From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

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Fiction

Lessons

I know exactly how many times I’ve tried to leave. The last time, I walked right up to the edge of the playground, as if the swings and the seesaw weren’t penning me in. Weren’t a boundary I couldn’t cross.

I pushed my toe against the air, right above where the blacktop meets the meadow. I’m not sure if I imagined it: the thin film flexing and shimmering like a soap bubble against my shoe. I imagined that someday I’d burst it. The meadow draws me every morning before the students get here and every afternoon when they leave, but I’m nearly certain it is unreachable.

The children who arrive chattering and boisterous to our one-room school don’t have the same problem. They don’t see a bubble; they aren’t affected by it, and they pass through it daily as if it’s not even there. Which of course makes me wonder if it is. But I’ve never asked them about it. And I’ve never asked them for help. I don’t remember how I started this job, but I remember that I am their teacher, and it’s a responsibility I feel proud of. I know my job is to take care of them, not the other way around. And the job is the only thing that keeps me going. So I obediently watch them come and go each day, and try to ignore how much it hurts to see that they are blissfully unaware of any boundaries, as all children are.

I teach a science lesson every year about bubbles, which inevitably devolves into chaos. The children squeal and jab their fingers at the floating spheres. And they laugh. So much laughter. It’s why I enjoy repeating the lesson, even though no student has ever, in all my years, looked at the delicate orbs and understood my laughable cry for help.

Usually, when I try to explain the science, I’m met with suspicious looks—as if I were trying to steal the magic from something wondrous. I hope that’s not what I’m doing. But I also hope—in a place so deep down in my heart that I’m scared to look directly at it—that one of them will eventually notice that I’ve never left the school grounds. That I wear the same five outfits every week. That over the years I have taught their siblings, parents, and grandparents, too, for god’s sake. That I have no recollection of what happens between the time the bell rings at the end of the day and the time it rings in the morning.

But I remember each of my failed attempts to leave. The disappointment is devastating. The realization that I am ready to accept defeat is even worse.

This morning was the bubble lesson again, and I couldn’t help myself—I laughed along with the delighted children, even as I gave up on them. The reliably disruptive Sean Hobbs guffawed as he pelted his crumpled worksheets at other students, and they in turn aimed paper bullets of their own. I was about to reprimand them all when Sean suddenly froze mid-lunge for the soap bottles on the window counter. A curious look washed over his face, and he gazed out the window intensely, then glanced back at the bowl of shimmery water on his desk. I swear I heard a little gasp, right before one of the other kids clocked him in the head with the balled-up homework assignment and they all erupted back into the usual cacophony.

At recess, I spied Sean standing between the seesaw and the swings, squinting his eyes and stepping from side to side, as if trying to catch something from different angles. I watched him for what felt like hours. I held my breath. “Teacher, come look at this,” he finally shouted, not bothering to look back toward me, focusing all his attention instead on the air right above where the blacktop meets the meadow. He poked his finger out tentatively, and, to my shock, the bubble bowed and shimmered. Then he turned to me with a wide, wicked, triumphant smile and reached out for my hand. “I can take you.”

Billie Cohen

Billie Cohen

Billie Cohen is a writer and editor based in New York City, but when there’s not a global pandemic, she’s usually on the road exploring the world (that’s her in Mongolia). You can read her work in Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, AFAR, and more. And you can follow her on Instagram @billietravels, where she posts about art, dessert, design, and different Oreo flavors around the world.