Fishers of Kids
an excerpt from The Beginning of Calamities
That morning in Our Lady's 5B, they go through the mechanics of spelling, religion, math, Danny listening with one ear to Miss Kaigh's clearly enunciated lessons. One ear is enough, really, to follow the gist of what she's saying, and to snap through the long division exercises in the back of his textbook, all the while anticipating the moment she finally picks up the script again and looks at the class.
"People? I have something very special to tell you."
And now as she pauses, allowing a hush to settle over the room, he bows his head in all humility.
"Daniel has written an Easter play."
Then he raises it again, flashes a smile at the staring children, and waits.
However, there are none of the immediate oohs and wows he expected; no hands shooting up, Can I be in it? Can I be in it?; no eager, questioning looks. Instead they all just sit there, as quiet and dull-eyed as when Miss Kaigh recited the list of new vocabulary for the week.
It's almost a sound, the hearts of boy and teacher falling at once, falls of some distance as, until this moment, neither's considered the possibility that the others wouldn't be as excited about the play as they are. But while an embarrassed, panicky heat floods Danny's body, and he imagines the silence to mean the instant death of his idea, Liz is less daunted, and her heart buoys partway back up. The students simply haven't understood what she's said. Maybe the concept is so odd to them they can't comprehend it all at once; this, or they're just being shy. No one wants to be the first to raise his hand, afraid to look uncool, as it were. Volunteering for anything is uncool. And so, still cheerfully, "What I said was that Daniel here --" she smiles at him, "-- has written a really super play about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and Sister Regina's given our class permission to perform it. So we're looking for volunteers, anyone who'd like to be in it, or help out..."
Now at least there's some movement: little shifts and shuffles and crossings of ankles, some expression in the eyebrows, furrowed or raised, their owners for the most part looking down at their desktops, the floor. A few throw glances around the room, or return them, smiling slyly or rolling their widened eyes, but nothing more.
"Okay," she says, a disgruntled edge in her tone, "I guess I'm not being clear. If anyone would like to be in the play, please raise your hand. There are quite a few parts and we need a minimum of... a minimum of..." She remembers the number but can't bring herself to state it in the face of the zero they're now confronted with. And so she looks over at Danny again and the boy, blushing anew, supplies the answer: "Ten, M-M-M-Miss..." Then as if a particularly bad catch on the M isn't enough, he squeals out the rest of her name -- "Kaigh" -- a sudden shrill warbling that unleashes a chain of giggles and titters.
"Well," she says, unruffled, as if the squeal and laughter haven't happened, "nine. You'll be one of the players, won't you?"
He nods stiffly.
"Yes," Liz says. "And so..."
Again there's no response.
"Wouldn't anyone like to be in the play?" She frowns and glares from row to row, and the shifting becomes more pronounced, the cheeks of the bowed heads more crimson, especially those of her better students: Patty Dupree, the Fitzer twins. And she's wondering which of them to call on when it occurs to her that these are just the ones she shouldn't appeal to, the goody-two-shoes, teacher's pets. If they're the first to join, the others never will. No, the kinds of students they need are Joey Flynn, Brian Kessler -- particularly Brian. She walks to his aisle, eyes lighting hopefully on his downcast, blond-and-brown mop, its bright, feathery tips awning out softly over his ear. Such lovely hair, she admits, for a boy. He reminds her of a little Jimmy Schaeffer, the conceited basketball star at St. Anne's on whom the girls had terrible crushes. Liz herself wasn't so impressed, yet it's clear to her that this one, too, is bound to have a bevy of his own at his beck and call one day. Though for now, before all the nonsense has begun, it's the boys who love him, in their emulating boy-way. Even this moment, she sees them looking from the corners of their eyes, measuring his reactions. Come on, sweetheart, raise your hand; it wouldn't kill you. And she imagines the succession of hands behind his, how they'd be fighting each other to be in the play, how there wouldn't be enough parts to go around...
