Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
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The Teacher

Mabel wouldn’t have said she was happy teaching at the academy, exactly. But it had always been hard to pin down the source of her unhappiness. When she was in high school there, her mother had advised her to imagine her sadness as a fuzzy little monster that walked beside her, trudging through the slushy snow or rambling in the grass. It was no good, said her mother, to make it into this nebulous force, this god-like thing. It was merely a dog that wouldn’t leave her alone. But it wouldn’t kill her either.

And there were benefits, of course. Not just the health care, which after two years of grad school and five years of adjuncting had seemed breathlessly generous. There was a faculty apartment in the dorms, rent and utilities paid. There were three hot meals a day in the dining hall, and a river at the edge of campus. At a faculty meeting soon after Mabel was hired, architects presented the vision for the new science center: the doors, they said, would have three settings, which could be switched one to the other by the touch of your palm to its surface: from solid, to transparent, to a smart board. People murmured. “The lobby of the building,” added the architect, “will look like the night sky. It will be synced with the motions of the earth.”

The headmistress clapped her hands together at this pronouncement, bowed her head momentarily. The thought had moved her.


After Mabel got the offer, Jones called to invite her over to celebrate.

“Obviously, we’re outraged,” he said. “They’ll let anyone teach these days.”

She laughed. It had always been easy to laugh with Jones. They’d had a relaxed, snappy repartee since she was his student. Once, her junior year, he’d asked her if she was going to the formal that Saturday. She told him no, and without hesitation, perfectly dry, he’d said, “Oh, nobody likes you?” She’d so admired his one-liner ability—he spoke, she’d later think in college, like a character in a book—that she had pages in the back of her high school journal devoted to “Jones Quotes.”

He and his wife Sara came onto the porch as Mabel parked her car. Sara’s bright white hair was cut in a stylish bob, and she bounced on her heels as she waved. Beside her, Jones was still, those same octagonal glasses glinting in the early evening light. He looked no different than she remembered: the waffle-knit tie; the worried mouth hidden by a gray beard; the thin hands.

My colleagues, Mabel thought, experimentally.

Once, she remembered, Jones had read her entire essay out loud to the class. It had taken him over twenty minutes. He didn’t say who’d written it, of course, but she felt certain that her class knew. He’d stood in front of the horseshoe of desks with her essay in his hands (they were not trembling that day) and began with no preamble. At first she’d thought he would read the first sentence, the first paragraph, but he’d continued on, painstaking, slow. He read like a poet: lingering on vowels, holding them in his mouth like an egg. Giving utter respect to the comma.

She’d thought she would die, though she hadn’t been sure from what. She’d shifted in her wooden seat, pressing her palms to the lacquered wood and sitting on top of them, eyes glued to the floor just in front of his shoes. It had been a good essay—she’d been proud of it. But what was the point, really? He’d never done that before, and she could feel the rest of the class shuffling in their seats, bored and a little confused. Certainly no one was taking notes.

She got out of the car and waved.

“Hey, kiddo,” said Sara, slinging an arm around Mabel’s shoulders. “Hot enough for ya?”

Mabel laughed, suddenly aware of the sweat that must be glistening on her nose, and possibly stinking up her underarms. She sniffed and turned to Jones.

They’d always hugged, even in high school. He was very huggable—not because he was soft, but sort of the opposite—he was slight, and boney, and you felt like you were gathering an armful of firewood together as you held him. Now, in the August heat, she held herself at a bit of a distance, her arms flapped out from her sides, patting him lightly on the back.

“You two go catch up,” said Sara. “I’m almost done in the kitchen.”

“Can I help?”

“Paul, show her what you’ve done to the barn. Give her the tour.”

Jones smiled almost sheepishly at Mabel. “My writer’s lair.”

“I remember.”

What he had done to the barn was drag a new armchair onto the ground floor and set up a folding table in front of it, a typewriter perched on top. Mabel tapped out a few letters—the typewriter clattered and snapped. “Now you see why she makes me write outside,” Jones said.

“I’ve always loved the smell of this place.”

He smiled sideways at her.

“They called for a reference this weekend and I told them the story of how, when Larry was here, he asked me, how long do you have to wait in between students like Mabel? I told him I was still waiting.”

She’d heard this story before—he’d included it in a letter soon after she went to college—but hearing it in person sent her in a warm blush. She looked out the barn door, straight into the brambles of the woods, the sunset soft and inexact in the distance. Once she’d gotten to college she’d been surprised that no one quite responded to her as Jones had—as people around Jones had. When she’d been his student everyone in the English department liked her, nominated her for prizes every year, congratulated her when the student magazine came out. She’d come to believe, replaying these compliments late at night, that it might be true: that she was someone out of history, someone who only came once a generation, a Woolf or a Plath.

