The Shipyard’s tired trombone. We imagine the morning shift falling in, and we shift
in our seats accordingly. Like trained monastics, we look up from our morning
lessons, our
Matins, expecting John Paul Ambrose III. He is later than usual.

Four out of five mornings, he arrives after the second horn offering apologies: ten-
car pile-ups, bus collisions; the bridge was up and a Royal Fleet passed under it;
their linen sails seemed to touch the soles of his feet. Fires, fallen limbs, occasional
fatalities. Though we want his fantastic stories, we know better. We have seen
John Paul Ambrose III with his mother, now and then, at the corner store. We have
heard her slurring speech, watched her struggling to count her change, fighting to
stay still, straddling to keep from falling over as if her earth were on a different axis
than his and ours. And John Paul Ambrose III standing so stiff beside her as if to
keep her upright and the grocer’s suspended light bulbs bathing his silky, bowed
head in a shimmering light.

Most of us have had our turn in the whiskey-damp air of this shipyard town:
mothers suddenly sour-breathed and graceless; and the
good fathers, the ones who
come home with their paychecks, the ones who take their drink at home. Most of us
have had our turn in those days without prospect and so the shame on the face of
John Paul Ambrose III is our shame as well.

North Weymouth was a town between bridges, yet so often there seemed to be no
way out. When Mary Wiles put it that way, or something like that, Miss D shook her
head hard and hollered at her,
HIGH ART, MARY! HIGH ART! Miss D hated self-pity.
Self-pity, she said, is a common man’s art and her 4th-grade students in Room 20 will
be making high art this year.

The distance from Johnson Elementary School in North Weymouth to Harvard
University in Cambridge was a direct route of about 15 miles. Forever standing
between those two points, however – as if to intercept certain life ambitions – were
the colossal cranes of the Quincy Fore River Shipyard. Like cathedrals that
generations of men from the surrounding towns had built, the shipyard’s cranes
pierced the sky and towered above behemoth ships below them. And like medieval
cathedrals, the cranes and ships became points of destination in themselves.

In the early morning hours and then again in the late afternoons, in a changing of
shifts that looked more like the rotation of pilgrims, our fathers and grandfathers
made their tired treks over the bridge going to and from the shipyard. When the
morning air was cold and clear, we heard the gigantic cranes flex and swerve and
lean and yaw as we dressed for school or as we lingered over our toast and tea.

The history of the Quincy Shipyard and of the Fore River Bridge that guarded its
entrance was our history. During the Second World War, the Yard, which was
operated by Bethlehem Steel Corporation and employed 32,000 people, turned out
more ships than any other shipyard in the country. These were facts that we could
tell anyone that asked. This was our home field. We marked the change in seasons
according to the building phases of freighters and aircraft carriers and LNG tankers.
We knew the wars were over when the Yard grew quiet. Our surnames were
inscribed into the shipyard’s payroll book and our initials were etched into the bridge’
s iron railings:
MB was here, or TM loves MG.

In the spring, when the bridge hoists itself up to let a string of boats pass under it,
we pour out of our stopped cars and fight for a spot to lean over the bridge’s
railings and watch the parade of barges, sailboats, and scows below. In the winter,
when the bridge’s steel and lattice floor ices up, our cars careen into the bridge’s
iron curb like seals on their bellies. And, on hot afternoons after school, on a dare
from their peers, our brothers jump from ledges beneath the bridge risking their
lives as they catapult into the water below. From the back seats of our cars, we see
them leap into the murky depths and our hearts leap too with fear and horror – and
pride.

As if she has never heard of these hallowed places, Miss D presents us not with
field trips to the shipyard or to local industries, but with a map of the universe; not
with creative lessons about the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but with
instructions on how to plot stars from our bedroom windows at night.

When in doubt, look up, she tells us.

We take her advice to mean that for answers we should look toward the stars, or
toward our various gods, and we notice that she does not say
look around. Her
lessons all but forbid us from looking around; all but prohibit us from relying upon
the familiar references in our lives for answers. Answers, in fact, are the last thing
that Miss D seems to want from us.

