By Molly Montgomery
She had been surprised at first, when a student asked if he could call her Mrs. P.
"Putnam" didn't seem that hard of a name to pronounce, but then again she realized that most people don't think their own name is that challenging, unless they've been told so by a teacher.
She didn't object, even though she wasn't married yet. After she married, she didn't change her name because she couldn't imagine being Mrs. W. Too many syllables for a single letter; it would get all tangled up in students' mouths until she became Mrs. Dub, and she hated the sound of that.
There were kids that tried to cross the line a few times in those early years, calling her by her first name, Penny. Penny, they'd call out, to make her look up. Please, she would say with patience stretched thin on her lips, it's Ms. Putnam. One time, during her first year of teaching, when she snapped at a student for calling her by her first name, he smirked and said, “It was for our psych class. We have to call the teachers by their first names and see how they react.”
She wanted to respond with something biting and sarcastic, but then she counted to ten like her teaching coach had told her to do whenever she was tempted to respond quickly to a strong emotion. She doubted the student was telling the truth, but what if he was? She didn’t like the thought of being an unwitting participant in a psychological experiment.
“I would prefer if you called me Ms. Putnam,” she said finally, but her awkward pause had stretched for too long and the students were no longer listening. They had moved on and were giggling over a video on a student’s phone.
“I’ll take that thanks,” she said, her hand outstretched. “You shouldn’t be using that during class.”
The student ignored her. Was it worth the effort to raise her voice, to assert her authority and send the student to the principal’s office? But she just couldn’t do it. She knew she would feel awful afterwards. She spent hours at night replaying moments that went sideways in her classroom, where she had said or done something wrong. After all, she wasn’t the real experiment; the students were. She worried that every time she screwed up, she set off a chain of events that would affect the rest of their lives. Teaching that year felt like learning how to do surgery while she was already cutting someone open. Except that every time she made an incision, she felt the pain on her own body, too.
Before she took a day off, she told her students she would be at a doctor's appointment. One of the students that hung out in her class during lunch, a theater nerd with parents who wanted her to become a nurse asked, "Oh no, are you pregnant?"
She laughed, stumbling over her words, "No, no, no. Definitely not."
"Good," the student said. "You just got here. I don't want us to have a sub for like half the year while you're on maternity leave."
Touched by this, she sat down next to the student, propping her elbows on a desk. She balanced her sandwich in her hand so it didn't brush the germy surface of the desk.
"Actually," she confessed, "I'm going to the doctor for the opposite reason."
Seeing the girl's manicured eyebrows shoot up, she backtracked.
"Oh, not like an abortion," she said. "I'm getting birth control."
She cringed, wondering if she had strayed too far into the personal. Could she get in trouble for saying these things to a student? But it wasn't like she was telling the student to use birth control. She was just stating that she, a fully grown adult, used birth control. That shouldn't be a big deal, right?
She realized then she would have to decide what kind of role model she would be for her students. Would she be someone who never talked about sex for fear of offending a student or a parent? Or would she be the type of teacher who could say the word condom without stuttering, even make it sound a little cool? She didn't know if she could be either.
“Oh good,” the girl said. “You’re like way too young to be a mom anyway.”
“So are you,” Penny replied jokingly, and the two of them laughed.
Penny wasn’t sure back then if she ever wanted to have children. It seemed like a distant event that grew even more inconceivable the closer she got to her 30’s. She barely could manage a room full of teenagers for six hours a day, let alone a baby.
The only time she lied to her students that first year was the day she was laid off. It wasn’t because she was a bad teacher. It was the budget. During her evaluations, her supervisor, the assistant principal dutifully marked off the “meets expectations” box for every category. She wondered if the expectations she was meeting were a bit lower than those of the teachers who had been teaching for several years. Her room always emitted the loudest ruckus of any of the rooms in her hallway, and sometimes when she was exhausted and dehydrated to the point of dizziness, she just sat at her desk, hiding behind her computer monitor while her students chatted instead of doing the work they were assigned.