She was not. She graduated, moved her stuff into an empty college dorm, and found that this fantasy did not survive anywhere but high school. Anywhere else—miles and hours from where she’d been Jones’ student—she was a person, like any person. The fall from one idea of herself to the other made being a person seem like a punishment she did not deserve.

“That was very kind of you,” said Mabel.

“It was selfish of me,” he said. “We need more Allied Forces out there.”

She laughed.

“Really. It’s changed since you were there. All that measurable-results nonsense has even made its way here. That sort of paranoid, top-down stuff. You’ll see. It’s not like it used to be.”

“You mean the headmistress?”

“She’s just the face of it.” He brushed a piece of hay off the typewriter and fiddled with the shift key to reset it. “You knew that, of course. The headmaster doesn’t run the school. The faculty certainly doesn’t. There’s corporate interests at play.”

She was taken aback at the bitterness in his voice. He was the one who sounded paranoid.

“Thank goodness,” he said, “you’re here now.”


By the next weekend, she was moving into her new apartment, a studio stuck on the end of a long hallway of dorm rooms, soon to be filled with junior and senior girls. For now it was just her, and in the apartment directly below, the Alberts, a married couple who’d been teaching French and Spanish at the school since she was a student. She’d found herself thinking of Mr. Albert when she’d interviewed, when they’d asked her if she truly understood the duties of a faculty member at the school. Mr. Albert’s role had struck her as an odd one even back then. She remembered him as a sort of father figure to the girls in his dorm. He’d cared for them like they were little girls: he bought them sprinkles and maraschino cherries at the grocery store, and led them by the arm to the infirmary when they were fevered and vomiting. He sat in a fold-out chair with a historical novel at midnight on Saturdays, checking them in as they reported for curfew.

And yet they were not little girls. He cast his eyes downward as they rattled out the dorm’s side exit after dinner, answering the coarse calls of boys hollering outside their windows. When they clamored for a group shot of their costumes before the annual Disco Dance, pressed against each other in sequin dresses tight as a caul, so tight the depressions of their belly buttons were clearly outlined—Mr. Albert handed the camera to his wife.


Mabel had thought that, working in the same department, she’d see Jones all the time, but between teaching and coaching she practically forgot they worked together. After class ended she’d have twenty minutes to change and jog down to the bottom of the hill, where the team waited, teasing each other or rolling up the waistbands of their cotton shorts, then unrolling them, looking around as though they were going to be graded on it.

She felt, most days, that she was better at coaching than teaching. She felt she could relate to each of the girls, respond to them intuitively, that their most sullen adolescent behavior was still familiar to her. Particularly Jessie.

Jessie wasn’t a natural runner, but she’d put in the miles over the summer and had a good base to start from. Her essay on A Winter’s Tale had been passed around from teacher to teacher during a free period, admiringly. The other English teachers described her poise in the classroom, the college-level articulation of literary ideas, but the Jessie that Mabel saw each afternoon at practice was as uninhibited as a sixth-grader, singing operatically just to make a teammate laugh, or striking a loose, open-mouthed pose for a group picture when everyone else was smiling nicely, arms angled to make themselves look skinnier.

“You and Jessie look like twins, Coach,” said Rita, one of the juniors, one day.

Their hair, Mabel realized, was similar—or at least, both their haircuts were short. She’d forgotten how rare that was in high school, especially this one, where hair had a certain talisman quality. She smiled quickly at Jessie, not sure how she’d take the comparison, but Jessie grinned back at her. “Are you my real mom?” she deadpanned, and the girls burst into peals of laughter. Jessie stood there in the grass, lanky and barefaced, looking practically airborne with pleasure, as though buoyed up by the sound.


One thing Mabel hadn’t counted on—that no one had warned her about—was how much teaching sixteen-year-olds would bring her back to being sixteen. Memories she’d long forgotten came swooping back when she least expected it, usually brought on by a smell: cracking the biscuit crust of the dining hall’s chicken pot pie, or the mud between the flattened corn husks as she padded by the fields. She had forgotten the physicality of it: the way the boys walked, their long, dark-pink shorts stiff and tube-like over their tan calves, their curly blonde leg hair uncomfortably visible—she saw that and could suddenly recall, exactly, how it felt to be sixteen and passing these boys on the way to class, her stomach knotted with the fear and the hope that they would notice her.

