By Michelle Champagne
When Joy Miner ducks into the food pantry, she thanks God that the aisles are eye-level so she can be on the lookout for Paul, who’s volunteering to boost his college applications, or John-Mark, whose church contributes the majority of the donations. She grabs some potatoes. She runs out the door.
At the beginning of the semester, a few days before lesson plans are finalized, the new principal talks about how it’s high time the football team won the state championship. He believes the English department could be doing better. He opens his emails with “All,” and confuses “their,” “there,” and “they’re.” Years from now, after a county-wide cheating scandal involving inflated test scores, this new principal will walk away unscathed. He’ll go into real estate. Joy will still be teaching.
Over the weekends, when she works the night shift delivering pizzas, Joy prays on every drive that the door won’t open to Mrs. Schaffer, Ashley’s mom, who came in for a parent-teacher conference last week.
Legs crossed as she bounced a manicured foot inside platform sandals, Mrs. Schaffer said, “I just feel like Ashley’s overwhelmed with her class work. What if that last paper is why she can’t get into college? You don’t want her to become, like, a delivery driver or something?”
Joy bit the inside of her cheek and struggled to keep the furrow between her brow smooth. She smiled, lips pressed as neat and tight as a pencil skirt.
She thinks about this conversation the next day while Ashley sits at her desk, neck craned down, eyes glossy in the light of her phone.
Mr. Gibson, Beau’s dad, opens the door instead. He takes the receipt, flattens it against the wall, and scribbles in a hard, angled hand.
“Have a great night,” Joy says, and he smiles, and when she hustles back to the car and plops down in the driver seat, she smiles too.
But the elation is short-lived: on the tip line there are ten numbers instead of three, the area code snug in its parentheses. She’ll quit in a week or so, not because of the pay—which is all right, maybe even okay—but because summer’s fast approaching and she can’t deal with another student calling her by her first name again.
During her first year of teaching, Joy wasn't quite sure what happened in a faculty meeting, so she did some research. As she began typing, the search bar autocompleted her question “what happens in a faculty meeting?” to “what happens when you die?” She found that the two have similar outcomes: pain and then nothing.
Stacey Landow, a new and peppy addition to the English faculty, often sits next to Joy during these meetings. She checks her Instagram feed every few minutes.
“You should think about getting one of these,” she says to Joy. “I made $10,000 last year taking pictures of my classroom. Josh and I were finally able to afford that trip to Spain.”
“Isn’t Josh a dentist?” Joy asks. “Weren’t you going anyway?”
Stacey shrugs, refreshes her feed.
That afternoon, Joy forgoes her lunch break and speeds her Plymouth sedan to the teacher consignment store. She spends her grocery money on used motivational posters, bubble letters, and paint. She works all evening coating the white brick walls of her classroom a light blue, which she read somewhere is “the color of the mind.” She doesn’t know if it’s the paint fumes, but she smells the beach, piña coladas, a two-bedroom apartment.
The next day, she uploads her first Instagram post and gets a grand total of three likes, all from spam accounts. She tries a few more times later in the week.
Late Saturday night, the sight of an unsolicited dick pic in her DMs causes her to abandon her account completely.
On Memorial Day, when she goes to her boyfriend’s family’s house for the first time, his father, who always forgets what Joy does for a living, asks Joy what she does for a living.
“I teach,” she says, smiles, and then open her lips enough to dab her tongue with wine.
“Oh.” The response cracks in his throat. His eyebrows meet his hairline. “That’s great,” he says. “Really great.” And takes a swig of beer.
Joy Miner thinks of the stacks of Starbucks cards jammed inside her desk and the counter in her kitchen lined with candles, all gifts or last-minute offerings from the end of the school year.
But most of all, she thinks of Kayla, who lingered in her classroom doorway for weeks before mustering the courage to walk up to her desk and say, “Can you help me with my college applications? Nobody I know has done this before.”
And she thinks of how months later, early in the morning, she arrived to see Kayla pacing outside her door, thick envelope in hand.
“I wanted to wait,” Kayla said. “So we can open it together.”
Her boyfriend’s father lets out a small burp.
“Really great,” he repeats again. “Really great.”
“It is,” she says. “It is.”
Michelle Champagne recently completed her Master’s in English at Wake Forest University, where she was also the Graduate Fellow for Fiction Collective 2. This is her first publication.