She knew the pink slip was coming, since everyone told her it happened to all teachers in the district their first year, but she still felt a stomach-twisting sense of dread when the principal called her out of her classroom in the middle of class and sent the assistant principal to watch her students.
In the meeting, the Director of HR gave the same spiel that she probably gave to all the non-tenured teachers every year. That she was a valued employee, but unfortunately the district couldn’t guarantee her position would exist the next year. In the corner of the conference room, one of her teacher colleagues acting as a union representative took notes. After the meeting, she asked the other teacher if there was anything she could do to keep her job, any process she could follow, but he just shrugged.
“If they don’t end up hiring you back, you’ll find a job somewhere else,” he said. “You’ll be fine. I was pink-slipped every year for the first five years I was teaching.”
She nodded, though she found his words far from reassuring.
When she walked back into the classroom, she plastered an overly cheerful smile on her face to keep herself from crying.
“Why are you smiling?” asked one boy.
“I’m fine,” Penny said. “It’s nothing.”
“You don’t look fine,” the boy said.
“Hey, don’t you have, like, work to do?” snapped the theater nerd, who served as her T.A. during that period. The girl could see right through Penny’s facade, but she did her best to keep her peers from noticing that tears had spilled onto her teacher’s cheeks. Penny made a mental note to thank the girl later. At the very least, she would let the girl follow her on social media after she no longer worked there. That student was worth staying in touch with.
It hit her then, that she was going to miss these students. There would be other students, she thought. Every year there would be another batch, like cookies in the oven. If she didn’t get it right this year, the next batch might turn out OK, and then the next could be perfection. Still, it didn’t seem fair to the kids she had in front of her that they had to be the test batch.
Five years later, after she had changed jobs twice and gotten married, her first year of teaching felt like a bad dream. It hadn’t gotten easier to motivate the students or to steer them away from the temptations of technology, but she let her mistakes roll off her shoulders more easily. She had only kept in touch with a handful of the students from her first year, mostly the girl students who she had leaned on that year, who had often managed her classes for her because they knew how to get their peers to behave when she didn’t.
At her new school, she had secured a coveted classroom with both AC and a private office that she could work in after school. The only drawback was that it was the farthest from the staff bathroom. Every day, she rushed to the bathroom during the five-minute break between first and second period to retch into the toilet. She ended class a couple minutes before the bell so she could make it there before anyone else. She was pregnant, and it was only October, which was great timing in terms of the school calendar. She was due in June, so she would hardly miss time with her students at all. This had been planned, of course, perhaps even seeded by that one student's complaint all those years ago.
For many years now, she had already felt like a mother to her students, though she knew she could never take the place of any of these children’s actual parents. She would feel their foreheads for fevers, whip out band-aids for papercuts, and sit down with them for hours to help them fill out their financial aid applications. Sometimes, for her troubles, she received a thank you note, a box of chocolates, a Starbucks card. Other times, the only thanks she got was her paycheck, and that wasn’t great, but it was enough.
Still, she felt uneasy at the thought of being a mother. Each choice she made for her child would be indelible. She wouldn’t get a do-over and move on to the next group of kids after a year like she did with her students. Ever since she became pregnant, she had not been able to sleep well, wracked by panicked dreams of her failing as a mother, of forgetting to pick up her child from school, or even worse, forgetting to feed her own baby because she was too busy grading. Her husband would be there to help, and she believed he would do his part, but ultimately, if anything went wrong, she knew she would blame herself.
It was Halloween, and she was dressed as a flapper from the 1920’s as she did every year, since her students were reading the Great Gatsby. She regretted the choice now as she had to keep the hanging fringe from her dress from touching the toilet seat as she puked. She should have just gone as a witch, even though she didn’t fit in with the teachers who dressed as Hogwarts professors every year and insisted on forming cliques based on their Hogwarts houses. But black robes were harder to stain.