And the crying, the shrieking—she’d forgotten that the smallest thing had to be relayed immediately to your friends in a sort of house-of-mirrors mania, each of you bouncing excitement off each other until you were screaming. Every time she stepped into the dining hall she was overwhelmed by how the girls reunited with each other as though after years of wartime separation, clutching hands and whispering.

She’d had restless, shallow sleep ever since she moved into the dorm apartment that she couldn’t explain—at first she’d thought it was the sudden thumping noises that echoed through the dorm every night: girls swinging open doors to go to the bathroom, or banging through their closets for a sudden, manic midnight wardrobe makeover. Maybe it was the sense that an emergency—an emergency she would be responsible for—was always imminent. She could laugh at the students, sometimes, but she felt an uneasy edge, too, when she caught them whispering tearfully in the common rooms. She hadn’t forgotten what else went on in these dorms.

For instance, the way the girls showed up. Most of them moved into the dorms when they were fourteen: they barely had breasts. In those first few days after their parents dropped them off, they stepped gingerly into the common room to share bowls of popcorn and ask each other who they thought was cute. They were children.

She stopped herself. This was the very nature of high school: that you grew up.

“They’re biddies, Coach,” said one of the girls in her dorm, one night when everyone was baking cookies in Mabel’s apartment.

“A what?” said Mabel.

“You know. One of the biddies.”

Mabel couldn’t guess at the etymology of this particular word but she knew, unsettlingly, just what the girl meant. “How do you know who’s a biddy?”

The girl gave her a knowing, sidelong glance. “The PGs decided, like, months ago.”

PGs stood for postgraduates: men who came back to high school for one more year, their overdeveloped shoulders pushing the football and lacrosse teams to glory. There must have been some superficially academic reason to allow someone to attend high school again after having already graduated—but what other reason could the school have, besides wanting their bodies, a full year larger than any high schooler’s? They stood outside the freshman girls’ dorms, not even calling their names. The girls trailed down the stairs in a daisy chain, breathless, before their 8:00 p.m. curfew. The PGs wouldn’t need to report to their own dorms until long after dark. But for those first weeks, they kept to a child’s schedule, making sure to get to the dorm right after dinner, trailing the edge of the woods with a girl’s hand in theirs.

It happened every year. “What can we do?” said Jill, a biology teacher who lived upstairs. “I can’t tell them who to date. Who to talk to. I’m not actually their mother.”

“Do you think—they tell each other?” asked Mabel. “The boys?”

“Tell each other what?”

“Do the older ones tell the younger ones what to do? You know—go hang around Satler and get yourself a freshman?”

“Oh,” said Jill. “Oh, Mabel, it’s not premeditated. It’s just teenagers. You make it sound like a cult.”


Mabel slid Jessie’s poem out of her grading folder, where 24 essays about Ophelia’s mad scene were waiting for her. The poem was handwritten in blue ballpoint, on notebook paper. “Will you read it, Coach?” she’d whispered theatrically, pressing it toward Mabel with two hands, thumbs clamped down on the paper to keep it folded. “Will you tell me if it’s good?”

It was a love poem. At least, Mabel was pretty sure.

The moment dropped like a magnet
released, iron electrons zooming through
space. When I turned you were
not there, but the air moved and
there was a shape of you, lighter than
the wood and filing cabinets behind you.
Just before, you stood behind me, your hand
maybe or maybe not reaching out,
and by the time I turned
my mouth was in the shape of your name.

Mabel put the paper down and ran a hand through her hair, tugging hard at a knot at the base of her skull. The poem had surprised her, though she wasn’t sure why. She pulled out a fresh piece of paper and wrote Jessie a note:

Dear Jessie, Thank you so much for sharing this poem with me. I can see that you have been practicing the important work of the poet, which is to take notice of the small details around her and, rather than let them slip away in a river of moments, press them to the page and keep them there. I have to confess it’s hard for me to tell what the poem is “about.” What would be lost if your reader had a more direct idea of what’s going on? What would be gained?
Sincerely, Coach

Mabel leaned back and read it over. Since she was in middle school Mabel had known she was better written down than spoken. But something about this particular letter—to a student she’d only ever spoken to—irked her. “A river of moments”—blech.


At their first regional meet, the girls placed solidly in the middle. Mabel took them all out to Friendly’s off Exit 3 for banana splits and fries.

At first they were sullen (“We lost, Coach.”) but once the waitress slid sundaes onto the table they warmed up, zooming easily into banter and gossip. “I know you want, like, all the cherries,” said Rita. “No, seriously, she’s like, stupid about cherries.”

“Gross,” whispered one of the girls, and they all cracked up.