But he doesn't raise it, and his face, though red like the others, isn't flustered or cowed by her nearness; rather, it seems it could continue to look down like that for some time. She wags her head, eyeing his smooth, pink cheeks, the almost-white down on his round jaw and the back of his slim neck. Such a little boy to decide so much for all of them. Does he know he decides so much? Not entirely, she imagines, not yet. Still it seems perverse to her, extremely unfair, and she turns away angrily, glancing at Joey, Robin to Brian's Batman. He has the short, parted brown hair of a Robin; duller, impish good looks. And from here to Stacy Ryan, an exceptionally pretty girl in row four: shimmering, cocoa-colored hair clipped back neatly with white enamel barrettes. But they, too, keep their heads decidedly bowed. Briefly, she considers offering them extra credit for religion or exemption from some very involved project she's going to assign the rest of the class. Ha! That would definitely raise some hands! Though of course it's not possible -- to blackmail them like that.
And then just at this moment, as if to save her, as if to save it all, there's movement again at the back of the class, renewed giggling and tittering. Without turning, she sees the lone, brave, plump arm angling into the air, the arm, she realizes, of the least-liked boy in the entire grade, possibly the school, an arm of certain calamity.
"Ah, Stephen," Brian scoffs, followed by more suppressed laughter.
Now her heart falls the rest of the way, and she feels a warm prickling behind her ears. Pretending not to notice the hand, she walks back toward the front of the room, closing in on Patty Dupree, a girl who's several times given her flowers and once, at Christmas, Jean Naté cologne. She stares down at the ghostly part in the center of her long black hair. Morticia, the students call her -- aptly, she thinks. At last the girl's diverted eyes begin to shift, the fingers in her folded hands to wiggle. In the back of the room, the arm is waving, the whole expanse of the boy rocking with the motion. Several students are clearing their throats and looking from Stephen to her. Any second, one of them will speak up, Miss Kaigh, Stephen's raising his hand. And so, despite herself, even apologetically, she clears her own throat, and it's as much to say, Won't you please look up? which the girl then does, slowly, a hand to her mouth.
"Yes, Patricia?" Liz says, though the girl's dark eyes, and all of her long, pale, solemn face seem to be on the verge of saying absolutely nothing.
"Mmm-mmm," she mumbles, low and throaty.
"Patricia, take your hand away. I can't hear you."
"Nothing, Mith Kaigh," she says, her wayward teeth, in a prison of wires and metal brackets, clenched in a half-smiling, half-wincing expression.
"Weren't you going to say something?"
She shakes her head and shrugs, examining the snaky ends of her hair. "Juth wondering..."
"Like what do you have to do?"
"To be in the play? Oh, is that the trouble?" Liz looks up at the others now, carefully avoiding Stephen's corner, though the boy's arm -- tired, it would seem, from having been raised so long -- has folded down behind his head, plump fingers tapping at the side of his neck, plump elbow pointing skyward. "Well, first of all," she embarks brightly, "we're going to practice and, uh, make costumes and... props. Right, Daniel, props?"
Yes, he murmurs.
"Like the cross, and swords for the soldiers..." She glances at the boys for signs of interest and, finding none, scrambles for some other exciting way to explain the project. When nothing comes quickly enough, she adds, "It's really going to be an awful lot of fun." And reaching for a piece of chalk, "Should I write your name on the board, Patricia?" Not hearing her answer, she spells it out neatly just below the heading Players (Dramatis Personae). Then she's looking for a ruler to underline the heading, when the girl actually does respond: only if she can be the something or other.
"The what?" Liz asks, looking to Danny again and shaking her head at his stuttered attempts at translation. Did he just say she had the same part in It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown in the second grade? What could a Peanuts skit possibly have in common with a Passion play? "Oh," Liz says, narrator. Played by the lisping Morticia! "That's a very big part," she says gravely to the girl, who, to her dismay, nods more eagerly now. "I mean," she attempts to qualify, just as a hand goes up in row one -- jittery, half-raised. Turning, she's shocked to see it belongs to Ginger Holley, the nervous, cross-eyed girl with coke-bottle glasses, same fearful soul who wouldn't speak in class the entire month of September. "Virginia?" she says in too wary a tone, for immediately the girl slaps her hand to her chest and looks around her.