What she seems to want from us is something immeasurable in a place of measured
outcomes – a new way of behaving that, as best as we can tell, our first-grade
teacher, second-grade teacher, and third-grade teacher at Johnson Elementary
have already classified as acting out and cause for a trip to the Principal’s office.

                                           ***

Static and a muffled shuffling from the loudspeaker in our classroom. We sit up, fold
our hands on the tops of our laminate desks and wait for the Principal’s
Morning
Announcements
. We look up at the speaker, at the door beneath it, at our
classroom walls, at John Paul Ambrose III’s empty chair. The back rest of his chair
has become the canvas for a dancing stream of morning light; the Principal’s voice,
the drum and bass for our drifting thoughts.

In a tone that she usually reserved for announcements of no real consequence,
Miss D informed us on a morning like this that the
BAD BEHAVIOR BOOK would from
now on be the
BIG IDEAS BOOK.  It was a revolutionary move. According to John G.
Ashe, the smartest boy in our class, it was downright tyranny. A massive tome of
empty pages that apparently comes with the classrooms at Johnson Elementary
School and that occupies the corner of the teacher’s desk, the
BAD BEHAVIOR BOOK
is where the
bad child – the soon-to-be penitent one, the one who needs our
prayers and the prayers of all the saints – scribbles his own cursed name as proof
of his unruliness. It is a lawyer’s evidence for parents on
Meet Your Teacher Night. It
is our
Book of the Dead.

In changing its name from the
BAD BEHAVIOR BOOK to the BIG IDEAS BOOK, Miss D
announced to us that
there are some labels that she did not want recorded in ink.
Tucked behind our desks, we watched her as she feverishly crossed out the names
of the guilty until, apparently unhappy with their shadowy permanence, she tore the
pages from the book. It was our first attendance at an exorcism.

For most of us – even the bad children – these were labels that we would not give
up easily.  Handing over these classifications would require our starting again,
establishing new identities, imagining new criteria for who would be loved and who
would be disinherited, who would be remembered warmly and who would be
condemned. These were identities that we had worked hard to acquire – personal
profiles, like overtures that preceded us as we moved from grade to grade at
Johnson Elementary. This, John G. Ashe objected, would be meddling at a whole
new level.

As if unclear about the revolutionary change that Miss D had put into place – or
perhaps resistant to her brand of forgiveness and renewal – the bad children
continued to fill this massive book with their names.  At first, when Miss D called
their names out from the book and asked them to stand and share with us their
big
ideas
, they stood heads hung, shoulders rounded, characteristically ashamed.  

Chin up, Miss D called out, we want to hear your big idea!

And when the one who had been called upon claimed to have forgotten his or her
big idea, Miss D called on the rest of us to put our heads together.
We will help. We
will come up with a big idea.  

It was only a few weeks before several of us lined up to inscribe our own names
into the
BIG IDEAS BOOK. We knew that we could be called upon and that we must
be ready to surprise Miss D and the others with something that they never could
have imagined - something shocking, or brilliant, or hilarious, or daring.  More often
than not, when Miss D
did call on us, we stuttered an inarticulate but no-less big idea
– but we knew, somehow, that this was not our
real work. We had sensed a shift in
paradigm. We saw that by playing along with Miss D we had begun to participate in
something bigger: we had given the
bad child a second chance; we had given him
back his good name. We had allowed him to save face, to go on living, to consider
metamorphosis.  At least for the time being, we had changed our label for him from
bad child to simply child – and in doing so, we had somehow changed ourselves as
well.  


                                           ***

This morning, it is as if some big idea, something braver than us, has taken hold.
What else can explain why, when Miss D stages a
sing in to drown out the Principal’
s
Morning Announcements … we decide to join her.

I do not subscribe to detaining human beings! Miss D proclaims to the loud speaker in
our classroom; and so, to our horror and delight, with the classroom door open
wide, she leads us in a round of song that consumes the Principal’s voice:

   O What a beautiful morn–ing,
   O what a beau –ti –ful day …

She continues to lead us in song, until the Principal has finished this morning’s roll of
students who will serve after-school detention:

  
 I’ve got a beautiful feel - ing
   Everything’s going my way

In this unwelcome pause in our song, we see ourselves at once victorious and
condemned.  We follow Miss D’s lead and stomp our feet twice between verses,
ostensibly to keep time with our song, but also – we cannot help but notice – our
stomping drowns out the Principal’s monotone recitation of the names of our peers.

