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It is close to noontime. I casually press on the key to lock the car and I leave my square blue box on wheels to bake in the Texas sun among other colored boxes. I don’t notice anything unusual about the school. The large façade greets me in silence, as no one but me arrives this late. Of course, that is only because I teach a college English class to advanced high school students, or what they call a “dual enrollment class.” I am here only as a temporary presence – a little like a visitor from another planet, one might say. I step underneath the looming metal structures that curve over my head and I take the door on the left, for variation. Inside, I hurry along the chilly hallway and come out again into the bright, square patio, where students congregate before the flood takes them into their classrooms. If they are still outside, I can’t be that late. The door, as always, is too narrow for all the incoming bodies bumping into each other. Not much respect for the college teacher going on, either. But that’s all right, as long as I teach what I came here to teach. I wonder if I brought all the handouts that I Xeroxed back at the college, so enlightenment can descend smoothly upon my temporary students.
I come into the classroom as a plastic baby flies across the room. It’s for a class where it’s supposed to teach them responsibility, or something of the kind. I’ve been seeing these babies for weeks now on campus. Landing, the baby doesn’t cry and doesn’t die, and now it seems to appreciate being held in its blankie by another set of arms.
The students aren’t all here yet. My dual enrollment analog, Miss Gondolyk, waves hello from across the room. She’s known the students longer, while I still can’t be sure sometimes if I call the wrong student by the wrong name. She laughs with friendliness as they hand her their papers, and my mind registers the bell but the students are still buzzing about like bees. Unlike bees, I can’t quiet them with smoke, and I hardly qualify for a queen bee, so instead I initiate the string of shushes that travels around the room like a rumor. Desks are quickly filled to capacity and the chorus of murmurs slowly quiets down. Miss Gondolyk is heading for the door, and she says something in passing, to which I struggle to pay attention, but at the same time three students hand me little slips to sign, and others are asking if I brought their papers back. I do think I heard Miss Gondolyk say she’s going to be picked up by a helicopter and I think I either misheard, or it was a joke I didn’t fully hear. “Hope you don’t miss the last one,” she says just before she leaves, and I wonder if she is talking about helicopters or papers.
“She’s right, Miss,” says Karista from the first desk. “The students cross the bridge but teachers who finish early are lifted off by helicopter. But we can’t go yet because seniors go to the bridge first, so we have full class today.”
“What? Other classes are cancelled?” I ask. I know there must be some school rule there that I don’t quite understand.
“Why does the kid in the story talk funny?” Christian distracts me. “What, what,” he protests to the push he gets from Lizeth. “I don’t get it.”
“Yes, they do talk funny in the story,” other voices confirm.
“No quiz today! The story was hard!” they inform me.
“It wasn’t that hard,” says Valeria. I can give her a quiz any time.
I forget all about the helicopter and look at the clock to see if there’s time for a quiz.
“Miss, can I go get my bag from the library?” asks Anahi. “I didn’t make it to the cafeteria before it got blown up so I didn’t get to eat lunch.”
“Oh, can I go too?” says Mariana. “I have food in my bag too.”
“What do you mean blown up? The cafeteria?” I say. I certainly think I heard wrong.
“Yes, the cafeteria’s gone,” explains Valeria pointing in the general direction of the cafeteria. “Three buildings are gone now, so if you parked your car on that side...”
“No, I parked next to the library building.”
“Oh, then it’s probably still there.”
“But what happened to the three buildings?” I ask for more explanations.
“They announced it this morning,” Erica explains patiently. “That’s why they put the bridge there for when the students go home. Later they take down the building we’re in.”
“So what happened? They demolished them? They’re a pile of rubble now? I didn’t notice anything when I came in.”
“No, no,” says Karista, “they have new technology. There’s a giant vacuum and everything is sucked in so there’s nothing left on the ground. There’s only a big hole. Be careful, Miss, you can’t drive around it.”
“Yes,” confirms Manuel. “That’s why there’s a bridge for pedestrians. They don’t have a separate one for teachers.”
“All right,” I say, and I’m sure it all must make sense but what do I know. “Let’s go back to the short story.”
“I know what it’s about,” says Josh.
“It’s about discrimination. Can I go to the restroom?”
“Ok, go.” I say.
Steve, who is a good baseball player, says Josh is not coming back.
“Why?” I ask.
“He has to cross the bridge to go to the bathroom,” says Steve. “It’s far.”
“We’ll have to see,” I say. “Maybe we can make bets if he’s coming back or not. So what characters in the story are discriminated against?”
Just then, the door opens and a middle-aged woman peeks in, waving a little slip.
“Yasmin is going home,” she says.
“Which Yasmin?” I ask. “Aguilar or Gutierrez?”
What can I do? I let the Yasmins leave. Naturally, going home is something that can happen during my class.
“Oh,” the woman remembers after I thought she’d left. “Rosie and Priscilla have to go too. They’re with the ghost trackers.”
The woman leaves, and Rosie and Priscilla make their way to the door:
I look at the class:
“Yes, yes, Miss,” says Christian throwing his arms up. I suppose that’s an imitation of a ghost. “That’s what happens when they take buildings down, we have some ghosts so there’s a team that goes after them.”
