I started my part-time position as a recess monitor during a Chicago winter, dressed like a scarecrow in the part of the city littered in candy wrappers and 40s. I shuffled between the Graceland and Hebrew Benevolent cemeteries every morning, the sky so low I felt the weight of it nudge me like a dog. My reflective vest crumpled above my layers of sweaters and turtlenecks.
Inside the school, the administration microwaved mugs of hot chocolate, letting the phones ring. I had a plastic locker at the end of the main hall by the edge of the cafeteria. There were binders of incident reports and fanny packs of Neosporin, Band-Aids, latex gloves. Equipment was pushed against the lockers in plastic bins. The radiator was above those bins, kept running on high throughout the frozen months of indoor recess. Until I had approval from the principal to resume recess outside, the parts for the soccer nets I ordered lurked behind the locker like skeletons. The children used months of lunch-line disputes to catch part of my net on a zipper, a loose arm, or a shoe, dragging the nets into the halls, collecting bits of paper and hair.
By mid-November the cold tore into us. I learned to dance. The layers of socks I put on every morning froze in my boots. The children ran everywhere to keep warm. They hung from blue bars with stiff gloves. Clutched each other in lines. Tucked their heads down as though they came to a compromise in each other’s arms. Frost spidered to the ends of their eyelashes and cheeks. By the time I went inside to clock out, my face had been beaten red and dry by winds. I held my hands to a radiator until my fingers unstiffened and uncurled. Then I caught a northbound train to a different school. I changed clothes between Sheridan and Western. I ate 7-11 sandwiches and bought lottery tickets, and felt lucky. I beat my fists together and ran, stepped toward warmth.
Outside, snow stacked onto swings. Recess resumed indoors, and because of limited space, the music teacher and I shared the same room. Rows of thick, carpeted stairs were filled with fussy kids. December through spring were spent playing board games on the stairs. By January, every UNO deck had been smashed into thick clumps. The kids invented their own games with pieces from Chutes and Ladders, chess, Clue, and Candy Land. Entire tops to the game boxes went missing. Pieces were found under the piano, inside the barrel of a drum which had been used by the teachers during a strike. I went home with pawns in my pockets, and the tiny silver revolver from Monopoly.
Eventually, the children stopped listening to my whistle. The third graders hated me. One restless girl pulled her hair, screamed, hit other children, threw herself from the third row of the stairs. It knocked the wind out from her. I was bandaging someone’s rug burns when I turned around to see what made the noise. Her eyes were set to the ceiling, straight up as though the sky split candy. Her voice was a slingshot, her words sharp rocks. The bell rang and five or six kids hung onto different parts of my shirt. Forty other children dispersed, pushed in and out of lines waiting for their teachers, who, coaching each other in deep, meditative breath, were swaying with the sounds of the music room as though it were an indoor pool. My whistle mixed with shouts. Drums, with frightening laughter.
The seventh and eighth graders proceeded; young boys suffering their first pangs of testosterone slung and whipped each other with loaded backpacks. They destroyed music equipment, stole the paddles to the xylophones and tapped their female classmate’s heads as though they rang at different tones. They pulled the girls’ hair, played loud rap music from their phones. My whistle was useless. Using it felt like an insult. The older girls kept to themselves. They were bored. I let them play loud music from their phones. I told them their male classmates were in a phase that they wouldn’t emerge from until their late twenties. Maybe never. The girls asked if I was married. I said no. They kept their heads down. I covered a xylophone with a sheet. Kept my hands behind my back and roamed.
Obama frequently visited downtown, during those days. Black helicopters skidded in formation across frozen skies that made the sting of winter seem colder. This was one year before the Cubs clinched the playoffs and won the World Series. One year before the parades streamed through the streets of Wrigleyville, where the school shed last spring’s paper cut-outs from its windows, blowing through the streets like championship confetti.
