You have to take a foreign language to graduate high school in California. I take Spanish, all three years. I don’t necessarily like Spanish any more than I like any other foreign language, which is hardly at all, but it’s relatively easy. My tenth-grade Spanish teacher is an older woman named Mrs. Reib. She is thin and kindly and loves all of her students, wicked and ungrateful for her love though many of us may be. She guides us to learn the Spanish alphabet by having us recite aloud cute rhymes she has written as memory aids:
Ahh, bay, say, chay,
I was Queen of the May today;
Day, ay, eff-ay, hay,
Dancing with the gents so gay;
Ah-chay, ee, hoh-tah, kah,
The prettiest girl you ever saw…
Mrs. Reib’s class is a joke. We’re like a bunch of third-graders, and she, our third-grade teacher. We throw paper airplanes and spit-wads around the room, sometimes even at her, while she is turned away, scribbling grammar rules and definitions on the blackboard in broad, round strokes. There is the constant din of voices; everybody talks, even while she is lecturing from the front of the class. We call her stupid behind her back, and laugh. And, no matter how bad their scores, no one fails her tests, no one flunks her classes. The lowest grade I’ve ever heard of her giving is a C-minus.
I am not much better than the worst offenders in Mrs. Reib’s class. I never study. I spend most of the time in class talking or flirting with the girls, or sitting on the windowsill of her fourth-story classroom, hawking out loogies and watching them splatter onto the asphalt parking lot below.
One particularly boring day, I am sitting on the windowsill with a kid I know from my gymnastics class, Jesse Fernandez (who already knows how to speak Spanish), while Mrs. Reib is conjugating the verb caer, meaning “to fall.” Suddenly I get a great idea: I’m going to play a joke on Mrs. Reib.
I start giggling when I think of it, and Jesse, who is himself trying to gather enough spittle to make a decent-sized loogie, asks me what’s so funny.
“I just had a great idea,” I say to him, and as the idea unfolds in my mind, I’m becoming more impressed with myself for my audacity. This is going to be so good! I lean closer to Jesse, so no one else can hear, and tell him that I’m going to sneak out of the room while Mrs. Reib isn’t looking and run downstairs and out onto the parking lot right below this window, and lie down on the pavement like I’m all mangled up, and when I do, I want him to call out to Mrs. Reib that I’ve just fallen out of the window.
Jesse hears my idea and his eyes gleam mischievously. “Cool!” he says.
Mrs. Reib is still busy writing on the blackboard, while the rest of the class is supposed to be studying from their books. It’s easy to sneak out: Mrs. Reib leaves the classroom door open to get a fresh breeze going through the stuffy room, and most of the other kids are busy playing grab-ass, and aren’t paying any attention to me. Once I’m out in the hallway, I skip over to the stairwell and down the stairs and then out the locking doors to the parking lot. When I look up, I can see Jesse, grinning at me from the open window, waiting. I find a good spot (trying to stay clear of all the spit) and lie down. I bend my knees awkwardly, put one of my arms behind my neck, and in general try to look as mangled as I can. Then I look up and Jesse and nod.
“Mrs. Reib!” I hear Jesse’s voice. “Come here! Bill Campbell just fell out of the window!”
There is the sudden noise of thirty or more kids jetting out of their chairs and rushing, stumbling over to the window to get a look, and out of the corner of my eye (which I am trying to keep from blinking) I can make out a bunch of heads popping out the windowsill above me. “Oh, no!” I hear several kids voices saying. “Oh my god!” Already I can feel a giggle bubbling up from inside me, but I force it back down. Then an older voice, which I recognize as Mrs. Reib’s, rises sharply above the others, “Please move! Everybody back, please!” And then all the heads pop back into the window opening, replaced a second later by Mrs. Reib’s strangely anguished-looking face. As soon as she sees me, she lets out a gasp that sounds more like she’s suddenly had her breath sucked right out of her, and claps her hand over her mouth and cries out, “Oh, no! Oh, God, no!” And then her shaking head disappears into the window opening, but there’s still a commotion going on, and then more kids’ heads are hanging out, trying to see.
And then I can’t stand it anymore: an uncontrollable giggle rises from my chest like a whining sob gone comically awry, and I unfold my twisted limbs and hop to my feet, laughing, brushing the small rocks from the asphalt off of my jeans. Immediately, another commotion begins above me, and when I look up, the kids are laughing and pointing down at me and shaking their heads disbelievingly. “Mrs. Reib!” I hear someone call, “Come look!” A moment later, Mrs. Reib’s shocked mug appears again, and her eyes widen, and then something like a smile grows slowly on her face, though that first, horrified, bewildered expression seems to linger still.
And it’s still there on her face when, a minute later, I come back into the classroom amid hoots and laughter and kids congratulating me on my audacity, my wit. Jesse slaps me on the back and says, “Far out, man!” Others just shake their heads and grin, and all in all, I am feeling pretty good about myself.
Mrs. Reib stands at the front of the room, just watching me for a minute, nodding, that same strange bewildered smile on her pale-looking face. And then I see her eyes glistening behind her glasses, even as her smile seems to be widening, stretching her thin lips even thinner across her teeth. In that frozen moment, she suddenly looks like somebody else, somebody I’ve known all my life, though I can’t exactly place her. “I thought—you were—” she says, haltingly. Then her smile fades and she turns and takes up a new stick of chalk and starts writing again on the blackboard, in big, round letters, the word, muerto.