My 7th grade English teacher was just three toddlers stacked on top of each other. The bottom toddler had legs like tree trunks. The middle toddler googled every question we asked on an iPhone. You could see it through his shirt, star-bright. The top toddler wore a fake mustache and had arms like snakes. That one did all the talking.
His name was Mr. Kennedy, and he had a map of America on his classroom wall before the colonizers got here and called things states. It said, “Map of Indian Tribes 1617” on the top.
On Columbus Day, this kid named Trevor raised his hand and said, “I think it’s fucked up that you have the word ‘Indian’ on the wall.” Trevor was white, but he felt like he was standing up for all the Native kids who went to some other school that didn’t cost $40,000 a year. Trevor had bug eyes, loved Twitter, and picked his nose when he thought no one was looking. People were looking. Later that year, I made a TikTok of Trevor picking his nose. I got suspended, even though the video only got like 47 views.
Mr. Kennedy got really upset. The middle toddler googled furiously, light from the iPhone flickering. He put a hot pink Post-it note over the word “Indian” and that seemed to fix things. The bottom toddler had to stand on his tiptoes.
We liked Mr. Kennedy, even though he was just three toddlers. He gave a shit about us and only lied about things that wouldn’t hurt us. He respected us.
Our school was in North Philadelphia, and sometimes, bad things happened outside the metal fences. Once, we had to eat lunch inside without explanation. We begged Mr. Kennedy to tell us the truth, and he did. He sat down on his green stool, sighing, the iPhone in his chest glowing. He said, “There was a shooting a few blocks from here. That’s why we had to eat inside.” He sounded like this was going to hurt our feelings.
A girl named Samantha, who always wore pearl earrings and smelled like sweet potatoes, said, “Was anyone injured?” She asked it like she was confused about the purpose of shooting a gun. She asked like she was asking why she got number three wrong on the vocab quiz.
Mr. Kennedy sighed again, his iPhone heart fluttering light, his fake mustache quivering, “Two men were killed.”
There were gasps, like any of us understood. This was 7th grade; we’d seen murder on Criminal Minds. We knew how upset we were supposed to sound. Samantha––Miss Pearl Earrings––said, “That’s just horrible.” I figured we could have finished our sandwiches outside; no one was coming for us. Plus, how far could bullets really go? Plus, if they were going to shoot us, we wouldn’t have been quick enough to escape. We wouldn’t have been walking. We would have left our Lunchables outside.
Later in the year, Samantha started making herself puke before lunch. She knew bulimia was a thing, but didn’t quite know how it worked.
Around the time that she was puking before lunch, Mr. Kennedy wrote on my fiction story, “See Me,” all in red.
My stomach fell out of my butt when I read that.
I didn’t stay after class to talk to him. I just went to lunch. I had a Lunchable every day, and it was calling my name.
He walked up to me outside, all goofy like maybe one of his toddlers was drunk, and said, “Can we have a chat?” He asked like I had a choice.
I was sitting alone on the wood chips stacking square cheese and circles of turkey on a cracker. I ate the whole thing in one bite and said, mouth overflowing with crumbs, “If I have to.”
The top toddler nodded, some of the fake mustache hung over his coffee-stained lip.
I followed him inside and swallowed while I was walking, leaving my pink lunch bag in the shadow of the swing set. No one in the whole middle school fucked with my shit. They knew I saw everything.
Mr. Kennedy sat behind his desk. I don’t know how the bottom toddler never broke his neck. He motioned for me to sit in the gold chair that faced his desk, but I stayed standing. His iPhone heart glowed dimly through his heavy lumberjack shirt. He said, “Why didn’t you stay after class to chat?”
I looked at the map of America, the hot pink Post-it note. I said, “You only wrote, ‘see me.’ I saw you, then I went to lunch.”
The top toddler smiled. I imagined the other two toddlers suppressing giggles in the pits of their elbows. He said, “You’re a smart kid, a talented young writer. I don’t want to squash any of that creativity, but this story was—well—I think you know.”
I knew, but I said, “This story was what?”
There was this long, haunting pause. The only sound was the middle toddler typing furiously. Then he said, “abhorrent, actually.” Must have taken the middle toddler a long time to find that word.
“Are you going to email my parents?”
Top toddler took a sip from his big red coffee cup. He said, “I haven’t decided yet.”
I bit my lip and scrunched up my nose. I wondered if the middle toddler or bottom toddler ever got thirsty. I wondered how they decided which one got which job.
He said, “What would you do? If you were me?”
“My parents will just laugh. You can email them, but that’s all that will happen.”
He stood up then, showing me exactly how tall three toddlers stacked on top of each other can be. He said, “Do you know why I put a hot pink Post-it on this poster?”
“Trevor freaked out at you on Columbus Day. He picks his nose. If I was the teacher, I wouldn’t listen to a kid who picks his nose.”
None of the toddlers laughed at that. They were busy crafting a pump-up speech, a lesson. The top toddler said, “No. It’s because I made a mistake. I come in here every day and look at my mistake. It’s so bright I can’t miss it.” The iPhone where his heart should have been went dark. He continued, “Don’t write any more stories about drowning babies in bathtubs. If you were in college…Well, you’re not in college. Write something else.”
I imagined him unbuttoning his shirt and the three toddlers scattering in every direction, their diapers full of coffee-induced poops. I imagined staring at the pile of clothes where his body used to be. The iPhone dead. I imagined sitting in the principal’s office as she asked me, What exactly happened to Mr. Kennedy?
Instead, Mr. Kennedy put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You’re allowed to be weird, but don’t try and be extra weird just for attention.” His iPhone heart was so bright, you could see it from space.