Public Education

“Y’all do know that the average cow poops up to 16 times a day, right?” My pre-cal teacher announces this proudly to the classroom full of blank faces. It’s the third day of school.

Somehow, he expects this tidbit of information to inspire the miracles of learning in the hearts of his math students, and worse yet, it works.

Instantly, three tables over, an overly enthusiastic mop of a boy is engaged. My teacher has his hook. He smiles triumphantly.

“Yep, that’s right,” he boasts, “16 times a day.”

 I suddenly picture him as a cattle farmer, thumbs slung in his overalls hoisting them up off his chest that’s become swollen with pride. It’s a better thought than the 16 piles of feces he’d rather us imagine. My peers stare at our teacher expectantly, presumably eager to hear more about cow dump. I lock my jaw in an attempt to repress a giggle. He can’t be serious. He can’t!

He is.

“16 poopsies a day ends up somewhere around 30,000 pounds a year!” He exclaims, and students all around me gasp as if it’s the most impressive piece of knowledge they’ve learned all day. Meanwhile, I’m searching the syllabus, wondering at which point we will begin the calculus portion of this class, or if this man is actually going to teach us through means of cow crud theory. Also, I’ve just heard a grown man use the word poopsies. 

The rest of class continues like this: the teacher finds more gross facts for us to stick out our tongues at, and I watch as the numbers on the clock blur together until my eyes tear up. I hate math, but I hate cows more. I roll my eyes as my gaze comes to rest on individuals in the class, and I realize I’m not alone.

There’s the blonde girl across from me, for example, with permanent rings of red on her cheeks and dark frames to hide her eyes. She’s catching up on some drawing I assume for her art class while the teacher rambles. She hunches over her desk in an attempt to cover as much of her work as possible, which is a marvelous and artistically designed name plate. I read her name and see that much of her work is displayed in the halls of our school. She’s good, she might even be great, but her shyness and desire to hide shadows any pride she has in her talent. I lean forward to pry some more, but she notices my advances and sweeps an arm around her notepad.

“It’s good,” I say, shrugging in my embarrassment.

She lifts her head, and I’m exposed to bright emerald eyes behind her frames. She whispers thank you, and goes back to her drawing, but this time I notice she has removed her arm from blocking the view.

I look around the room, waiting to discover something else, when I catch the eye of two girls gossiping quietly in the corner. One has bold curls and large, captivating brown eyes, while the other is more silent, with a polite bob and strawberry lips. The dark-haired lioness is making grand gestures while the meeker friend nods her head encouragingly, creating the illusion that she’s being conducted by the passionate classmate. I watch the exchange, staring like I always do, thinking of how movement is lost in the translation of letters and how people are always more elegant on paper. Then, I notice I’ve been caught, and a pair of burrowing eyes are blinking back at me. I smile awkwardly, feeling witless. She surprises me though, and smiles back.

“I love your shirt,” she mouthes, and I touch the material on my chest. I smile softly and mouth back my gratitude. Maybe I’d misjudged her. She wasn’t a priss, and her rather unexpected compliment led me to believe she had a multitude of other lovely qualities. She grabs a pack of gum beside her and throws me a piece.

There is also the boy with long black hair who sits in long sleeves and sweatpants and duct-taped tennis shoes in the heat of August, stains like river streams down his cheeks. I wonder why he cries, who loves him, how did he get so sad. But those answers are not my right to know, so I observe him somberly. He must feel my stare on his heavy shoulders because he sinks further down in his seat. Beside him, the class clown is shouting out facts about the cow’s stomachs, and how the cow regurgitates the swallowed food only to digest it again. I wrinkle my nose, and notice the boy is now looking at me.

I gently wave my fingers above the weathered desk and shake my head as if to say, “Get a load of this guy.” He ducks his head and laughs courteously. I feel accomplished. There is a certain beauty in a grin grabbed by sorrow. It’s a lingering depression in happy eyes, pulled apart by the curve of gracious lips.

Finally, the bell is ringing to release us from our teacher’s antics. The artist gathers her supplies, the pretty gossip grabs her friend’s arm, and the dejected boy drags himself from his seat. I stay for a moment, reflecting on the silly things I learned today and the beautiful things about my classmates.

People are wonderfully complex. They are fun to write about and examine. I’ve learned from today alone that one glance doesn’t make half the impression that a painfully long stare does. Math is dull, and perhaps that’s why we spent the better part of the period discussing gross animal facts.

I’m disturbed from my thoughts when a backpack brushes my arm. It’s the boy with salt grains on his face and the ocean wave of tears in his thundering eyes.

“Some math class, right?” He mumbles. He coughs, but I think it might be a laugh.

I grin and reply slyly, “I actually feel like I’m learning a lot.”

He coughs again. “I feel like I might not learn anything more important.”

And I have to agree. Pre-cal might just make me learn the value of little efforts in human interactions. Whoever it was that said a smile goes a long way truly nailed it.

I might need to find a math tutor anyways, just in case.

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