In spite of the fun that we are having, we cannot help imagining the sentencing that
awaits us. We cannot keep from watching our open classroom door through which
our voices drift like pieces of a play in rough rehearsal –
Oklahoma, we might tell the
Principal when he arrives, or perhaps a scene from the storming of the Bastille.  A
tremulous trail of song, our voices echo and hang in the hall like a cloud of noxious
gas that, in future days, will stir the other teachers and periodically draw them to
our classroom door for a peek inside.

The Principal will have to trace the noxious gas past the other open doors, past the
other classrooms of children with quiet mouths and quiet minds tucked neatly
behind their desks, past Room 15 with its eternally sun-lit walls, past the
Garden
Patch display of Spelling Bees
in Room 16, past the 1st-place ribbons for the 3rd grade
Thespians
in Room 18, past Room 19’s Roster of Magicians in Math – to us.  

As ethereal as Miss D looks to us – floating up and down between our rows of
desks and waving her right arm like a conductor of some heavenly chorus – and as
much as we feel her invitation to join her on our feet, we also feel the weight of
learned habits, of institutional codes that have become the very core of our small
consciences. Still, we cannot help but admire and even envy Miss D, so we raise our
heavy heads toward her and we stay in our seats and sing in our chains:

 
  I’ve got a beau-ti-ful
   feeeel – ing
   Ev’ry-thing’s
   go- ing
   my way

These are brazen acts from Room 20 and we know it: to assert that yesterday’s
misbehavers need not be today’s detainees. To flaunt our innocence like Arthur’s
sterling sword. To take back our kingdom, as Arthur did, by releasing a sword from a
stone that no one else could release. To trust these occasions as Natural Law – and
not accidents in nature.  To see ourselves as part of these natural laws. To trust our
sword-powers. To trust ourselves. And ultimately, in this makeshift chorus of boy
sopranos and girl sopranos, led by Miss D’s rumbling baritone, to affirm what we
already know: that the Principal is not a man to us but an idea. And on this
particular morning, he is an idea that we dare to challenge.

Certainly, the redhead in the second row knows this. She whimpers at the slightest
address not only from the Principal, but from any adult – even Miss D. And in singing
over the Principal’s announcements this morning, we seem to caress the belt marks
on the backs of her legs.  As misplaced a remedy as this seems to us even now, it is
as if we realize that this is all we can do for her – and so, most of us sing.   

                                           ***

Our classroom door to the Fire Escape stairwell is propped open so that John Paul
Ambrose III can slip in from the back of the school, unaffected and unnoticed by Miss
Rose in the school’s front office with her massive tome filled with notes and grids
titled
Tardy, Absent, Sick.

When John Paul Ambrose III does arrive, his face is damp and flushed, his eyes dark
and blank, his pants and shirt clinging to his narrow frame. Miss D has set out his
breakfast: a banana-nut muffin and a bottle of apple juice. Next to this, a packet of
papers rolled up and tied in purple ribbon – this morning’s worksheets prepared for
him, as one might prepare a judge’s morning schedule.

He slouches toward his morning meal and begins to eat without looking up, without
looking at any of us. But we are all looking at him. Miss D has told us again and
again that, when he does come, our Savior will wear a beggar’s clothes and that it
is
we who should be ready for him, not he for us. We have finished our morning
lessons and we gaze at John Paul Ambrose III as if we are expecting a speech or a
vision or some sign from him.

The smell of banana and nut winds through our classroom. It is a good morning for
our Savior: no tardy slip, no detention, and a good and simple meal.







Copyright © 2018 M. B. McLatchey.  All rights reserved.

Published in Tulip Tree's 2018 Anthology:
Stories That Need to be Told.  Available on
Amazon. Excerpted from the author's forthcoming book: Beginner's Mind.

Author's website: www.mbmclatchey.com

Awarded First Place - Love Category
2018 Anthology: Stories That Need to be Told,
Tulip Tree Publishing



A Good and Simple Meal