by Kathleen Latham
The science teacher’s bike lay tangled on the side of the road like an umbrella wrenched inside out by a sudden burst of wind. The science teacher himself—Mr. McAllister to the seventh graders he taught at Gavin Middle School—lay some distance away, his left cheek resting in a puddle, his yellow reflective vest an incongruent splash of color against the snow-pocked patch of earth where he had landed.
He wasn’t aware that he’d been hit by a car. He couldn’t hear the hysterical cries of the woman who hit him or the frantic shouts to call 911.
Instead, he was thinking about vernal pools.
The pools were the reason he was on Dover Road in the first place. Normally, he avoided going that way to work, ever since the day the school bus passed him on one of its straightaways and he caught a glimpse of all those bored, pale faces staring out at him, recognition rolling down the seats like a wave so that by the time the bus pulled in front of him, the students in the back were pointing and laughing and making crude gestures and all he could do was pedal helplessly behind them, shoulders hunched, head down. Later, he heard the sniggering in the halls. Penis in a helmet! Heard it and pretended he didn’t.
Still, the air temperature had hovered near sixty the last few days—cause for celebration in New England at the end of March—and though diminished snowbanks still dotted the town, the rest of winter’s vestiges were gone and McAllister was curious to see how the pools had fared. That meant a ride through Hale Reservation. Which meant biking down Dover Road. The other teachers—even the other science teachers, to his dismay—didn’t seem to appreciate the importance of vernal pools. McAllister had long suspected them of rolling their eyes at the water samples lined up on his classroom windowsill or the extensive catalogue of PowerPoint presentations he frequently offered to share. On the rare occasion he attempted to broach the subject in, say, the faculty lunchroom, he was usually met with blank stares or, worse, overly enthusiastic pats on the back that smacked of condescension, especially from Mr. Federspiel the history teacher with bad breath
‘You talking about puddles again?’ Federspiel liked to say.
The last time it came up, McAllister had tried to clarify that they were technically seasonal pools, but Federspiel had thrown his arm around his shoulders as if they were friends and said, ‘Don’t take it personally, McAllister, but thirteen-year-olds don’t give a shit about puddles.’
At the time, McAllister thought this was a bit over-simplified, though he had to admit, it did seem to be getting harder and harder to get through to his students, all of them squirming and jabbering and missing the point.
Not that he’d given up. Just last week, he’d held out his cupped hands as a visual aid for his third period class and explained, in what he hoped was a suitably reverential tone, how a vernal pool’s ephemeral nature made it fishless and therefore a safe breeding ground for the other species who lived there. Without vernal pools, he told them, there’d be no fairy shrimp, mole salamanders, or wood frogs. In fact—and he was embarrassed to hear his voice rise with emotion when he got to this part—vernal pools themselves could only be called such if these obligate species were present.
He tried to point out the symmetry of this kind of symbiosis, but his students stared back at him slack-jawed and unimpressed, oblivious to the beauty of a system defined by the creatures that inhabit it.
‘What’s ephemeral mean?’ the Dillard boy had asked.
‘It means you’re a fairy shrimp,’ someone chirped.
For a moment, standing there with his hands cupped foolishly in front of him, McAllister had been weighed down by an almost unbearable exhaustion.
It returned to him now, that weariness. It settled on him like a thick wool blanket. He lay on the side of the road with his face in a puddle and thought about those pools and how tired he was of trying to explain.
Around him, car doors slammed and people shouted, but all he could hear was the ringing in his ears and the far-off, erratic thrumming of his heart. And maybe it had something to do with hitting his head or the weird angle of his left leg, but he felt himself shrinking, his body falling away, until the puddle he rested in was transformed into a vernal pool of unimaginable length—bound on one side by asphalt cliffs, on the other by crusty hills of snow—and McAllister had the sense that he was half-in water, half-out, like some great primordial creature emerging from the deep.
Mr. McAllister? someone said from far away.
The disembodied voice got caught up in his thoughts about pools and the middle school until somehow it seemed he was surrounded by the legions of seventh graders he’d taught over the years, endless rows of pimpled faces and wired braces and boredom, such boredom, staring back at him. His colleagues were there too, clichéd and caricatured: the drama teacher in skinny jeans and knit ties, the gym teacher in high socks, the language arts teacher with hands like nervous birds. That vernal pool stretched at their feet, filmy and bright, rippling outwards, and his students stared and his colleagues jostled, until, with a sudden flash of clarity, McAllister saw the connection.
It was right there.
Not just in the cyclical rebirth of drying up in the summer, coming to life in the fall, but in a bigger correlation that gave it all meaning and purpose and place. Because just as the wood frog and fairy shrimp were requisite to the vernal pool, the students and teachers were part of an ecosystem they themselves defined—their very presence crucial to the halls and stairwells and classrooms they inhabited.
Obligate species, all of them.
And he was part of that. Him. Mr. McAllister. Part of that world that filled and drained and filled again.
And didn’t that mean that he mattered? That his value could be found somewhere in the endless cycle of books and papers and field trips and echo upon echo of lockers slamming and voices rising and bell after bell after bell?
It was beautiful, this revelation. Wonderous.
For a moment, something like forgiveness flooded through him. Something like hope. Because he understood, at last, why the pools spoke to him. Why they should speak to all of them.
This, he wanted to tell them. This.
But his heart kept thrumming and those bells kept ringing until they were one long wail, like a siren, persistent and needling, crowding his mind, and it was hard for McAllister to hang on to the thought, to the fragile sense of belonging, hard to keep it from slipping away with a flash of tail, kick of water. But he tried.
He really, really tried.
Later, in his hospital bed, McAllister had no memory of his roadside epiphany, but it dogged him, nonetheless. Like a seed of insight from another life. A spore.
‘I hear you’re a science teacher,’ his nurse said, bustling around the room. ‘I can put on a nice nature show if you’d like.’
‘Thank you,’ he responded. ‘If it’s not too much bother.’ But after she left, he ignored the TV and stared instead at the obligatory flowers sent by the school. He imagined Miss Johnson, the office secretary, dictating the card to the florist in the same voice she used when she called parents to inquire about erratic attendance, and he felt an ache in his chest, like he’d lost something, and he wondered what it was he wished the card said.
Something important, he thought. Something beautiful.
Kathleen Latham is a writer living outside of Boston, MA. Her short fiction or poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Chestnut Review, Eclectica, Crack the Spine Anthology, The London Reader, and Flash Fiction Magazine among others.
She can be found online at KathleenLatham.com and on Instagram and Twitter at @lathamwithapen.