It could have been a blink, or a stifled yawn. Claire knew that no one was paying close enough attention to her to suspect anything more. It was the briefest moment to herself, she closed her eyes--one one-thousand--hoping the respite would get her through the next seven minutes.
Note to self: no more lunches that require heating. Or eat it cold. Claire wondered whether she could get ill from eating Campbell's Tomato Soup before heating it up. Surely not. Research Campbell's-borne illness.
"--but you wouldn't remember any of that, Claire."
"Hmm? Oh, no, I suppose I wouldn't." It didn't matter that Claire didn't know what she wouldn't remember. It was always the same. Put two or more tenured teachers into a supply-closet-turned-teachers’-lounge for any longer than ten minutes, and the conversation always turned the same way.
“Joshua Hampton just stares into space, and his mother has never returned a call about his lack of engagement.
“Cierra Brown's pants are too tight, and her shirts are too low-cut, but if you think I'm going to risk a lawsuit by telling her to put on a sweater, you're crazy.
“Jessica Sneed (remember her older sister, Samantha? Such a sweet girl.) yelled at Cara Duwalt in the hallway right outside my classroom this morning. Called Cara an ‘effing skank.’ I poked my head out the door to speak with her, and she just glared at me like I was the spawn of Cain and walked away.”
It always boiled down to “kids these days.”
Kids these days. And they used to be so nice. And the parents never put up with that kind of behavior, language, clothing, makeup, hairstyles. If kids today had it, parents never used to stand for it. But Claire--young, 24 year-old Claire, in just her second year of teaching--wouldn't remember any of that.
Nor would she want to. Claire had sat through these conversations far too many times to believe that kids had changed that much in the last five, ten, twenty-five years. She had been in high school ten years ago; she’d had teachers like these. It wasn’t even that they were old, although many of them were. But Claire was still surprised to hear colleagues just two or three years her senior who spoke the same way as the geriatrics who still called the photocopier the ditto. They were tired. They were cranky. Most of all, they were lazy. Claire felt the utmost sympathy for the students who were stuck in classrooms with the likes of Loretta Frye and Ken Lossman. They were the kind of teachers who were—
“Three and a half years to retirement. I only have to make it three and a half years.” Ken Lossman looked longingly at the clock, as if his last three and a half years may tick away with the last three and a half minutes of the lunch period. “Hear that, Ms. Shepherd? Do yourself a favor. Get married. Have babies. Get the hell out of here…” He cackled. “…Before you end up like Loretta.”
Claire did want to get married, and she did want to have children. She most certainly wanted to get the hell out of the teachers’ lounge. She pretended not to hear Ken. He was an insufferable bastard, but Loretta could fend for herself. She walked out the door.
Not all of Claire’s colleagues were slugs. Some of them were hard-working, well-educated, and legitimately thoughtful in how they attacked their jobs. They took teaching seriously. Claire considered them to be true educators, true professionals. It was her bad luck that she shared a hallway—and therefore a teachers’ lounge—with a group of burnouts who became teachers because they wanted to have their summers off. The best of them had just gotten complacent and lost touch over the twenty-five or thirty years they’d been taking summers off; the worst of them saw teaching as a way to pick up some extra spending money, while their husbands, wives, or trust funds paid the rent. None of them had an ounce of ambition.
Claire had been reading the label on her soup can when she walked in the door—she saw no warnings about eating under-heated tomato soup—so she failed to notice Griffin Walls sitting back in the corner of the room, hunched over a notebook.
It was no surprise, really. When she wasn’t teaching, Claire’s classroom door was always open. She frequently took lunch at her desk, and the students had grown accustomed to using her room as a sort of meeting place, away from the hullaballoo that reigned in the school cafeteria. Claire was pleased to have her room serve as a sort of annex to the cafeteria. Most of the students who spent their lunchtime there were currently in one of her classes, or had been the year before. She appreciated the opportunity to see and get to know her students in a slightly different context. Of course, this was not the kids in their natural element, but there was just a touch of pressure removed from the situation—for everyone. For the most part, her students and their friends had their own conversations about their own things, while Claire organized her thoughts for the afternoon. Every so often she’d be asked about some assignment she’d given, some class a student had missed, or she’d be drafted into a conversation to mediate a dispute. Primarily, though, Claire was a fly on the wall. As long as her room stayed relatively clean and quiet, and its inhabitants maintained some kindness and decorum towards one another, Claire did not care to police the proceedings.
So when she noticed Griffin out of the corner of her eye, she was far less surprised to see him there than she was to see him there alone. There were usually a handful of others in the room with him at lunch. Of course, Griffin always stayed just a little bit separate from the others in the room. He usually played some part in the conversations and other goings-on in the room, but he rarely engaged completely. He tended to keep his distance—he’d sit apart from the others, toss out a few words of reply when directly drawn into the conversation, and almost never look up from what he was reading, or writing, or drawing.
Despite his outward lack of interest, Claire suspected that Griffin paid closer attention than he would have people think. Every so often, he would glance towards his classmates when their conversations turned particularly gossipy. He would roll his eyes or mutter something barely audible; usually his friends didn’t stop to ask him to repeat himself.
“Hey, Griffin. Tell me something good.” This was Claire’s standard greeting for Griffin. He went around school looking bored most of the time, but Claire noticed that he’d crack a smile more times a day than he’d probably care to admit. She liked to remind him of that, so she always asked him to tell her something good.
“Uhhh…” This was Griffin’s standard response. He liked Ms. Shepherd, but sometimes he thought her game was just a little bit tiresome. He was glad that she wanted to play, though. “Like what?”
“Griffin!” Claire mocked exasperation. “Like anything! Here, for example: I have concluded with relative certainty that I will not get ill by eating Campbell’s soup that is insufficiently heated.”
“Uhhh…okay,” replied Griffin. “Why?”
“Why what? Why is it good, or why won’t I get ill?”
“Why is it good?”
“Because, Griffin, now I won’t have to waste time walking to the teachers’ lounge, heating up my soup, and walking back here. Not to mention the fact that if I don’t go into the lounge I won’t run the risk of getting distracting chatting with my colleagues and miss the opportunity to hang out in here with you and the rest of your gang.”
“Yeah. Your gang. You know, your friends? Where are they all anyway? Timmy and Wade are usually in here with you. Daniel, too.”
“Uhhh…I don’t know. Daniel’s mom picked him up before lunch. Timmy and Wade are probably eating in the cafeteria. They have nachos today.”
“Of course. Nacho Day. It’s always a sparse crowd on Nacho Day. But no nachos for you, huh?” Griffin had already gone back to his notebook. “What are you working on over there?”
“Uh, stuff, I guess.” Griffin was always guessing.
“Stuff? What sort of stuff?”
“I don’t know. Just stuff.”
“Fair enough, Mr. Walls. I expect to see the finished product when your stuff is complete, okay?”
“Okay. Whatever, Ms. Shepherd.” Griffin didn’t look up from his notebook, but Claire caught the slightest smile on his face as he furrowed his brow over his paper.
Claire liked Griffin. He was most definitely an odd bird, a hard nut to crack, and any number of other suitable cliches that would apply to reserved teenage boys. He was quiet and shy—sometimes maddeningly so—but Claire liked him.