“Coach, when do you think we’ll get back by?” said Lane, who’d just slid her phone into her bag after checking it.

“We can head out whenever,” said Mabel. “You have something you need to get back for?”

Yeah, she does,” snickered Rita. The girls covered their mouths, theatrically, saying Oooohhh.

“Stop,” said Lane, with a wide, unrestrained grin. “Stop, guys.”

“She’s, like, in love with Rob.”

“She’s stupid about cherries.”

This sent them into peals of random-association laughter. The word cherries had ratcheted them up to a fever pitch.

“Rob McAllister?” said Mabel.

Mabel knew all the PGs’ names, not through any real effort on her part. Within the first few weeks of school they were in every “comedy skit” the school council put on at All School Meeting, usually cross-dressing in skirts and bras they’d borrowed from the girls. What was the joke? Mabel asked herself. Look at us be women. Isn’t it dumb.

“Mm-hmm. He’s my boyfriend.” Lane nodded contently, her mouth full of whipped cream.

“They’ve been going out for like a week,” Rita told Mabel. “It’s their anniversary.”

“Week-iversary,” said Mabel.


Anniversary is for a year. As in, the latin root annus, for year.”

Annus?” This sent them tumbling into each other gasping for breath.

“Whatever, Coach.” Lane scooped strawberry ice cream with her pinky finger and slurped it. “Nobody calls it a week-iversary.”

“Well, they shouldn’t call it an anniversary either.”

Rita and Lane rolled their eyes. “Coach!”

Mabel held up her hands in mock surrender. “What? What?” She looked at the other girls. The freshmen were rapt, gazing at Lane as though she’d just told them she’d been to the moon.

“Isn’t Rob sort of older than you?” said Mabel.

Lane shrugged. “The PGs aren’t old.”

“So what are they?” Mabel could feel her blood pressure rising in a humiliating way. What was she thinking? Meddling in the girls’ lives like this, talking to them like the Mother Superior. She bit her lip to keep from saying anything more.

“Damn, Coach hates the PGs,” said Rita.

“Of course not,” said Mabel. She tried to imagine how the Alberts would handle such a conversation. They would never have broached the topic, she thought—they would have smiled, held hands under the table, listened. Maybe this was her problem: too much talking, not enough listening. Shut up, she told herself. Shut up, shut up, shut up.


Jones invited her to come speak to the newly selected editors of the literary magazine. “You can offer the historical perspective,” he joked, and she found herself surprisingly energized talking to them, remembering how she’d loved those long evenings in the editing room, fiddling with font and placement until after dark. “We used to be in a basement,” she told them. “Seriously, this building was still under construction back then, so we used the lab computers over in the Science Center. The old Science Center,” she added. “No star fields or anything. I’d get Thai food from Greenfield and just edit until curfew.” She glanced around the new editing room, which was so freshly renovated it still smelled like paint. Brand new computers, silver and sleek, ran down the middle, while filing cabinets of archived issues shone against the walls.

She found herself speaking in unabashed clichés: “Treasure these days,” she told them. “They’re what you’ll remember about high school. They’re real gifts.” She grew practically giddy when they showed her the first submissions. She found herself looking for Jessie’s poem, but these were all short stories, and a couple sonnets from the senior Shakespeare seminar.

“I don’t know what you’re worried about,” Jones said to her after the students had left. “You’re a natural with them.”

She hadn’t said she was worried. She shrugged, but no joke on the subject came to her.

The next night Jessie came by her apartment during check-in hours, knocking on the open door. “Come in,” Mabel called from the couch, grading spread out in her lap.

“I was hanging out with Rita,” Jessie explained, looking around. “This is all yours?”

“All my kingdom, yes.”

Jessie tilted her head to read the titles on Mabel’s bookshelf. “I love The Waves,” said Jessie. “Jones had us read that last semester, but I think I was the only one who liked it.”

Mabel looked up from her grading. Jessie was still standing in front of the bookshelf, her eyes fixed on the spines.

“You’re in Jones’ class?”

Now Jessie half-turned and gave Mabel a strange look. Something sort of surprised or distrusting, like she thought Mabel was making fun of her. “Yeah. Last year, too.”

“Jones was my teacher, too,” said Mabel. She’d found this was an effective party trick with the upperclassmen, a sort of “look how old I am” that succeeded in cracking them up. Jessie did not gasp or laugh.

“I know,” she said, turning back to the bookshelf. “He told us.”

Mabel flushed before she could help it. “Told you what?”

“You know . . . how you were, like, his star student. Well—he told some of us. It wasn’t like a class announcement or anything.”