I want to say it was God who, on the fourth month of winter, on the eighteenth week of missing UNO cards and broken piano keys, saw that his children were glad and decided it was spring. But it wasn’t God, only the high-pitched shriek of the morning bell. In that cold dark hour, I finally snapped together my soccer nets. Strung the basketballs in mesh, hung them to a fence for hands to snatch and grab as soon as the gymnasium doors opened and clouds of breath pooled and shimmered there. The bright buds of the cherry woods bloomed. Cool, early breezes from the lake swept through the edges of streets, whorled through the nets and tugged on the bag of basketballs while I held on outside, waiting for the bell to ring, for the children to come running with coats howling open. By noon, I was as stationary as the sun, spinning in place. Darts of children whirred around me like roving planets. Strong wafts from the sausage stand down the street melted through the sidewalks and seeped into my clothes.
The red whistle was part of the uniform, worn under my layers like a crucifix. The kids heard what they wanted. When they heard the whistle, they scattered, smashed each other in and out of lines, slapped arms, pulled hair, held their snot-streaked noses up at the sky, hobbled toward me bloodied and alarmed. Some days, I as I grasped the feathered coat of a small child climbing the chain-link toward traffic, the sound of my whistle would pierce the playground. I looked down and a pair of tiny hands fell away like wires pulled free. The whistle slapped against my jacket, entire thing wet from an unknown mouth. No matter how many times I replaced the whistle among my layers, small hands reached up and screeched false alarms.
We fidgeted outside for two days. Late March stung, but the sun was strong enough to keep the kids warm in their coats. After lunch, a young girl came up to me with a gift. It was a bullet shell. “Your lipstick,” she said. “It dropped.” I never wore lipstick.
I took the shell from her, said thank you, and rolled it in the palm of my glove. It was pretty. In my mind, it had been emptied from a clip months ago, frozen into the gutter along the school perimeter, then banked with the snowmelt into the blacktop. Later, in the trash can, over dry heaps of banana peels and coffee cups, it looked like a helicopter seed.
I ran home from the EL to stay warm. I spoke with a therapist who coached me on positive thinking. She told me I had to let the job happen to me, that in the Chicago Public School system, I was powerless. I had to stutter and wave outside in a yellow vest bending toward the pole, rippling there. It was my job. I still hear the bells.
I was the school nurse and the referee. I didn’t know anything about soccer, so I blew the whistle depending on who pulled whom to the ground. Once, while coating Neosporin over a girl’s split chin, I glanced up at a boy holding another boy in a chokehold; both soccer teams shoving each other, throwing their hands in the air. But I was smothered, my hands flung into the air too. Small fingers clenched to my shirt.
I saw the blood first, a small, bright pool where I moved toward a group of children, tripping over my feet.
“Hey!” was the only thing I thought to say, and kept saying, until I came to the slump of angry boys. It was a familiar scene, hands gripping at each other’s faces. I placed my hands above their backs. Was I looking for pulses? The boys stood and went for throats. Then I did something that’s not allowed—grabbed their wrists while the whistle uselessly dangled against my chest. All of our hearts were drums. The boys would not stop. I rotated there, spun.
I had to move down. “Look at me!” I shouted louder this time. I bent to my knees, at their eye level. The other children formed a perimeter, faded around the lines of my vision, positioned their backpacks as stools. The sound of my own voice was deliberate, absolute and broad. I yelled again, not only at the two boys but everything around me: the ugly brownstones, the Red Line gunning off a block north. I screamed so loud I wanted to reach the edge of the lake where, surely, someone slept in the late afternoon and dreamt of screaming, belligerent children.
Then I felt it, a sharp fist to my back lung. Everything went still. A kid hit me and I kept saying, “Look at me. Look at me. Look at me.” We were all floating, hovering in place. I stood, not looking for the hand that slammed into my back, but hobbled to the boy whose eye was beginning to purple and held his swollen eye in my latexed hands. His nose streamed blood. Down on the blacktop, I balanced the weight of his head on my knee, tipped it up, and began to wipe the blood on his face with my sleeve.
It comes back in flashes—cradling the sweaty head of that boy to my chest, blood pooling into the neon mesh of my vest. I hushed and rocked while swaths of children gathered around the blacktop. His mouth was open, as though in song. Soft black shadows inside. Children gathered in circles, jaws slack in stunned bellows. Some of them sang.
Rumpus original art by L.T. Horowitz.