By Mitchell Nobis
He hurries through hard rain from the parking lot to a classroom. It's not his. None of them are. He has boxes of books and a dozen years of classroom posters rolled up somewhere, dusty and untouched.
He moves rooms a few times a day. Untethered. They put him in whichever room is empty that hour. He passes hundreds of students herding themselves in hallways. He trusts in his mask. He bought boxes of masks at the hardware store, the tight N95s drywallers are supposed to use to save their lungs but don't, so he got a good deal on them. He’s trusting them with his own too-young-to-be-vaccinated kids' lives. His wife double-checked and triple-checked the kid’s masks that morning before dropping them off at Hope Elementary. He didn’t used to pray.
He unlocks the door to a room whose number he never remembers. It’s by the art room. He knows that. Whichever class is in here last hour (Geography? Spanish?) must have studied hurricanes yesterday. Page numbers riddle the whiteboard. Dropped pencils scatter the floor. Desks twist askew, a diorama of disarray. He leaves it alone. He tries to leave everything alone.
He settles in for first hour. He boots up and opens the thirteen bookmarks he uses to run the day. He’s one of the virtual teachers now. Everything he does is through a district-issued laptop where the keys all do the wrong things and the shortcuts go to limbo. He opens a new tab, clicks on an album in YouTube called Oasis of Wind or The Forest Speaks or something like that. It has comments under it like, "I liked the part when I was one with the universe." He takes a shallow breath, thinks if he doesn’t get any of this to the bottom of his lungs, it’ll stay out of his blood.
He reads last night's emails. There are dozens. His students need passwords. They need Word. They need access. They're working at midnight because they can. Asynchronous. He’s an American worker, so he has to drive across the county to put his body in a different seat to look at the computer screen within the correct hours. He thinks he’s the weird onebecause he liked the year at home with his family, everyone teaching or learning in their room. His kids' laughter. His kids' boredom. A wrestling match before second hour. There is a portal in his gut. It might be an ulcer. It might be love.
The album on YouTube dings and chimes. Someone somewhere sometime sat at a keyboard while breathing deeply and created this. They looped in bird calls. Brooks gurgling. They created a simulacrum of healthy nature. They hacked our evolution to make us feel calm when nothing is. A kid down the hall shouts about her mask. She had COVID already, she says, so she doesn't need the mask, she says. We’re lucky to have a mask requirement, he thinks, but it's also another thing for kids to flout. It's another thing to ask them—politely first, sternly second—to do. Mask up, please. I said mask up, please. Most say, "Oh, sorry," and fix it, but a team of most has a losing record.
He’s surrounded by cinder block, beige things, and dropdown ceiling tiles gridded around the fluorescent lights buzzing louder than the geese honking by outside. He answers three emails. The musician's keyboard from somewhere sometime does a slow flourish. It sounds the way the 1980s wanted outer space to sound. It sounds like fake peace. It sounds nice. His students are asleep. He hears a student’s phone go off across the hall, so he checks his phone, too, because we are simple fools.
Three more emails ding in his inbox. He answers one, makes a note to figure out the problems posed by another, and contacts tech support to start a three-day journey to fix the third student's problem that will lead to nine more emails. He makes a note to circle back to those emails. He is always circling back. He spends an hour answering last night’s emails.
The synthesizer pulses slowly in his earbuds. A bird chirps in the fake forest. The earbud is in only because students might come to his Zoom room. They might need to say hi to a human being. They might need to see a face. They might need help. They might need him. He’s there if they do. He listens to the fake forest in the meantime, waiting. He’s floating, his leaves turning spotted and brown. He is there, someone somewhere sometime somehow. The bell rings for second hour.
Mitchell Nobis is a writer and K-12 teacher in Metro Detroit. His fiction has appeared in Flyover Country and Rejection Letters, and his poetry has appeared in Porcupine Literary, HAD, Rise Up Review, Nurture Literary, and others. He also hosts the Wednesday Night Sessions reading series. Find him at @MitchNobis or mitchnobis.com.