by Robert Pope
My sixth-grade teacher, Miss Calamari, told us that for Music, we had to sing a song in front of the class. I had a history of difficulty with Miss Calamari’s assignments. She had us do things like give a speech to the class on a subject of our choice. At the time, I admired dolphins, so I spent several hours the night before writing and practicing my speech about dolphins.
When it came to the presentation, my face got so hot I thought everyone could see it; my hands got so cold I couldn’t control them. I couldn’t remember anything about dolphins, but the joke my father told at the dinner table before I wrote my speech came to me with such clarity that I fell back on that.
I grinned maniacally, as I still do when I am nervous. ‘How do you catch a polar bear?’ I asked. When no one volunteered an answer, I said, ‘First, you cut a hole in the ice. Then, you put peas around the hole.’ I mimed this action, as my father had the night before. ‘And when a polar bear comes to take a pea, you kick him in the ice hole.’
Silence followed as my classmates figured out the joke. and when they burst into laughter, Miss Calamari glared at me until it died and then said, ‘Sit down.’ At the end of the day, she gave me a note to take home, which I gave to my mother.
When she read the note, she said, ‘That wasn’t smart, now was it?’ She didn’t tell my father because he told the joke in the first place. She signed the note with an apology for my behavior, but my father was a policeman, and she didn’t tell him because it would either make him angry or make him laugh.
A week or so later, Miss Calamari told us to draw a picture for Parents’ Night of what we wanted to be when we grew up, and to print underneath the name of what we drew. I always wanted to be a ventriloquist. I had even gotten a dummy for Christmas. I intended to draw a man with a dummy on his knee but could not spell ventriloquist, so I drew a policeman with a badge and nightstick but was now afraid I would misspell policeman, so I wrote Cop.
Miss Calamari thought that was disrespectful, so she made me erase it and try again. When I said I didn’t know how to spell policeman, she gave me a dictionary. Then I looked up ventriloquist and wrote it over the erased letters.
When she saw it, Miss Calamari said, ‘What is wrong with you?’ Dad could not attend Parents’ Night, but when mother got home, she gave me a strange look that stayed with me all these years since.
The third episode happened when Miss Calamari said we would have to sing a song. Gary Oden asked a group of us in the playground if anyone knew “Stout-Hearted Men.” I did, so he told me to sing it with him that afternoon.
I wasn’t scheduled until Monday, so I shook my head, looking at the ground
‘Why not?’ he asked.
‘No reason,’ I said.
‘Don’t like the song?’
‘It’s okay,’ I said.
‘Don’t like me?’
I shrugged. ‘You’re okay.’
‘Then sing it with me,’ he said.
I shook my head. I knew I would never be able to sing in front of the class, ever, especially not this song, not with Gary Oden. It came as a surprise when he punched me in the mouth. When I woke up, Gary Oden stood over me, his fists balled.
‘Are you going to sing with me?’
I didn’t know about the blood on my yellow shirt until I got up off the ground. I shook my head, and he hit me again. This time, I ducked, and his fist glanced off the side of my forehead.
I ended up in the nurse’s office holding a wet cloth to my mouth. When my lip stopped bleeding, I went back to class. Miss Calamari announced that Gary Oden would not be singing because he was in the principal’s office.
‘Bobby,’ she said, ‘will you please sing today?’
I did not know how to refuse with Miss Calamari and my classmates staring at me. I walked to the front of the class, and when I turned, everyone was looking. I opened my mouth and started singing “Stout-Hearted Men,” marching in place as I did so.
Miss Calamari stood, applauding my performance. The kids clapped with smiles on their faces. I had never felt so completely accepted by my teacher or my peers.
After that, I worked fast on the math worksheet, turned it in early, smiling at Miss Calamari, who smiled back and said, ‘Thank you, Bobby.’
When I went to catch the bus after school, I couldn’t wait to tell my mother. Gary Oden waited at the bus and socked me in the eye. Then he walked away, his fists clenched at his sides.
I did not expect Dad to be home, so when my mother asked what happened, I said, ‘You should see the other guy.’ My father laughed. ‘Attaboy,’ he said.
Robert Pope has published a novel, Jack’s Universe, as well two collections of stories, Private Acts and Killers & Others (2020) and a chapbook of flash fiction, Shutterbug. He has also published stories in journals, including The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Fiction International, and anthologies, including Pushcart Prize and Dark Lane Anthology.