|Illustration by Mark Satchwill|
Camilla Serra looked at the little boy sitting on the other side of her desk and sighed. She knew Benjy Prefontaine wasn’t a bad kid but she couldn’t allow his behavior to continue to disrupt her classroom. It wasn’t his fault that he didn’t fit in, but he should never have been mainstreamed with the normal kids.
Pretending he was just like everyone else was a joke.
Most of the faculty at John Glenn Elementary School felt the same way about the special needs kids but were too afraid of legal backlash to admit it. She’d complained to the principal after the first incident but Wylie Johnson had a soft spot for the special kids and told her she needed to find a way to deal with Benjy.
And now Haley Romano had a broken arm and a bloody nose because she’d tripped and fallen while he was chasing her around the yard at recess.
Her parents were talking about suing the school.
Camilla sighed again.
Benjy was staring at her with his big hazel eyes full of unshed tears.
He really didn’t understand what he’d done wrong and she could tell from her brief phone conversation with the boy’s mother that she didn’t get it either.
“So a little girl fell down and got a skinned knee and now you want to expel my kid?” she’d asked with disbelief.
“It’s not that simple Ms. Prefontaine,” Camilla had said. “He was chasing her around, being a Tyrannosaurus Rex and she was frightened.”
There was silence on the other end of the phone.
Finally Benjy’s mother said, “All boys love playing dinosaurs.”
“I didn’t say he was playing, Ms. Prefontaine.”
There was another silence.
“I’ll be there in half an hour,” Benjy’s mother said.
Benjy’s mother Joanne blew into the classroom on a gust of cigarette smoke and lemon-scented soap. She took one look at her son, who was miserably curled up in a wooden chair, his legs dangling a few inches off the floor and dropped a casual kiss on his head before offering her hand to Camilla. “I’m Joanne Pretontaine,” she said. “Sorry it took me so long to get here.”
She locked eyes with Camilla as she sat down.
Camilla noticed they were the same hazel as her son’s. She wondered what other scraps of DNA they shared.
“So, there’s a problem?” Joanne prompted.
Camilla could feel herself getting annoyed, even though Joanne’s tone had been completely neutral.
“I understand how difficult it must be to have a child who’s different,” she said, and then could have bitten her tongue as she saw Joanne bristle.
“Special,” Camilla clarified, which only made it worse, but she ploughed on nevertheless.
“His rough-housing frightens the other children,” she said. “He doesn’t know his own strength.”
Joanne looked at her skinny son, then looked back at Camilla skeptically.
“Seriously?” she asked, which set Camilla’s teeth on edge because it reminded her of the decade when all her students answered questions with the passive-aggressive, “Whatever.”
“Yes, I’m serious,” Camilla said. “I can’t have Benjy rampaging around at recess. There are little children on the playground. Someone has already been hurt, next time someone could get killed.”
Joanne raised her eyebrows.
“That seems a bit … melodramatic,” she said. She looked over at Benjy who was studying the floor.
“Were you rampaging?” Joanne asked her son.
“I was just having fun,” he said.
Camilla exhaled. “And there you have it,” she said to Joanne triumphantly.
“Alex dared me,” Benjy said in a small voice. “He said I wasn’t big enough to be a T-Rex.”
For the first time, Joanne Prefontaine looked a little flustered. “Oh Benjy,” she said. “You didn’t.”
His little chin quivered.
“I didn’t mean to be a bad boy,” he said.
“You’re not a bad boy,” Joanne replied and looked at Camilla as if daring her to voice a contradiction. “You’re my good boy.”
She handed Benjy a tissue from her purse as Camilla studied the clock over the classroom doorway.
“How badly is the little girl hurt?” Joanne asked.
“She has a broken arm,” Camilla said.
“Did Benjy touch her?”
“No,” Camilla admitted grudgingly.
“And kids fall down all the time when they’re playing, don’t they?” Joanne persisted. “They get hit in the face playing dodge ball. They fall off the monkey bars and scrape their elbows.”
Camilla didn’t say anything.
“Am I right?”
Camilla nodded sourly.
Joanne nodded back. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll talk to Benjy about how special he is.” Camilla could almost see the air quotes around the word “special.”
“And we’ll discuss what is and is not proper playground behavior.” She turned to her son. “Go on out to the car Benjy,” she said. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
The little boy slipped off his chair, glad to escape.
When he was out of earshot, Joanne turned back to his teacher.
“I know you don’t want my son in your classroom,” she said and put up a hand to wave off Camilla’s reflexive denial. “I’m not terribly happy about leaving him in the care of a bigot.” Camilla bristled at that but did not interrupt.
“But I can’t afford private school,” Joanne continued, “and you can’t afford to lose your job. Which you will if you ever refer to my son as ‘special’ again.”
Joanne stood up and took a deep breath. “And Ms. Serra? You think a four-foot T-Rex is scary, you should see what an adult shape-shifter can do.”
For a moment, Joanne’s eyes took on a lizard-yellow hue.
Camilla stared at her, terrified.
“I hope we understand each other,” Joanne said.
Joanne’s eyes went back to their natural color.
“Have a good evening,” she said as she turned away.
Camilla was still shuddering as Joanne closed the door behind her.