"Me? Oh, I was just, um -- I was just, well --" She bites her lip, then throws her head down on her desk. Stacy Ryan, pushing back her cocoa hair, leans across the aisle to ask what she's doing. Ginger shakes her head in her folded arms and, on one of her frantic half-turns in the pretty girl's direction, mumbles something in that scrambled language, "...oing-gay oo-tay..."
"She wants to know when you're going to practice," Stacy relays.
Patty looks up now, also. "Yeah."
"I see. Well, that's a good question," Liz says to the girls. "We've given this some thought. And we thought..." But here she begins to stammer, realizing suddenly that the other boys aren't going to want to give up their beloved time outdoors, of course they aren't. And instantly, her misgiving is confirmed by a lower-key chorus of gripes and boos:
"I'm not staying in at recess," Joey says. "What, like you were going to be in it, anyway?" Brian says, the others laughing and repeating, "What, like you were going to be in it, anyway? He wasn't going to be in it." "Oh yeah," Joey says, "that's true," followed by Kevin Lukas, late and even louder, "Yeah, I don't want to stay in at recess."
"Hey now, wait a minute," Liz says, about to object to such a free-for-all, when Brian cries, "You have to anyway, you're always punished!" and there's a bigger, more general burst of laughter.
It appears to Danny now -- sinking in his seat, arms crossed tightly over his stomach -- that the prospect of practicing after lunch has met with unanimous disapproval. Likewise to Liz, admonishing them again to quiet down, not very successfully, though she does, in a glowering sweep of the class, note a few who aren't complaining: Patty and Ginger, drawing back from their unruly neighbors with widened, fearful eyes. Frances, too -- the girl-half of the platinum-blond Fitzer twins -- is clearly weighing something, her nearly white eyebrows raised, lips pressed together. Then with a quick, checking look at her brother, Rory, in the second row, she shoots her hand up and says, "Miss Kaigh, I'd like to be in the play."
And these words, so articulated and forthright, take Liz by such surprise that, in the hush that follows, she blinks for an instant, as if she doesn't quite understand them. Then, "Oh," she says and, turning to her growing list of undesirables, realizes she might've predicted as much: the Fitzers are individuals, as a pair, anyway; they do unusual things together. She remembers those loose, fuzzy, almost identical landscapes they brought in last month; made them at home with their father, a weekend watercolorist. Lots of very bright green. Still she paraded them around, because, my God, someone had actually gone to the trouble to create something. But even the teachers didn't seem to care very much, gave them a wrinkled-brow one-two. And the boys had snickered; evidently painting was sissy stuff, a diversion for nerds. Turning from the board again, Liz glances worriedly at Rory, who's even less popular, a little tattletale. But to her relief, he continues to frantically ink in the white spaces on his composition book cover, "first boy" stigma as yet outweighing his panic at a potential separation from his sister. Neither has he overcome it by the time Juanita Gonzalez, the one Hispanic girl, raises her hand.
"Miss Kaigh?" she says, her round, caramel-colored face ensconced in a great black puff of hair.
"Ah, Juanita!" Brian says, laughing again.
"Shut up, Brian," Juanita says. "I have a right to be in the play, too."
"Juanita," Liz says, "we don't tell people to shut up."
"He's laughing at me. You big galoon." She wags her fist at him and he laughs harder.
"I'm not laughing," he says.
"And we don't call people galoons. Where did you hear a word like that? It's not even English."
"I don't like him, he's very rude," she says, then turns, abruptly smiling and batting her eyelashes. "Miss Kaigh, can I be Mary?"
"Mary?" Liz squints at the girl, her long, wiry hair standing straight up on end, and believes she resembles, for all the world, a dark dandelion. At the same time Joey howls and, quite eerily, says her thought aloud: "She can't be Mary!"
Liz spins on him, face flushed with confusion. "Who asked you?"
"Yeah, Joey," Juanita says.
"Quiet, Juanita," Liz says.
And now Frances, "But I wanted to be Mary." Ginger, too, has an urgent look in her eyes.
"Nu-uh," Juanita says. "I called it."
"I volunteered before her," Frances says.
