By King Kenney
Ms. Crabtree loved Pat Benatar and coffee. Her parents hoped that she would pursue optometry as they had, but she dreamed of being a rock star. For now, teaching at an elementary school was her compromise.
She leaned against her desk, peering at third graders snaking through the classroom’s door then slinking into their desks, waiting patiently for the bell to ring. All the while, she sipped frothy dark roast from an apple red mug with gold stars all over—like a small cereal bowl with a handle. This was her first year teaching—her seventeenth week to be exact—and already she’d grown immune to the frenzied chatter of energetic children.
The bell rang and the room fell quiet. Every students’ eyes flickered to Ms. Crabtree as Principal Harris mumbled through morning announcements that were hardly audible over the intercom. And then, as though jolted by teacherly lightning, Ms. Crabtree became a cheery version of herself with eyes glinting and a toothy smile.
With her coffee mug and a clipboard in tow, she took a giant step forward and began calling roll. In-between sips, she breezed through monosyllabic surnames on autopilot—“Ash, Bell, Boone, Charles, Flynn, Hall, Hunt, Lloyd, Nash, Parks”—until stumped by a polysyllabic and unfamiliar “R—” name. She paused, glanced up from behind her cup, and tried her best to discreetly search the room for the student most likely to have such a unique last name. Ms. Crabtree’s eyes unnaturally darted from desk to desk. The third graders looked on, twisting in their chairs and waiting impatiently for the early morning chore to end.
The pause grew overlong because Ms. Crabtree didn’t want to mispronounce the student’s name. Certain that she’d misspeak with any effort at all, she attempted something she was never taught while pursuing her degree in early childhood education: she politely asked “She-tall” if they were present, and if they’d be so kind as to pronounce their last name so that it could be committed to memory.
Smallish and bright-eyed, Sheetal stood up and articulated her last name, “Ram-a-chan-dran” slowly—syllable by syllable—as though prepared for Ms. Crabtree’s ineptness. Once more, Sheetal repeated her full name without the unnatural pauses, “Sheetal Ramachandran.” All the kids giggled nervously, but Sheetal smiled through it—as though expecting this as well.
Ms. Crabtree nodded graciously, thanked Sheetal, and picked back up where she’d left off, speeding through the “normal” names as children’s hands flew up along with shouts of “here”—signaling their presence. “Richardson, Smith, Thomas,” Ms. Crabtree entered before being confused by another name. “What are the chances?” she thought. “Two new, curious names midway through the school year?” Then, just as she had done with Sheetal, she asked “Ayke” if they’d be so kind. And, just like Sheetal, a young boy stood up and gently corrected her with rehearsed form: “Ee-Kay Ooh-zo-wah,” he stated. Before repeating it quickly, “Ike Uzowa.” Ike was taller than the other kids and less smiley than Sheetal. The kids suppressed their laughs this time but ogled at the boy’s colorful tunic. Ike glanced knowingly at Sheetal and they exchanged an imperceptible beam.
The two transfer students helped Ms. Crabtree adapt to her sabbatical from hard rock stardom. Her awe of Sheetal and Ike’s brainy talents brought jolts of joy beyond her wildest, caffeinated dreams. By virtue of their beautiful, worldly minds, Ms. Crabtree was made to look like “National Teacher of the Year” to other schoolteachers whose debates of ways to create inventive lesson plans and how best to keep students attentive were commonplace in the teacher’s lounge. Ms. Crabtree emerged as a seeming miracle worker—teaching a classroom of eager and attentive students. All the while, she was merely following Sheetal and Ike’s lead. The pair required no nudging to ask or answer questions, or to participate in discussions on irregular verbs, the solar system, or current events. They were thoughtful line leaders with wisdom beyond their years. Sheetal and Ike were polite, followed instructions, and helped their classmates—all while shrugging off the muted jokes about their “differences.”
During Around the World—a game that pits students against one another in quick-hitting displays of mental math—Sheetal and Ike were always the last standing. During spelling and geography bees, Sheetal and Ike were the only third graders with junior high vocabularies and a comprehensive understanding of the world outside of Louisville, Kentucky. When tasked with reading, writing, and comprehending, they completed exercises with ease and swiftly worked their way around the classroom helping students in need. Ms. Crabtree’s reveled in her professorial role as lecturer of third graders with honorary TAs handling all the grunt work. “This is the life,” she thought.
