Señora Grundy hated me, but not as much as I hated her. I’m not sure what bothered me most–the intense cherry red of her obviously dyed hair, the voice so squeaky it could give a nearby dog seizures, or the desk so carefully organized that even her paper clips were stacked neatly. She moved through her classroom like a rag doll traipsing its way across an active battlefield, her elastic legs always too far in front of her elongated trunk, as if she might fall backwards at any moment.
Before I took her Spanish III class during my freshman year at Union City High, I had actually liked Spanish. I enjoyed the creativity, taking lessons learned in school and combining them with curse words from the Internet to construct filthy jokes for my friends. Growing up as I did in small-town Western Maryland, I could use Spanish as a sort of secret code, because most of the locals (my parents included) believed strongly that citizens of the United States of Americs were born with the God-given right to speak only English and be universally understood.
My middle school Spanish teacher had spent a year of her college education living in Chile, soaking up the culture until she practically smelled like downtown Santiago. Señora Wilson loved the people, the music, the food. She spoke of the language and people with warmth and love, all in an accent that could have fooled Pinochet into thinking she was a native. It was beautiful, full-bodied. So was she.
There was no evidence that Señora Grundy, on the other hand, had ever been to a Spanish-speaking country. She spoke with all the authenticity of a person who learned the language while working at a Taco Bell outside of Pittsburgh, albeit with less enthusiasm than that implies. The moment she opened her small, permanently puckered lips to speak, I despised her.
I know now that wasn’t fair, and I knew it then. I am not unaware of my own emotional shortcomings. That very first day, as I pondered how I fit into the new-to-me world of Union City High and struggled to put my initial feelings of unease with her class to rest, she destroyed any chance to earn my respect.
She had already created a seating chart–an entirely reasonable thing, of course–and she was organizing us alphabetically by last name in an alternating boy-girl pattern. (This said volumes about her to anyone not too stoned to pay attention.) What bothered me, as I watched her traverse the classroom with that distinctive Slinky-like gait, was her insistence on personally assigning every student a Spanish name. She announced each student’s chosen name as she pointed them to their seat, settling on the most obvious option for each person. Joseph Atkinson became José; Maria Bennett stayed Maria.
“Paul Chernitsky?,” she summoned me, indicating a seat in the second row, near the window. “Te llamo Pablo.”
“Un momento,” I interjected. “Mi nombre es Salvador.” In middle school, I had taken this as my name in tribute to the late Chilean President Allende, assassinated in a 1973 coup. Señorita Wilson practically broke her jaw, she smiled so wide when I picked it.
Señora Grundy shook her head rapidly. “No,” she squawked. “You’re Pablo. No one choose their own name.”
“¿Por qué?” I hoped she would recognize my eagerness to speak the language and encourage it.
“Porque this is my class, not yours. Now plant your butt in that siento, Pablo, or kindly remove yourself from this room!”
Puta, I cursed to myself. I realized then that it would be a long year.
The Señora wasn’t one to let a grudge pass her by. Every day, she found reasons to criticize me. My accent wasn’t right or my Rs needed rolling or I needed the preterite tense instead of the imperfect. Everything I did was mierda. I took it, let her scrunch her face into a smirk, watched her reflexively brush non-existent wrinkles from her blouse.
You could never accuse this woman of laziness. Every moment involved speech and motion. She walked and talked and straightened her room as she went, ensuring that every textbook spine was flush to its neighbors or that the Kleenex container was simultaneously perpendicular to the window and parallel to the stack of dictionaries and the filing cabinet. Hand sanitizer was applied in 15 minute intervals, followed by a sip of coffee. When she had to sit at her desk for any length of time, she fidgeted absent-minded ly, turning a small stone paperweight between the fingers.
I can’t recall the exact moment I understood that she had OCD–in those days, I might not have even known the medical terminology–but I do remember the first time I tested her compulsion. On a whim, I turned her perfectly placed tissue box 45°. No one noticed. It wasn’t a big deal. Still, within five minutes, I saw her eyes lock onto the offending item, and she moved quickly to correct it.
After that, I took every opportunity to toy with her. I ran my finger across the window glass, leaving a smudge. (She buffed it out with a tissue during our class.) I dragged my pen along her bulletin board while throwing trash in the garbage can. (She changed the entire thing that night.) I “accidentally” opened the hole-punch in front of the fan, scattering tiny white circles for ten feet. (She called a custodian immediately, but couldn’t wait for him. She kept teaching, on her knees, using a small brush and dustpan to collect the debris.) These incidents did not go unnoticed by my peers. Each time she had a minor freak-out, scattered giggles broke out. It became a running gag.
I decided to take a few weeks off after that. She knew I was responsible, had seen me open the hole punch, and Gave me detention for it. I knew she was watching, and besides, I wasn’t sure how to top that mess short of getting suspended.