"Miss Kaigh," Ginger whines.
"I called it. I'm Mary," Juanita says, patting the airy, black halo, "the Mother of Jeeeesus."
"No," Ginger says.
"That's not fair," Frances says.
"All right, girls." Liz holds up her hand. "Let's not fight over parts. I know it may seem like Mary's the best role, but actually it's very small. In fact, I don't think she has any lines. Does she, Daniel?"
Danny starts and shakes his head, and now the girls sit back, grumbling, "No lines?"
Then Juanita raises her hand again, "I know what she can say. How about --" and looking heavenward, hands clasped high on her chest, "Oh, my Son! My Son!" And as the class shrieks in unison, turning to each other with shocked, delighted eyes -- "She's crazy!" "Hail Juanita!"-- she says it louder, "My Son! My Son!"
Liz smiles grudgingly at the glowing performer, her yellowy-brown cheeks darker now with the blush. "That's very good, Juanita, but I don't think the Blessed Mother is the type to wail." This is much appreciated by the others, who titter again and say wail as she leafs through the script. "I see Mary Magdalene has a line at the end. Also Pilate's wife, in the trial scene."
"Oh, I want to be Mary Magdaleeeeene," Juanita sings now, bouncing in her seat.
"But you just said you wanted to be Mary," Brian says.
"Make up your mind, Juanita," Joey says.
"No, no, Mary Magdalene's much better," Liz says, at once jotting MM beside Juanita's name on the board. "She's the first to see the risen Christ."
"That's right." Juanita wrinkles her nose at the boys. "And what do I say, Miss Kaigh?"
"'Master!' And, 'He is risen! He is risen!'"
"Oh, He is risen! He is risen!" she cries out, in the same rapt, clasped-hands style, but to considerably less laughter and notice. "Give it up," Brian says. Others are looking at their watches and glancing at the closets, where their lunch bags wait.
"Okay," Liz says, "I think we've got enough girls at this point, but we're going to need more boys. We only have --" she glances at Danny, voice faltering, "--one so far. Is that right?" Then looking back at the board and seeing she's never written his name, she quickly aligns it to the right of the girls', a little way down from the top. "Yes, one. And the majority of the parts are for boys." Finally she clears her throat and turns with it, the one last thing that might spark their interest, that couldn't fail to: "Above all, we need someone to play Christ."
She pauses again, to let it hover.
"Now I only want you to raise your hand if you're very serious. Christ has a lot of lines, and He's onstage the entire time. It's a difficult part to play, the most important of all. Pivotal," she adds, "Does everyone know that word?" and turns to write it, too, on the board. "How do I explain this? The pivot is like the part that everything depends on. I mean, if I make my left foot my pivot," she says, tapping it on the floor, "then I can swing my right foot around like this." With arms outstretched, she moves her body in a stiff arc from the center point, as if she were a human compass. Then, staring down at her beige, open-toe heels, she hears several surprised giggles and becomes aware of the warmth in her cheeks and on the back of her neck. Elizabeth Kaigh, she hears her mother chiding, what on earth are you doing? "But only if the pivot is grounded firmly in place," she finishes, smiling punchily as she looks back up -- at a small sea of puzzled faces. She's surprised how short they are; just children, really. "No? Okay, well, it's what you'd call the lead role, the starring role. In the movies, say, or the theater. Everyone's heard of that, right?" Juanita nods enthusiastically. "Yes. And so..." she says, dropping the smile and crossing her arms, "Who would like to... ?" Then uncrossing them again, "Would anyone like to... ?"
And though her expectations are by now lower, it still astonishes her, and delivers her to a deeper circle of disappointment, to find that even here they continue to stare at their desktops, arms folded, hands folded, every last one of them -- not just uncooperatively but obstinately, spitefully, still. Every last one, that is, but Danny, twisting in his seat like a little wound spring, eyes darting fearfully about the room, as if, it suddenly dawns on her, one of the others may raise his hand before he himself finds the courage to. He himself.