Mabel plucked the cap of her pen off and put it back on. “Did you read my note, Jessie? You’re a lovely writer. Do you write a lot of poems?”

“Yeah,” said Jessie, sitting down abruptly in Mabel’s secondhand rocker, creaking it backward. “Especially this year.”

“Well, I loved reading it. I hope the questions were helpful.”

“Definitely,” said Jessie, nodding fiercely, her eyes narrowed as though she were thinking of something else.

“Is something wrong?”

Jessie slid down into the rocker until her chin disappeared into her thin checkered scarf. “Sort of,” she whispered. Her eyes were glassy—hard to tell if they were tears. Mabel had learned that some girls on her hall were almost always on the verge of tears, and just as quick to veer away from them.

“I’ve just been feeling down about everything,” she added, as though this somehow made the issue smaller. “It’s probably because, like, my family is super weird.” She performed these last two words with jazz hands, and sputtered a laugh. “Have you ever heard of these memories that, like, you can have in your collective memory even if you don’t remember? There were these artists that were all about it—the Surrealists? We talked about them in class.”

“Repressed memories?”

“No, not, like, repressed.” She paused. “That means you made yourself forget them, right?”

“Or your brain couldn’t hang on to them. Those are usually after—” she paused, not sure what they were talking about anymore. “Trauma.”

“No, I’m thinking of something else,” said Jessie, shaking her head. “But we were reading about it and I thought, I totally relate to that. I mean, I totally have memories that I just can’t remember. You know I’ll see a twig or something and think, I’ve been here before.”

“Déjà vu.”

“Sort of,” she said skeptically. “But it’s different.”

“What do you find yourself remembering? Or—remembering not remembering?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know if I can describe it. Sort of like I had a previous life, and some people I meet are from it.”

“Sounds like a poem.”

“That’s what Jones said, too,” said Jessie. She extended her legs out in front of her chair, flopped forward over her knees. Her shirt rode up in back so Mabel could see the delicate knobs of her spine. “Jones is always telling me to write a poem.”

“That is his MO, isn’t it?” said Mabel. She expected to trade a look here with Jessie—a shared understanding of an odd man—but Jessie only glanced up fleetingly from where she was stretching, with an expression that was almost disdainful. It caught Mabel by surprise; she’d never been on the receiving end of anything like that from Jessie. She was stunned into a brief silence.

“Why didn’t he read your poem, then?” she asked, recovering herself. “Why’d you ask me to read it?”

Jessie sat up straight, hands clasped on her kneecaps. “I won’t bring you any more,” she said, “if it bothers you.”

“Of course it doesn’t bother me.”

“I know you’re really busy.”

“Oh no, Jessie. I already told you—I loved your poem. I love reading your work.”

“Okay.” She stood up abruptly, brushing something invisible from her thighs as though she’d been sitting in the grass. “Well, I’ll see you at practice.”

Mabel watched her pad out and away down the hall, her silhouette wavering in the lit rectangle of the hallway.

Later Mabel would look back on this period as an in-between time. When she was sixteen and in Jones’ class for the first time, he showed them a painting from the Transcendentalist movement: a yellow sunset, suffused with cotton ball light, so detailed it seemed only God could have painted it. Jones showed it on one of those old-fashioned projectors in a darkened classroom. At least half of Mabel’s classmates had fallen asleep. Jones was famously soft-spoken, the edges of his consonants rubbed smooth, his bearded mouth hanging on to syllables a second too long. “This painting,” he murmured into the dark room, over the slow, nasal breath of her sleeping classmates, “is of what we call a liminal moment.”

Before she knew the definition of this word, she experienced it as pure sound, a direct sonic translation of what she was feeling in this dark room with a sunset glowing on its plaster wall. There was something like infinite in that word, something like criminal, of course, but only the slippery end of it. The trembling, held-out “lim,” like a string held taut. Liminal, slipping underneath the water before you knew it was there.

They would study this word, write its definition in script on midterm exams. Liminal: the moment in between two states. Mabel read years later of people who referred to a period known as The Dark Thirty—the half hour in which light seeped out of the once-safe streets and turned them into something else entirely.


Jessie came to practice in a mood. She trotted along the track in a deep head fog, not paying attention to the team’s conversation unless someone called her, sharply, by name. Once the run ended she gathered her things and headed straight to her car. On Tuesday, she didn’t even show up.