You don’t always have to do the wrong thing to get into trouble. I was trying to lay low. I was just getting out my notebook and pen, preparing for class when Joey Atkinson entered the room. He passed by her desk, grabbed the blue stone paperweight from its position in the exact center of a stack of tests and dropped it into her half-full coffee mug. Señora Grundy was on hall duty, blissfully unaware. He smirked at me and sat down.
It didn’t take her long to notice that something was wrong. She began her lesson with confidence but hovered close to her desk, scanning it first with her eyes and then with her hands. Her voice trailed off, fading mid-sentence. She opened drawers and rifled through their contents. She knelt, stretching her bony arms under the desk.
“My stone,” she said finally. “Did anyone see it? The blue one that I keep on my desk.”
Silence. Señora Grundy paced around the desk, examining it from all angles.
“It’s not just some rock, you know. My husband gave it to me on our first date thirty-eight years ago. It means so much…” I could hear Joey Atkinson snicker. I wanted to laugh, too.
“He told me, ‘Marlene, carry this with you and think of me and you’ll never have to be nervous because I’ll be right there with you,’ and I have taken it with me everywhere every day since then.”
Her face contorted, and her black rat-eyes moistened. I felt bad for her, honestly, but not enough to look away.
She raised her coffee cup to her lips and tipped it back–not her usual petite sips, but a gulp, like it was medicine. Suddenly, she gagged amd clutched her throat, dropping to her knees as her face reddened. Her tiny eyes widened. A girl from the swim team rushed forward and began to perform the Heimlich maneuver. The little stone squirted out of her mouth with an audible pop and arced through the air for a few inches then fell to the floor.
Señora Grundy remained on the floor, her thin chest heaving, trying to claim all of the room’s oxygen as her own. The swimmer released her and backed away slowly but did not return to her seat. Every eye focused on the spittle-coated stone drying on the gray linoleum tile. Except for Señora’s, which were locked on me.
“Pablo,” the Señora gasped, “get the fuck out of my classroom.” The class readjusted its collective gaze from the floor to my face.
“What?,” I whispered. I could not connect what I’d seen to what she was saying, and hearing her swear in a wheezy version of her squeaky Yinzer voice startled me. I tittered nervously.
“We are done, Pablo. I want you out of here.” She raised an arm to point at the door, a skeletal finger extending toward it. I gathered my things and went to the office, knowing she would call them.
But we weren’t done, because she pressed charges against me. Theft (though I had taken nothing) and assault (though I had done nothing). I could have told the truth, could have brought Joey Atkinson into it, but given my history, who would have believed me? The principal suspended me to the school board, and they expelled me. My mother had to enroll me in the small Catholic high school where all of the local troublemakers mixed with the children of the overly devout. The expulsion kept me out of the top-tier colleges I wanted, and I had to slog through four years at West Virginia University with drunks who burned their own couches whenever the football team lost. Every time I smelled scorched foam in the air, every littered beer can I walked past on campus, every redneck yokel who played Candy Crush on his phone during a lecture I attended, I cursed Señora Grundy.
I was back home with my parents the summer I turned 21. One Tuesday in July, my mom, who read the newspaper daily even though she knew about the Internet, called my attention to the obituaries. A man named Thomas Grundy had just died at age 67.
“Marlene, his wife… That’s the teacher who got you expelled, isn’t it?”
I took the paper from my mother and read through the details. I nodded to answer her, but my mind was already on other things.
I pulled into Ritter’s Funeral Home at 8:15 that evening, glad to see that the parking lot was full. I entered and took my place in the long line of family and friends waiting to console Widow Grundy. All the while I scanned the room, searching for an opportunity. Just before I reached the front of the line, I saw what I wanted.
It had been seven years since my expulsion, and I had changed a great deal. I had gotten taller and broader, gained twenty pounds, and grown a closely-trimmed beard. When Señora Grundy reached out to shake my hand, she smiled softly. Clearly, she didn’t recognize me.
“You’re a former student,” she squawked. “I know it!”
“José Atkinson,” I smiled, taking her hand and pulling her into a warm hug. “I’m sorry for your loss, Señora Grundy.”
“Thanks, sweetie. But call me Marlene, okay? I’m not a teacher any more.”
She asked what I was doing and I lied about work and then I asked how she enjoyed retirement and pretended to listen attentively. After a minute, we said our goodbyes.
I knelt beside the casket and bowed my head. I counted silently to fifty to be sure my prayer looked genuine. I could hear the widow talking to the next mourner, and I knew she was distracted. I stood and peered down at Mr. Grundy, a round little man with a walrus mustache and a bad combover. Clutched in his hands, in what Señora Grundy no doubt considered a symbolic gesture, was that same blue stone the bitch had almost choked on. I patted the dead man’s arm as I had always seen my grandmother do at viewings, and then I palmed the rock and walked out.
I drove around for a little bit, thinking about what I’d done and the nervous breakdown it would likely cause. I pictured Señora Grundy digging around in the casket, wailing. I imagined her heart stopping. I thought about her slashing her wrists in despair. I smiled.
I rolled down my window, feeling the warm summer night rush over me. Without slowing down, I threw the blue stone into the darkness and kept moving.