September 17, 1962
I meant to write as soon as I got home on Tuesday, for it was an historic occasion, my very first day as a teacher. Not a student teacher nor an aide, but the real thing at last, up in front of the room the whole day all by myself.
Dad asked how many little monsters they gave me, and I was proud to tell him I have thirty students, and not a monster in the lot. Thirteen boys and seventeen girls and I knew all their names by Wednesday morning.
Mom said it seems like just yesterday I started first grade myself—mothers!—and wanted to know if it felt strange. I reminded her it’s been a decade and a half since I was six and Clairmont Normal School prides itself on preparing you for anything.
I wouldn’t admit it to anyone but you, Diary, but it’s the oddest sensation in the world being back in the very same room, with the same desks, and for all I know the same turtle in the same tank, only now it’s me at the big desk that faces the wrong way and there’s nobody’s head to hide behind.
It’s funny to be worried about the principal again. Hope I can stay out of trouble. (Joke)
Anyway, sorry Diary, I spent Tuesday evening on the phone yakking with Margie and then the next night Billy called and on Thursday I had to wash and set my hair.
Billy’s taking me to see Day of the Triffids tonight. I’ll let you know how that goes. What is it with men and monsters?
November 20, 1962
I don’t remember the prospect of Thanksgiving being such a source of excitement when I was a kid, sorry—child—but the class couldn’t keep still today. I had to confiscate one of those folded paper fortune telling things from Donna Fahey before ten, and an hour later I caught them passing around a silly scribbly drawing of me! It was on the floor when I got to it and nobody would tell me who’d done it. Just between us, I’m saving it to show to Billy tonight. He wants to see The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, but I’ll try to convince him The Phantom of the Opera has something for both of us.
At lunchtime Steven Beattie pushed Joanna Splendorio into a mud puddle. She pretended she’d slipped, but I set them both straight.
It’s good to be flexible, so I showed them the film strip about the Pilgrim Fathers I was saving for tomorrow and made sure they knew it was a treat. At first everyone paid attention—a film strip in school is the next best thing to television (educational television, anyway), but then I had to ask Eddie McNulty what was so funny. He’s an odd little boy. Smiles almost constantly and always in need of a handkerchief and likes eating paste. Poor Eddie got left back in kindergarten, probably for the paste-eating, which is a sign of immaturity. All out of the blue one day he told me he’d been spanked by the principal three times last year. I hope it won’t happen again, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
Eddie pointed to the toe of his shoe. At first I couldn’t make anything out because I’d dimmed the lights, but then I saw a tiny frog perched like he belonged there. Our tadpoles had grown up when no one was looking, and they picked this morning to make their escape. I draped my sweater over their tank to keep in the stragglers and told the class I expected a full report on the film strip and ran for Mr. Hennessy. (He was the janitor when I went to school there, too, Diary, but I didn’t know you in those days.)
While Mr. Hennessy rounded up the former tadpoles and put them in a bucket to take to Elmwood Park, I had the class sing “A Froggy Would a Wooing Go.”
We traced our hands and made construction paper turkeys and I read them “The Courtship of Miles Standish.”
Now I just have to come up with something to hold their attention tomorrow! I’m sure there’s something in my old school notes.
April 24, 1963
I wanted to be a teacher ever since I was a little girl and used to line up my rabbit and my dolls and read to them and tell them stories about different places on the globe.
Now I think I’d rather be a housewife.
Dad’s still asking about the “little monsters,” and it’s gotten to be a joke between us because I act all dignified and tell him they’re my students or pupils or the seeds of tomorrow, but when he said it today, I surprised us both by bursting into tears. I wasn’t planning to tell him or Mom anything.
It’s been a rough spring, you know?
At school last month there was another drawing of me, but it wasn’t cute like the first one—not innocent at all—and there were straight pins stuck through the eyes. I gave a little shrug to show I didn’t care before I tore it in half and dropped it into the wastebasket. Billy said it’s normal to make fun of the teacher, even if she’s as nice and pretty as I am. That made me feel better, but a week later I found out I have to wear glasses. I know enough not to believe putting pins into pictures makes any difference in real life, so I didn’t say anything else to Billy. I don’t know which would be worse—if he thought I was superstitious or if he thought I was vain.
Another day Raymond Owens threw up in the stairwell. That was three weeks ago, and I still can’t get any of the girls to take his hand during folk dancing.
At the back of my classroom there’s a forty-gallon aquarium with a big piece of slate in it. An old turtle lived there ever since my day, with a school of neon tetras to keep him company. Every morning the kids check their names on the calendar to see whose turn it is to feed them.
