place the map where you found it.

22 September 2012 § Leave a comment

The saddest person I’ve ever met was Mrs. Wancheck, my sixth-grade teacher. She ate turkey sandwiches from Tupperware containers at her desk. Those of us in detention entertained ourselves at our own desks. Quiet, obedient, and sad for her, I would watch as her lips smacked, and a bit of mayonnaise would fall on her chin.

By age eleven I was convinced that eating alone would make anyone sad.

Mrs Wanchek spoke often of an ancient trip to Egypt she had taken with her husband. For nine weeks we studied hieroglyphics, Nile geography and agriculture, and had tests on which pharaoh was buried when and in which tomb. For a project, I researched the reasons for, and the process of, mummification. During my presentation, a girl in my class ran to the bathroom, and my teacher smiled.

I was glad to be the catalyst of both.

She spoke also of her toys; one, an RV she liked to take to Arizona and California during summer (her husband did the driving); the second, a Toyota truck, which sat in the school parking lot long after the final bell rang.

I wondered how anyone who was married could be as unhappy as she seemed to be over turkey sandwiches. In my world, unhappy couples divorced and moved to different towns, only then asking the kid which parent he wanted to live with.

Her son was grown up by the time I hit sixth grade. The lessons she taught him showed in the wrinkles in her lips, which closed mid-breath, as if every time her lips touched, she was saying “hup-“. She had glazed and jaded eyes, but they were not unkind. Having taught second grade for years, maybe decades, before her one-year venture into sixth, she was unprepared for the cruelty many of my classmates offered. They were most forthcoming when her curriculums overlapped.

After a lesson on latitude and longitude, for which every student was given a map (whether it was of Egypt, or our native New Mexico, I do not recall), she proceeded to direct us on how to properly fold a map. Step by step.

While most of us played with our paper accordions, my ally Michael, who in his pre-pubescence had a cowboy’s falsetto, chirped from the back of the class, “We know how to fold a map, Mrs. Wanchek.” He followed his comment with a snort and chuckle loud enough for his audience.

Realizing he was either right, or being a shithead, she took offense. He laughed openly, rebelling against the childish lesson of folding a map. “We’re too old for this, Mrs. Wancheck,” said Michael. “It’s a waste of time.”

“GO TO THE PRINCIPAL’S OFFICE! NOW!” Her voice carried out the door into the reverberant hall. Spittle dripped from her lips. The rest of us sat silent, dumbfounded. Not even a whisper between the gossiper girls.

“Why?” he asked, in open defiance. He hadn’t moved a muscle. She glared at him with the force of a train moving at five miles an hour. The tension rose and rose, and eventually, he eyes pushed him out of his desk and toward the door.

Michael left the room, still standing on the moral that she was “wasting our dang time,” and waved her off as he shut the door behind him. She didn’t finish the map-folding lesson; instead, we were told to place them – folded – on her desk.

A couple of years later, I heard Mrs. Wanchek and her husband rolled their RV off a cliff in Arizona. I pictured the sixty-somethings in a twilight rainstorm, on a muddy road, trying to haul their happy vacation out of a red valley.

I never asked her if she loved to teach. It made sense that if she’d done it for as long as it showed in her weak smile, she must have loved it. I was sad at the news of her death for only a few minutes. It didn’t feel like long enough, but the tears just weren’t there. And neither were they for her anymore.

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