She felt dizzy after she vomited, so she hunched in front of the sink, holding its grimy rim with both hands. Then, she heard a knock on the door.
"Almost done," she rasped, washing her hands hurriedly. She had committed the cardinal sin of taking up too much time in the staff bathroom during break. There were only two single-stall bathrooms for the dozen teachers in the C wing. She whipped the door open, almost hitting the person waiting on the other side.
“So sorry!” she apologized to her colleague who was waiting impatiently, clutching at her Hogwarts robes like her bladder was about to burst.
Penny speed-walked back to her classroom, trying to remember the lesson plan for her next period and calculating whether she could get away with teaching from her desk instead of standing up, roaming the room like she usually did.
"Are you OK, Mrs. P?" a student asked her as she fumbled with the keys to her classroom like a drunken sorority girl just as the bell chimed. The student, a boy on the basketball team, was dressed in a suit for his game later that day. He was always the first to line up for her class.
"I'm fine," she said, in a practiced cheery tone that did not rouse suspicion, and then turned to give him a fist bump as he sauntered into the room. Her stomach lurched, but somehow she was able to keep her breath steady.
Whatever concern the boy had felt for her, even briefly, faded within seconds and he was soon absorbed in his phone. Ms. Putnam was not bothered by this. Teenagers had shorter attention spans than toddlers it seemed, especially whenever they had technology nearby. She just hoped that her own child would be different, that she would be able to raise her child to be observant, empathetic, and driven; in other words, to have the best qualities of all she had seen in her students. But was she setting her expectations too high? What if her kid was just average? She would love them no matter what, but she wasn’t sure if she could keep from judging them the way she did her students, assessing their progress and determining how they measured up.
"Good morning," she said to each student as they entered, offering her fist to them, making the faintest contact with each kid's knuckles.
“Mrs. P,” the last girl in line whispered to her as she walked in, “I think you have something in your hair.”
Penny felt the ends of her curled bob, and sure enough, there was a chunk of vomit there. She felt mortified. No wonder that boy had asked her if she was all right. She ran to her desk and grabbed a Lysol wipe and scooped up the glob, using her computer’s reflective screen as a mirror to check her appearance. As far as she could tell, she had fixed the issue.
She expected to hear the students giggling at her or trading cruel glances, but when she looked up from her desk, she saw most of her students had not noticed anything was wrong at all, or if they had, they were too kind to laugh in front of her.
As she watched her students settle smoothly into their practiced routine of starting the warm-up and listened to the sibilant sound of pencils gliding over paper punctuated by the low hum of friendly banter, she took a deep breath and chugged from her water bottle. Her stomach settled a little. She knew how to do this, she realized. She had been through this before, teaching while the room had spun around her, embarrassing herself in front of the class. Back then it was because she didn’t know how to do her job well or even how to take care of herself. Now, her stomach was agitated because her body was making room for another life.
The last time she had changed who she was, it was from Penny into Mrs. P, the teacher. It had been a painful process, full of awkward missteps and degradations. Becoming a mother would be another reinvention, this time of her whole life, not just of her persona at work. But she had survived five years as a teacher and had even become a decent one, one who really did meet the expectations of the job, and sometimes even exceeded them. More importantly, when things didn’t go as planned—and most of the time they didn’t— she could pick herself up and keep going. If she could do that as a teacher, she could do it as a mother.
That thought lifted a weight from her shoulders. After the timer went off for the warm-up, she glided smoothly across the tiled floor in a practiced foxtrot, twirling with an imaginary partner. The vertigo from earlier was gone, replaced by a lightness, like a swelling of helium in her stomach. She turned to the students and began the lesson.
Molly Montgomery is a writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches high school English. She has an M.A. in Creative Writing from UC Davis. Her work has been featured in several literary magazines, including Entropy, X-R-A-Y, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency. When she's not writing or reading, she spends her free time entertaining her calico cat, Lady Sybil, who has an insatiable appetite for attention.