The kids eat their sandwiches in the lunchroom then go play in the schoolyard until the principal rings the bell. The teachers stay with the kids to supervise. Today my new glasses were giving me a headache and I was psyching myself up to ask the principal for permission to go to the nurse for some aspirin when Eddie McNulty came running up. He said I had to come to the classroom right away, and when we got there our turtle was on his back on the floor. I knelt down and turned him over. Somebody had smashed his shell in and it was bleeding. I noticed a child’s bloody footprints on the floor. Diary, I’m ashamed to say it but for a moment I wondered if they were Eddie’s. He’s such an odd little boy.
But his shoes were clean and he had one eye swollen and he was so stricken with grief I found myself rocking him until he could tell me what happened. He said he and Wayne Peters and Leo Ruppel had sneaked in from the schoolyard to see if Lightning would eat a piece of liverwurst. Lightning wasn’t interested and went into his shell. Then Wayne and Leo started tossing Lightning around and Eddie begged them to stop and when Wayne dropped Lightning on the floor, he said it was Eddie’s fault and stomped on the shell as hard as he could and Leo did, too, grinding his shoe like he was doing the Twist. They tried to make Eddie join in.
Eddie didn’t want to go to the principal’s office, but I crossed my heart I would back him up. I did, but after a few minutes the principal told me I was dismissed. I felt like I was Eddie’s age again.
I hope Wayne and Leo get expelled! When I wasn’t looking they turned into monsters.
I wish I’d kept one of those folded fortune-telling things.
January 13, 1982
Midway through my career and all I can think about are monsters.
January is the worst time for taking any sort of inventory. It is impossible to think of anything but the outline crouching in the dark, waiting for the kindest girl, the gentlest boy, that vivid child you swore you’d always remember.
Even if you forgot they ever lived until you saw a name in the paper that made you stare at a photo trying to see a four-foot-tall version with a winsomely missing tooth or three.
Or else Mother said isn’t this the girl you used to tell all those stories about? What happened that time at the Christmas pageant? You remember. Tell me.
I’d try to talk Billy into moving to Chicago or Milwaukee—St. Louis even—any place big enough where the students grow up and you might never hear another word, but he’d know that’s just the January in me.
They were on my mind, though, certain of my former students. It was past two last night when I got up and sat at the kitchen table and made a list:
Fallen to the chummy monster, the one that says to have another. You deserve it. You can stop whenever you want to.
——James Delvine (homeless)
——Donna Fahey (hanging in there)
——Marcia Fahey (hanging in there but it’s barely fingertips)
——John Maguire (functional, at least for now)
——Nancy Ulosis (also see below)
Fallen to the monster with the funny clock it gives your loved ones—it’s only ever sixty years ago or now.
——Helen Malloy, whose grandfather got so desperate to see his mother—gone forty years—he took her car keys and struck her best friend at 90 miles an hour.
——Eddie McNulty, out of eleven siblings the only one without a child, now Mrs. McNulty’s chief caregiver.
Fallen to the monster that makes a nest in breast or brain or belly—a tiny thing that unfurls itself in tendrils.
Fallen to the monster whose many-roomed mansion has every door and toilet made of steel.
——Ellen Pryce (no matter what else happens, she’s safe now from her husband)
Fallen to the monster that whispers they won’t miss you. Best to get it over with while you’re still feeling brave.
Fallen to the monster who sends your infant child to sleep.
I want a fire in the fireplace tonight. Pretend we can keep the dark away. I could tear this page out and make up some kind of ritual. As if the monsters aren’t always coming. As if we could prepare.
June 9, 2002
Aaaaand that’s it. School’s out for the summer. School’s out forever. I’ve been waiting a long time to sing those lines and mean them.
They threw me a lovely party. Jack Hennessy Junior carried in a cake shaped like—of all things—an old-fashioned school bell. Funny the way symbols endure. My first principal, Hugo Vargas, had a bell but he took it with him when he left. We could never figure out what he was going to do with it. When I became principal, I bought half a dozen triangles and asked whoever I thought was having a bad day to help me announce it was time to come inside.
Is that what I’m going to miss? Leading a triangle band in the schoolyard?
Friends tell me it doesn’t hit you until late August, when the confluence of shrinking days and back-to-school sales stirs something in the blood, so come August 15, Billy’s sweeping me off my superannuated feet and taking me to Paris.
August 12, 2002
When I retired in June, the Record gave me a lovely write-up. Billy was all for sending them a sternly worded letter about spelling my name wrong—it’s his name, too, after all—but the article was so appreciative of teachers I prevailed on him to take a laissez-faire attitude. If I’d known how appreciative he’d be when I spoke French, I’d have started studying la belle langue years ago.