That Friday, the other girls were notably high—one of those fall days with an inexplicable warmth, and clearly something on the agenda for that evening after practice. They kept whispering seriously, then shrieking suddenly, slapping each other’s shoulders. They were excited about the smallest things, like the fact that Mabel had a M&Ms in her jacket pocket. This sent them into a frenzied chant, “Coach! Coach! Coach!” while Mabel laughed and blushed, saying, “What’s gotten into you girls? Did they put something in the cutlets today?” Even Jessie smiled.

By the time they finished their route and fell, panting, into a pile beside their gym bags on the hill, the light was fading.

“Look!” Mabel pointed to the woods, where a blood orange sun wobbled through the trees, sliced into pieces by the shadows of the trunks. The girls oohed and aahed, but she could tell it was mostly to humor her. Their minds were already somewhere else. Rita and Jessie were rifling through their duffel bags—they always dropped their bags next to each other in the grass, so they could swap Chapsticks and bobby pins before and after their runs. Mabel had turned back to the sunset when she heard a sharp shriek: “You what?”

“Don’t be mad,” Rita was saying. She had one hand on Jessie’s arm. “Please don’t be mad.”

It took Mabel a second to understand: the shriek had come from Jessie, who was bristling now, her eyes wide. With her hair still matted and sweaty from the run, she looked like a dog about to go on the attack. It was almost comical. It wasn’t until Jessie started talking that Mabel realized the girls weren’t joking around.

“You don’t know anything,” said Jessie. “You have no idea what you’re talking about!”

Rita dropped her hand from Jessie’s arm and balled it up into a fist, even though her eyes were wet with tears. “I don’t care,” she hissed. “You can say whatever you want about it. You just don’t see it.”

“Girls,” called Mabel. She had no idea what words she should follow this up with. “Girls,” she said again. She took a step toward them, put a hand on Jessie’s shoulder, a hand on Rita’s. They were both warm to the touch, their muscles so tensed their tendons popped beneath her hand. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” said Jessie. Mabel had never heard this voice from her before—hard and closed off.

“You could tell Coach,” said Rita, almost desperately. Her eyes were filling up with tears.

“Just mind your own business!” Jessie shouted, and turned on her heel.

The rest of the team watched as she stormed up the hill. When she disappeared over the crest, they glanced around nervously. “Coach?” someone said, but there was no question, just a need for someone to give them direction again, to tell them things were okay.

“It’s fine, girls,” said Mabel. “Just let her cool off.”

Nobody moved.

“Rita,” said Mabel. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” she said harshly, tugging her sweatshirt over her head so that her voice was muffled. “Someone needed to be the adult here.” She slung the duffel over her shoulder and started walking up the hill, fast.

Mabel turned back to the other girls and hoped that her face wasn’t flushed red. She felt accused by Rita’s comment, though she didn’t know why. “Better get going,” she said. “You don’t want to miss dinner.”

“What’s wrong with them, Coach?” asked one of the first-years.

“Nothing’s wrong with them,” Mabel said.


Mabel was grading journals in her classroom when the landline in the corner of the classroom rattled startlingly.

“Mabel? It’s Margaret, assistant to the headmistress.” Margaret was Mabel’s age but liked to announce her title like she was the president’s body man. “Can you come by the main office?”

Mabel found herself speed walking across the Quad toward the Roman pillars of the Main School Building. Margaret was waiting for her in the lobby, her face drawn. “She’s waiting for you,” she said, and turned to lead Mabel towards the thick mahogany door of the Headmaster’s Office. (The post had been held by a woman for three years, but the plaque on the door was unchanged.) Margaret knocked once and swung the door open wordlessly.

Suddenly the theatre of all this seemed utterly ridiculous to Mabel, like being led by candelabra into Dracula’s study. She found herself on the verge of cracking up, and tried flattening her expression into something restrained, expectant: she felt like she was grimacing horribly.

“Thank you for coming,” said the headmistress, coming from behind her desk to shake Mabel’s hand. She wore her hair swept up in the kind of bun Mabel imagined a retired ballerina wearing, a habit of impeccability that outlasted the stage. Before Mabel had even come to a complete seated position, the headmistress said, “I’m afraid I have to get right to it. I’ve received a letter from a student that leads me to believe a member of our faculty may have crossed some boundaries. I’m sure you can understand that I take any allegations like this very seriously.”

Mabel sat. Her eyes were having a hard time adjusting to the dim light of the office. It was so heavy with brocade curtains and vintage banker’s lamps that it might as well have been lit by candlelight. Little floaters kept blinking in the corners of her eye, turning white and blue. “Of course,” she said.

“The student in question is Jessie O’Hara. I know she’s on your cross-country team.”

Mabel felt suddenly very quiet. Rather than blinking the floaters away she closed her eyes. “Is she all right?”