She lets go a startled, incredulous "uh!" She'd never dreamed he'd been harboring such pretensions, had pictured him happily playing a minor apostle. But Christ? Someone so quiet and bashful? Wrong for the part in every way, even physically? Who'd ever picture Christ with curly red hair? She looks at him squarely, meeting his eager expression with an alarmed frown, a quick shake of her head. Immediately, the life seems to drain from him, and he sinks back in his seat with a stunned, white-faced look. Normally, it would pain her to see him so dejected, but at the moment she feels numbed, even irritated.
"We need a real leader to play the role," she says, looking sharply away from him. "Someone brave and mature. Strong. Is there anyone here like that?" She glances from bowed crown to bowed crown of mostly straight brown hair, then despite herself turns quickly to the soft blond one, the words rushing out before she can check them, "Brian, what about you?" But as if to seal her humiliation, he still doesn't look up, just merely twitches his right shoulder -- "Wouldn't you like to be Christ?" -- before shrugging and shaking his head. "No?" She frowns helplessly and looks to Joey, whose diverted, pink face appears to be holding its breath. "You, Joseph?" And he, also, shakes his head, then collapses to his desktop, rocking with soundless laughter, the boys around him snorting. She ignores them and turns to Matt Poppolano, a nice, bright-faced boy at the back of the class, very endearing with his little sister in the first grade; even plays piano, she believes. At least he has the decency to respond, "No, thank you, Miss Kaigh," which sets the boys exploding afresh, "No, thank you." And lastly, the skinny Andrew Dwaney in row two: "No."
"No," she repeats, fending off the urge to stamp her foot. "Not one boy would like to play Christ. The Lord and Savior." And she's about to add something more caustic, maybe And here I thought I was teaching at a Catholic school, when, in the far left corner of the room, Stephen Hinch raises his hand again, to a new burst of chuckles and murmured scoffing: "Stephen wants to be Jesus! He can't, he'll break the cross!"
Finally she addresses him and his plump, waving palm. "Yes, Stephen, I see you. You can put it down now. Thank you for volunteering, but I don't think this is the right part for you." Here the laughter resumes, and it's really very heartless laughter; and then to make matters worse, the boy nods amiably -- happy enough, it would seem, to have been spoken to. "Perhaps something else," she says to salve her conscience, the dying chuckles just now giving way to a commotion around Herman Edwards's seat, Brian and Joey at its fore: "Go ahead, Herm. Come on, Herm."
Liz narrows her eyes at the boys, and at Herman, by far the shortest student in the class; looks, really, like a third-grader, with his freckled pug nose and bowl of straw-colored hair that just accentuates his pixyness. He keeps saying "nah" to their coaxing, but all the while smiles and glances up. What's going on here? Is this some new way of mocking her? Herman's no friend of theirs; she's heard them call him half-pint, midget.
"Miss Kaigh, Herman wants to do it," Brian says.
"No, I don't."
"Yes, he does," Joey says. "He started to raise his hand before."
"No, I didn't."
"Boys, let him speak for himself," Liz says. "Herman, are you volunteering?"
And now he looks at the eagerly nodding boys, and grins widely. "Oh, all right."
"Yea!" Brian and Joey cheer, and so, too, the boys around them, and in turn, most of the class. A chant begins, "Her-man! Her-man!" and Liz, feeling overrun by it, and by the sudden needling urge for a cigarette, lays aside her hope of finding a suitable player.
"Well, Mr. Edwards," she says to the gloating, pug-nosed boy, her voice stripped of emotion, "it looks like you're chosen."
"Yea!" the class cheers louder, everyone joining in now -- with the exception, of course, of Danny, who cannot muster a false face. All this glad sound is not for him. He feels it closing in ominously on all sides, like walls of a contracting room. "Her-man! Her-man!" Within it, he barely perceives what happens next: his teacher asking if there are any other boys who'd like to be in the play; Rory's hand shooting up finally, then Stephen's, yet one more time; his teacher listing their names on the board and sighing, "I guess that will have to do for the first day"; the students hopping up and dashing for the closets; the room filling with chatter.
From The Beginning of Calamities. Reproduced by permission of Bridge Works Publishing Co., Bridgehampton, New York.