I glued the write-up in the scrapbook Mother started for me that I’ve so blithely been neglecting ever since she passed. Once she had her own obituary, she didn’t send me anyone else’s.
But now my scrapbook has ten letters from former students who saw the Record and six from former colleagues. The colleagues I remembered—a couple of them only too well—but most of the students I couldn’t place. Not even Joanna Splendorio Hudnut, who for her name alone should be given her own talk show.
Sorry about the bad obituary joke. I’d put Wite-Out over it, but who besides Billy will ever read these notebooks when I’m gone?
One old student’s name I did recognize. Eddie McNulty. He wanted to thank me for being in his corner that day the boys killed the turtle. He didn’t know what he would have done if I hadn’t believed him.
He didn’t expect me to remember him among the hundreds of students I’ve had, but he scribbled me a picture of the way he looked then, in case it was any help. He said that for a time he used to pray to that turtle to forgive him for not protecting it, and then he started asking it to protect him, a habit he said he’d be embarrassed to admit how long he kept up.
“Well, it did a piss-poor job,” I said out loud when I read that, but he went on to say he’d thought a lot about turtles in his forty-seven years, and when his son died and his wife left and his mom got sick, he’d learned it was okay to be a hermit. That some people are just made that way. Self-sufficient, quiet, slow and steady.
He didn’t put a return address.
March, the week after Easter 2017
The days seem to get away from me in here. If I’ve been neglecting you, dear diary, it’s because there’s seldom anything to report. Though I will tell you The Day of the Triffids was on the other night and that gave me such a happy dream of Billy. We were in a movie theater, and I required a good deal of hand holding. It was so good to see him again (wish I’d hugged him) and good to walk without pain, though how I did that while sitting in a movie theater… Well, maybe Margie can read me an article about the dreaming brain next time she visits.
I’m trying to work up to what I have to tell you next.
This is a serviceable place. Nobody’s going to mistake it for a boutique hotel, but it’s clean and friendly enough. The attendants are stretched too thin, but it’s no snake pit.
I walk around as much as I can and try to talk to everybody, residents or staff, who’s open to conversation. And if they’re a little gaga, well, sometimes I like a challenge.
Last week in my wanderings I came across the ward for people needing constant care. People on ventilators, people in comas, and Eddie McNulty.
For years he’d been living over on the east bank of the Susquehanna, buying and selling scrap metal to get along. One evening he must have glanced out the window of his trailer. Maybe he heard some kind of commotion. Whatever made him do it, what he saw was a station wagon hanging halfway off the road, hovering over the water like a seesaw. There were two children looking out of the back window—the postpartum psychosis monster had been busy—and Eddie ran outside and yanked open the door and pulled the first one to safety. He had to climb in for the other one, and just as he did the station wagon tipped. He threw the second child free as it plunged into the river. A guy who wanted him to look at his old Camaro drove up just in time to see all this—it only took seconds—and jumped into the river after it. He forced the station wagon door open, but Eddie’d had a stroke by then.
They call it locked-in syndrome. The brain scans say he’s still aware, but his eyes are the only thing Eddie can move.
So, did the turtle protect him? Or destroy him? Maybe it protected him in the only way it knew, granting him solitude and self-sufficiency, and even for a few short moments, a metal carapace.
Or maybe the turtle meant to be a monster. Crushing Eddie’s life to punish him for not saving it from those boys that day. I remember their names too. Wayne Peters is still in prison, immured for life for committing the kind of grisly crimes a child psychiatrist could have predicted, even in the dark ages of 1963. Leo Ruppel? Fell down a mine shaft hiking in West Virginia thirty years ago. Immured in his own way, till they dug him out then brought him home to bury him again, this time for good.
Eddie needed care and never got it. He was one of eleven, I remember that too. Did they shoo him away, with his runny nose and perpetual smile? Did I? Now he’s getting all the attention a place like this can give. Bed baths, feeding tube, television sixteen hours a day. I wonder how long he can survive like this, a hermit inside his own body. I’ve heard turtles can live for a very long time. I’ll ask Margie to read me something about them too.
Having spent a year living in Scotland studying for a master’s degree in creative writing at Edinburgh Napier University, Joyce Meggett is back in Chicago working as a reference librarian. Her stories have appeared in Fabula Argentea, Ellipsis Zine, Bewildering Stories, and Malefaction Magazine.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Everyday Monsters”:
We loved the approach of this wonderful and sensitive piece by author Joyce Meggett that tells the story of many lives through the eyes of one teacher during her life—all in under 3000 words. It’s so compelling and beautifully done that we had no choice but to accept it for publication.