The headmistress spread her hands in a regal equivalent of a shrug. “That’s what I’d like to learn from you.”

“But Jessie is the one who came to you?” said Mabel. “She’s the one who . . . made the allegations?”

The headmistress narrowed her eyes at Mabel like an analyst. “I’d hoped that you’d be able to . . . offer a little context. Maybe you’ve noticed a change in her behavior. I’ll be investigating the allegations regardless,” she amended. “But something like this—it causes ripples throughout a school. It’s hard to believe that something could have been happening and it wasn’t affecting others.”

A distant alarm was going off in Mabel’s mind.

“Jessie has seemed a little down the past couple of weeks,” she began. “I’ve been a bit concerned but hadn’t seen any evidence that it was anything more than—teenage moodiness.”

Evidence. She sounded defensive.

“How was she ‘a little down’?” The headmistress had a notebook laid open beside her on the desk, a pen laid precisely across it, but was not writing anything.

“She didn’t talk as much during practice. You know, usually she can be quite goofy. But the past week or so she’d just come, put in her miles, and go.”

“Did she ever talk to you?”

“We usually spoke at practice,” said Mabel. “With all the other girls. But she came by my apartment once when I was on duty. She was visiting one of the other girls.”

“About anything in particular?”

“We didn’t talk about anything like that; we talked about books and . . . ” Mabel could hear her voice circling something, babbling. “She didn’t mention anyone. Any of this.”

“You understand,” said the headmistress, leaning forward so that her face drew close enough for Mabel to smell her perfume: white flowers, wood. “That previously, this sort of thing might have gone . . . undetected. No.” She straightened up, her voice wavering, “Not undetected. That a blind eye might have been turned to this sort of thing. You know as well as anyone how schools like ours have come to operate. Certain figures—they become legends. They become infallible. They have such power over these children, especially our young women. It can be confusing. At best. And a profound violation of what we have been charged to protect, at worst.”

“What did Jessie say?” said Mabel. “What did she say happened?”

“They get crushes, you know. They fall in love. If a teacher begins to indulge that sort of thing, well . . . ” She trailed a finger across her chin, glancing at Mabel. “It’s not clear, precisely just what boundaries were crossed. But Mabel,” and here she straightened up again, the steely edge to her voice returning, “just because a child doesn’t understand the full weight of the crime committed, doesn’t make the crime any less. That’s our job, isn’t it?”

“Of course,” said Mabel. “Of course. I completely agree.”

“I’m sure,” said the headmistress, “you’ll understand.”

That’s when it hit her. I’m sure you’ll understand. She replayed the last half dozen faculty meetings: how she and Jones met outside the library conference room. How she had treasured those moments, when for ten minutes she felt not like the scrambling woman in charge of children, but instead the girl she used to be. The brightest student in the class. The one who made teaching worth it. She and Jones stood leaning toward each other, the arms of their sweaters brushing. They never spoke about class, or their students, but what they were reading, what they were writing.

Now she imagined the same faculty meetings from the headmistress’s perspective: the new teacher whispering with Jones, sitting pressed up against him on the library couches, smiling sideways. The one who used to be his student.


Mabel gnawed her cuticles as she waited near the meeting point for the afternoon’s long run: a seven-mile loop that took them through the hills, along the river, crashing back through the woods toward the very edge of the campus fields. The girls trotted down the hill in groups of two or three. Rita arrived alone and stood off to the side, stretching. At five minutes past, Jessie appeared over the top of the hill, thumping down the path toward the others. She looked bleary-eyed, dressed in her off-campus clothes—jeans and a fisherman’s sweater, practical and grown-up—and she tugged them off unceremoniously to change behind a tree as a few girls called out to her, walked over to chat. They don’t know, Mabel thought in wonder. She would have thought this was the kind of thing to spread across campus in hours. Only Rita remained quiet, tucking her ear buds in and pulling ahead as soon as the group took off.

As usual, Mabel stuck to the back of the pack, jogging gently to encourage the stragglers. Ahead, Jessie trotted between Lane and one of the first-years, laughing at their jokes. She seemed fine.

What if—the thought moved up and down Mabel’s spine with a chill—what if the whole thing was a mistake? Jones had some work to do—a training, maybe, or a stern conversation with the headmistress about emotional boundaries—but nothing too terrible had happened. Maybe it was just easy to misinterpret the particular quality some students had—particularly in girls—that razor-sharp desire to go as deep into their reading and writing as it was possible to go, a willingness to hold their breath no matter the cost. Perhaps the intensity of it misled onlookers. They assumed it was sexual when it was intellectual. This thought landed on Mabel’s brain like fat on a stove, sizzled and spat, making her recoil.

