands-on presentations. There were still small issues, but not with Schonne or Jacob. Justin banged a shell against a table to see if it would break. Abby and Taylor wouldn’t stop giggling at Caitlin and generally making her feel like shit, a practice that repeats itself every week or two whether we are on a field trip or not. Someone dared Robbie to put a small animal bone in his mouth, which he happily did, followed by squeezing it up his nose and then attempting to get it in his ear before I snatched it away.

On the bus ride home, Mrs. Carson sat down next to me gingerly, like I might get spooked otherwise. We rode silently at first, until the hum of the highway, the voices of children, and the clattering of the old bus allowed her to speak without the kids hearing us.

“Do you need to talk?” she said.

“About what?” I said.

“Ranger Wooten has already called the school,” she said. “What are you going to say?”

“I’ll tell the truth. Wooten didn’t know how to handle the kids, he wouldn’t let me discipline them, so things got out of control. Then he tried to blame me and he threatened Schonne, in Schonne’s presence, and I told him to watch it.”

“That’s not what Wooten told me.”

“Of course not. He probably told you something about magic. I’m an evil wizard, Lord Voldemort, and blah blah blah, owls, blah blah blah he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing so he’s blaming it on me.”

She put her hand above my forearm as a sign to calm down. It was the best advice I got from her all day.

***

When we got back to Bennett, the principal was outside waiting. She smiled for the kids and asked them about the field trip, and they all gave wonderful accounts of how fun it was, not because that’s what happened but because that’s what grandma principal expected them to say and they had to please her.

But she wasn’t there to talk to the kids. They went ahead of us down the hallway, and she fell in step beside me.

“I got a call about this morning,” she said. “Anything I should know?”

“I overreacted,” I said. “It’s just that, the kids were right there, and he started calling them names and talking about kicking their butts or something like that, and I…” I almost said, ‘I lost it,’ but caught it. Second smartest thing I did all day.

“I’m sorry, but I have to write up a report about this. I’ll need you to write down your account of what happened.”

“I understand.”

“I can’t have my teachers overreacting, no matter what other people say or do. You represent the school when you’re out there.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” I was sorry. I just didn’t know what I was supposed to do about it.

We got back to the class room and there was still time left on the clock, so I had them clean out their desks. Then they gathered their things and waited a full five minutes in line by the door, their idea. Kids don’t realize it, but they love getting in lines, standing in lines, waiting for lines.

The moment they walked out, I sat at my desk. I hadn’t felt, until right then, how much the stress had worn me down, how tired I was. And the stress wasn’t over. With my impending report, it had just begun. The principal might stop treating me like her favorite son and I’d have to get back in her good graces. And I’d have to apologize to Mrs. Carson for being short with her on the bus. Not to mention getting my kids to trust me rather than fear me. So much to do, so much to think about doing, so much to worry about.

How long do I have to do this, how old do I have to be, before I figure out how to stop fucking up?

What am I supposed to do if next year comes and I’m still angry?

I don’t have answers for my questions. There is no way to know. So I did the one thing I could. There was a gap in my lesson plans the next day, a twenty minute stretch I knew would suddenly appear when they tired of math worksheets. I needed some way to fill the time. I had to keep an already broken day from coming undone.

My thoughts were interrupted when I noticed a little body in my doorway. Schonne. He walked halfway into the room.

“Mr. Brandt, I’m sorry if I got you in trouble,” he said.

People who think kids are stupid should be shot.

“I didn’t get in trouble,” I said. "Go home, Schonne. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

He didn’t leave. Just like on the trail, he stood his ground.

“I’m sorry if I made you mad,” he said.

“Sometimes I get mad. It’s always my fault. It’s never yours. You know it’s wrong when I get mad like that, right?”

Schonne just stared at me.

“It’s wrong” I said, “and I’m sorry you had to see it.” Again.

This wasn’t going how he planned. I could tell he was thinking about how to redirect the conversation back to whatever it was he had on his mind.

“You didn’t have to defend me, to the ranger,” he said. “I know that I wasn’t a good kid.”

“Schonne.”

“Jacob was right, what he said.”

“Stop. Be quiet.”

“Mr. Brandt, I think it’s fun when you—”

“Schonne, shut up and get out!” He backed up, once again, at the force of my words, but didn’t go anywhere. I took a breath. “Schonne, I’m asking you to please leave. Go home.”

Mrs. Carson’s head appeared in the open door and suddenly the moment froze and died. She must have heard me yell.

“I need to talk to Mr. Brandt,” she said. “Go home Schonne.” He left, reluctantly, looking over his shoulder at me on his way out. I’d told him to leave half a dozen times with no result, yet she did it once and off he went. Do what mom says. She loves you. But you can ignore dad, because he—.

What do I feel?

Mrs. Carson stepped in the door but said nothing.

“I’m sorry” I said. “Today was hard.” I said it expecting some kind of sympathy from her. I expected her to hear me begging for the guidance I refused earlier in the day, on the bus.

She bent back a little and looked down the hallway to make sure Schonne had left. She watched me for a few moments, either judging me or worrying about me, then returned to her own room. She never said a word.

Somewhere in that silence, she was telling me what to do, what kind of teacher I should be. But I’m too dumb to get it. Please see that. You’re such an amazing teacher, better than I’ll ever be. Just tell me what do. Someone please just tell me what I should do.

Chris Schact

 

Chris Schacht earned his MFA from New Mexico State University and now teaches in Colorado. His writing has appeared in The Hopper, LandLocked, and Roads & Kingdoms, while other stories featuring Mr. Brandt can be found in Flare and Drunk Monkeys.

— Sarah Rose Cadorette

“Oh, so NO ONE has ever gotten DRUNK at a WEDDING before?” I asked, flinging my arms out to indicate that I was a very, very big presence.

            The EMT sighed, pushed the stretcher up against a wall, and came around to face me. “Do you know why we picked you up, Sarah? Hmm?” I shook my head defiantly. “You were laughing in the bushes.”

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