Mr. Daley – by Paul Lamar

On the first day of seventh grade at Whitman Junior High School, Mr.  Daley, the homeroom teacher, passed out our class schedules.

“Students, please take a look at your schedule to be sure that it’s yours. Your name should be in the upper left-hand corner and your date of birth next to it. Any problems?”

Silence.

“Good.”

Mr. Daley walked up and down the aisles as he spoke, his tie clip glinting from time to time in the September sun.

“In the upper right-hand corner there are two numbers and a letter. The first number for all of you is a 7. The next number goes from 1-10, which is your reading group. And the letter, from A-D, is your math group.”

I looked at mine. 72A.

“Next. There are two floors in this building, so if the classroom for your first period starts with a 1, walk down to the first floor; if it starts with a 2, stay on this level.”

I looked over at my friend Joel. He mouthed 73B to me, so we wouldn’t be together.

Then I noticed a red-haired boy three rows away slowly crumpling up his schedule and putting his head down on his arms on the desk.

Mr. Daley looked at his seating chart.

“Donald? Donald, is it? Are you all right?”

“No,” he said into his arms. “I ain’t all right.”

We sat still, except for a couple of boys in the middle of the room who made the crazy sign.

“Here we go again,” one of them muttered.

“Shut up, Brendan,” Donald hissed.

Mr. Daley walked over to Donald’s desk.

“Can you tell me what’s the matter, Donald?” he asked softly.

“I’m stupid,” he said.

The boys nodded. The boy named Brendan screwed up his mouth and made buck teeth, chomping them up and down.

Mr. Daley picked up the schedule from the floor and flattened it.

“Why do you say that, Donald?”

He spoke softly, and the air held its breath.

“Look. Look at that thing there. 710D. It’s the lowest you can be.”

“Well…you’re just beginning, Donald. This is a place to start. It doesn’t mean that that’s where you’ll end up. With hard work.”

“But I went to summer school already, and it didn’t do me no good.”

The two boys shook their heads in mock sympathy.

“And you two boys,” Mr. Daley said, over his shoulder, without looking up, “you stay here when the first period bell rings.”

I stared down at my schedule and colored in the o’s in “homeroom.”

“Donald O’Connor, is it? Well, you know he’s a famous actor.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“You have the same name, but I bet you have your own talents, Donald O’Connor. Maybe we’ll find out in seventh grade.”

The bell rang. Everyone except Brendan and his friend began filing out the door. Mr. Daley held out a box of tissues for Donald as he moved past the teacher’s desk.

“See you at the end of the day, Donald. Make it a good one.” And the door closed behind us on Mr. Daley and the two boys.

At 3:00 we returned to room 209 to get our jackets and be dismissed. Brendan wasn’t there, but the other boy was. He sat with his fingers folded and his head down.

Mr. Daley was a math teacher, so the board was full of numbers and letters and signs and directions for homework.                                                                                                                 

“Marsha, would you and Larry please erase the boards for me this week?”

Mr. Daley used the pole to close the upper windows, then locked them.

“Thank you. Just leave the erasers on the ledge, and you can clap them first thing in the morning.”                                                                                                                      

He zipped up his briefcase and then glanced at his wristwatch.

“Before we go, I want you to look around the room at the posters above the blackboards. There are 20 of them, and I call them pictures of our national mothers and fathers. Do you recognize any of them?”

We all turned to take in the faces of adults looking out into space above our heads.

He glanced down at the seating chart and called my name.

“Do you recognize any of them, George?”

“I see Abraham Lincoln.”

“Yes, you do.”

He took a pointer from the corner.

“I call them our mothers and fathers because, like your parents, they try to teach us how to live. We’ll be talking about them this year in homeroom.”

He walked to the back of the room.

“Look here.” He pointed at a poster.

“This woman is Ida B. Wells.  You probably have never heard of her or seen a picture of her, but now that I have said her name you can never not know her and what she did. She was a journalist. What’s a journalist?”

Madeleine, a girl I knew from sixth grade, raised her hand.

“A writer for a newspaper?”                                                                                                           

“Yes, good.  Ida B. Wells was a journalist, and she wrote articles against lynching black Americans. Can you imagine?”

The question hung in the air.

“Can you imagine having to tell people not to hang other people?” he said.

He walked to the front of the room and stood the pointer back in the corner.

“I can’t imagine it either.”

He put on the black and white sport coat that had been draped over the back of his chair; then he removed his glasses, fitted them into a case, and slipped the case into his pocket.

“You all have a long life ahead of you. And I like to think that you will spend it wisely, that you will exhibit kindness and joy and purpose. See you tomorrow.”

And the dismissal bell rang.


Paul Lamar lives with his husband, Mark, in Albany, NY, where he teaches, reviews theater for a local paper, and conducts a chorus. Recent work in Blue Mountain Review, Muse, San Pedro River Review, Sand Hills Literary Magazine, As It Ought to Be.