By the fifth mile, the group had stretched out—a few girls suffering in the back beside Mabel, the rest flung into a long cluster. Rita’s ponytail swung at the front, holding steady at almost half a minute faster than her usual pace. They entered the woods—a relief to be in the shade, to gulp the cool air coming off the river—and stretched into a single-file line.

Mabel was surprised to see that Jessie was directly in front of her. Sweat ran down the back of her neck, darkening her short hair.

It was so quiet in the woods. None of the girls were talking anymore. As they stretched further and further apart, Mabel heard Jessie panting, the squick of her sneakers in the mud, the distant warble of bird song in the trees. Jessie’s neon green shorts swished, seeming to glow as the light faded under the tree cover. If she sped up just a little, Mabel thought she might be able to tap her gently on the shoulder, get her attention, say something. She kicked up half a gear, lifted an arm, but Jessie seemed to anticipate it, and began to spin around. Before Mabel could see her face, something happened—Jessie’s sneaker slipped across the mud and sent her sliding. Mabel reached out instinctively, but the movement threw her off balance, and they both went tumbling to the ground, the heels of their hands sinking into the wet leaves.

Mabel blinked, disoriented. Pebbles pressed into the soft meat of her palms, and she tried to raise up, disentangle herself from the sweaty, squirming girl next to her. She was still on all fours by the time Jessie leapt up, scrambled to her feet.

“You okay?” said Mabel, eye level with Jessie’s knee. The left one looked like a cheese grater had run over it.

Jessie looked down and winced. “I’m fine,” she grunted, but tears sprang into her eyes, scaring them both. “I just slipped,” she said, but her voice made it worse—it was small, a little girl’s voice.

“This mud is treacherous,” said Mabel. She tried a smile, but Jessie didn’t return it. The slower girls were disappearing around the corner, their white shorts flickering between the trees.

“I’ll walk with you,” Mabel said, grunting as she got to her feet, and Jessie lifted her eyes to examine her. Their faces were suddenly close. Mabel wondered if it was the sweatiness—the flush in her cheeks, the exhausted looseness of her muscles during practice—that made Jessie look so young. In the classroom, she must seem older.

Was this—Mabel tried again—what she had looked like, in high school? Had she looked at people—at teachers—with this kind of wild openness? To look into Jessie’s face was to look clean down a well, and there at the bottom, the deepest, coldest spring. She found herself glancing away, down at her own muddy knees, wiping at the leaves caught on her. But her face must have told Jessie something.

“What?” she said, and then, “Did they tell you?”

Mabel swallowed.

“I’m your coach,” she said, unsure of what she was allowed to say. “They just wanted to make sure you were supported. I don’t know the details,” she added in a rush, but it was this final sentence that seemed the frankest lie. Who else, she thought, knew the details like her?

Jessie smiled. A strange smile.

“It’s not okay,” said Mabel. “He’s an adult.” The words sounded like something someone had given her, that she was trying on for the first time.

“We didn’t fuck,” said Jessie, and Mabel flinched.

“It’s not . . . that,” she said, and far away inside her something clanged a warning. She began walking, hoping that Jessie would follow her lead, give her time to think. To her relief, Jessie fell into step beside her.

“It can be confusing. For someone—for an adult—to take advantage of . . . It takes something.”

Jessie looked at her. “What did it take?”

“It . . . ” She lowered her voice, hoping that Jessie would lean closer, that some flicker of recognition would pass between them and she wouldn’t need to put it into words. Her ankle throbbed—she wondered if she had twisted it, after all.

“You came back here,” said Jessie accusingly. “You’re his friend.”

“Exactly,” she whispered. Her voice seemed to get quieter with every word. Sotte voce. This was a phrase he’d taught her when she was seventeen. She’d written it a dozen times down the length of her journal page: sotte voce, sotte voce, sotte voce. It was a living word, she’d thought. The kind that made you act out its own meaning.

Jessie stopped and raised a flat hand to her eyes. Mabel turned to see what she was looking at. They had come to the edge of the woods, the place where the trees stopped, suddenly, and—with a line clean as a fold in paper—the wide, bright fields began. The sun had sunk low in the sky and flared, filling the valley with a violent orange. Mabel shielded her eyes.

“They’re waiting for us, Coach,” said Jessie.

Across the grass, at the edge of the graveyard, a dozen girls lifted their arms overhead. They turned toward Jessie and Mabel and opened their mouths. From across the fields came the faded sound of their screams.  

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