“Last time there were twenty five,” Manuel informs me. “I counted them.”
“Oh, ok. Back to the story. Tell me the names of the characters, so I can put them on the board. Who’s the main one?”
“The guy who speaks funny,” says Steve with a broad smile.
“Steve hasn’t read the story,” says Valeria.
A voice in the ceiling interrupts the class. That’s also technology we don’t have at the college.
“The administration needs Denise and Maury to check in with them to sign the abduction form. It will only take five minutes.”
The class issues a long “Ooooh” and I ask why they pick on Denise and Maury.
“The advisors want to know if they were abducted as a couple because the spaceship abducted several couples yesterday.”
“Spaceships?” I say and I’m sure there’s an explanation for that too.
Mauricio looks embarrassed as he heads for the door.
“We weren’t abducted, Miss,” he says. “Don’t listen to them. I was the one who reported a spaceship above my house, that’s why.”
“Ask Shawncy, Miss, she talked to them!”
“To the aliens?”
“She was picked to give a speech about our class.”
Shawncy smiles modestly.
“You know who really was abducted, Miss?” says Christian. “Guillermo.”
“Oh,” I say – and it figures, because Guillermo hasn’t been coming to class for a while.
As Mauricio and Denise leave the room, Karista’s head suddenly detaches from her shoulders and hops toward the door, following them. It just happens that Josh is returning to the classroom and catches her head before it rolls uncontrollably down the hall.
“Give her head back, Josh,” I say with authority.
“I was, Miss,” he says and sounds insulted.
“Karista, keep your head on your shoulders,” I scold her.
Just then, Ana’s head starts spinning around its axis, making a “whoosh whoosh” noise. Two or three heads around the room follow her lead and start spinning as well.
“Ana!” I shout. “Stop that.”
“Stop what, Miss?” she says, but her head has already stopped spinning.
From the corner of my eye, I notice that the plastic baby has moved on its own and I hear it give a cry, though I can’t be completely sure.
“Did the baby just move?” I ask.
“No, Miss, what do you mean?” the class protests.
“Jose,” I say, because the baby is close to his desk and I trust him. “Did the baby move?”
He smiles and I’m not sure if that means yes or no.
“How can the baby move?” asks Manuel from the front and, as I look at him, I see again the baby move from the corner of my eye.
“It did move!” I say, but the baby is still as a rock when I look at it.
Everybody denies it, and I see Laura look at the others and roll her eyes, as she sits quietly at her desk. She must have seen it move too! The baby is passed to the front and Sandra has it now. She gives it to Alice, whispering something, and Alice starts laughing hard. What is the joke now? They are trying to get away with something! But I don’t get to ask more questions about the baby, because a great rumbling noise begins outside the classroom. I don’t want to look too scared, especially since everyone seems unconcerned. Then a deafening “boooom” is heard and the ground shakes. Maybe there’s some kind of school activity going on somewhere...
“Oh, there go the other buildings,” says Karista.
“Your car is gone for sure now,” says Valeria.
“Miss, how are you going to leave now?” Josh shows his concern. “The helicopters are gone.”
“Can I use the bridge?” I ask.
“Yes, yes,” Christian assures me although he has at this point lost his head too, and he is groping for it on the floor. Ana has it, and throws it back to him and he arranges it back on his shoulders.
“Stop that!” Lizeth admonishes him.
From the back, Kevin struggles to make himself heard:
“They said the teachers can use the bridge, but only those for fifth and sixth period. They announced it this morning.”
“So who’s going to pay me for my car?” I ask, because I’m sure there must be a system in place for that.
“Ask Miss Gondolyk,” some students suggest.
“Ask Miss Navando,” says Kevin, talking over their voices.
The door opens again and a big flock of black birds rushes in. The students quickly tell me that we have to wait for them to leave. Yet another distraction! Are we going to finish this story or will I have to leave it for next class? I wait patiently as the birds fly three times around the room in perfect coordination, then leave as fast as they came in. Valeria shushes everyone and I pick up the marker. I will write on the board the characters who experience discrimination. The marker isn’t working, so I decide to ask instead: “can you define discrimination?”
And then the bell rings.
The baby flies up into the air, while all the students instantly leave their desks.
“Discrimination...” I say looking defeated.
“Miss, you’re going to have to come with us now,” says Erica.
“Josh, you owe me a paper,” I say to him as he heads for the door.
I struggle to put everything in my bag and follow the flow of students. To my surprise, the hall is gone. Starting right from the classroom’s door, there is a very narrow suspended bridge that swings wildly to the sides as students walk across, one by one. There is no trace of the school left, but no one seems too worried. Underneath us, lava is flowing at the bottom of a canyon, and I worry that my shoes are a bit too close to the heat below. The bridge leads to the other side of the canyon, and there is smoke in the air. Above, two or three spaceships throw a strange blue light, making the smoke look pretty. “Josh, don’t forget to bring the paper!” I shout over the heads of moving students and I think about my poor car. I must have left something important in it that is gone for good. I’m sure Miss Gondolyk will explain all of this to me next week, and I wave at Laura and Valeria as they pass me on the suspended bridge to reach their friends in front of me. We certainly go by a different system at the college.
Suddenly, I realize I forgot to give them the handout for next class, but by now it’s really too late.