Unsurprisingly, Sheetal and Ike engaged with each other like seasoned friends rather than elementary schoolers who had met only a few months prior. They played together during recess and talked quietly during class breaks, often in different languages. Students marveled at their way of speaking, colorful clothing, hair, and unalike complexions. Knowing as much, Sheetal and Ike made a point to compliment one another’s saris and wrappers, respectively. It was an impressive show of unified strength from two eight-year-olds. Sheetal and Ike made the Southern, hillside elementary school feel diverse, when in truth, the top-down homogeny of faces and ideals was what made their presence so awe-inspiring.
For weeks, Sheetal and Ike seemed to disappear every day at lunchtime. No one knew where they went, but the rumors of their disappearance were mostly limited to the sing-song innocence of them k-i-s-s-i-n-g in a nearby tree. While not a punishable offense, students were expected to stay in the cafeteria throughout the assigned period. This way, educators could take note of their whereabouts and ensure their safety—outside of risk associated with the inedible choking hazards passing as school lunch.
Ms. Crabtree had long noticed the disappearance of her favorite students occurring around the same time each day. Typically, Sheetal would complete her packed lunch first—exiting for the bathroom—followed by Ike closing his “Mystery Machine” lunch box and leaving moments after. Out of respect for Sheetal and Ike, Ms. Crabtree fought the urge to follow them—especially since they always made their way back to the classroom before the bell. Even still, Ms. Crabtree wanted to be sure that her students weren’t doing anything that would get them, or her, into any trouble.
The next day, Ms. Crabtree tracked Sheetal and Ike as they made their lunchtime exit. As slyly as possible, she stalked the students as they sneaked up the hallway. Ms. Crabtree inched slowly, watching them slip into her classroom. She ducked into an open room as they turned to close the door behind them. “Oh my,” she wondered. Fearing that a “grown-up” game of doctor may be occurring on the read aloud carpet. Her heartbeat raced as she drew closer to the door’s sidelight.
Ms. Crabtree took a deep breath before peeking inside. She was relieved to find them standing separate from one another with hands raised and palms forward, reciting something indistinct from behind the closed door. It was a ritual of sorts that quickly progressed into them kneeling with palms flat on the floor. As they lowered their foreheads to the floor, Ms. Crabtree felt uneasy with continuing to spy. She turned and raced away, feeling as though she’d somehow betrayed their privacy. She didn’t understand what she’d witnessed, but she recognized its power. Ms. Crabtree sensed that the meaning behind it all warranted privacy. If the classroom could be converted into a sacred place—if only for a few midday moments each lunch period—she acknowledged her role in safeguarding them from disruption.
From that day forward, Ms. Crabtree pledged to protect Sheetal and Ike’s lunchtime tradition from others. She urged students who questioned their absence to focus on their meals rather than noting when others took bathroom breaks. She quieted teachers concocting sensational stories about where the Ramachandrans and Uzowas had come from and why they were in Louisville. She refused to take sick days for fear of Sheetal and Ike’s safety. She transformed into a super teacher who wanted nothing more than to protect the privacy of students to freely express themselves in a space that caused no one harm.
For all her atheist sensibilities, Ms. Crabtree wasn’t concerned with what the tradition represented. To her, it became vital that she preserve the wondrous ways Sheetal and Ike had transformed her and other students’ lives, by virtue of their differences.
The trio has remained in contact over the years, and Ike has since explained that he measured the shadow of his lunchbox before exiting for Dhuhr prayer each day. Sheetal admitted having discovered and appreciated Ms. Crabtree’s presence in the early stages of teacherly protection. Ike added that he’d signal for Sheetal to exit the cafeteria when the shadow of his “Mystery Machine” lunchbox was as long as the lunchbox itself. The nod of courtesy had started innocently and evolved out of necessity, and no one noticed.
Seventeen years after “teaching” young Sheetal and Ike all that she knew in her first year in the field, Ms. Crabtree continued to reference and thank the students for pausing her childhood dream. The friends surprised Ms. Crabtree during a return home from Johns Hopkins University and, in recognition of their favorite teacher’s pushed aside dream of her would-be career, Sheetal and Ike invited her to join them at a nearby karaoke bar. With little encouragement, Ms. Crabtree performed an inspired rendition of “Love is a Battlefield.” Everyone in attendance agreed that teaching was the right choice for her career.
King Kenney is a writer, lecturer, cause marketing strategist, and Director of Marketing and Communications at Long Wharf Theatre.