Thwack! The spit wad squishes in its landing on the Spanish textbook sitting open on my desk. We pause our anticipatory talk of upcoming prom on April 24 – exactly one month to the day. Not at all surprised at this par-for-course behavior of the boys in my sophomore class, I roll my eyes in faux annoyance as I turn to look back over my left shoulder. A group of them, sitting purposely too straight and proper in their chairs, grinning like a herd of Cheshire cats, point at one another in a haphazardly organized effort of deflecting blame. Shaking my head and exhaling a sigh of annoyance, I turn back to the group of girls gathered in the same circle as myself and we resume our chatter.
Thwack! Another spit wad breaks the barrier of our “girl circle,” this time splatting into one of the girl’s shoulder before rolling down the front of her shirt and landing in her lap. Quickly she brushes the slobbery wad of chewed paper off her leg and into the floor. “Grow up,”she seethes at the boys.
“Don’t you talk to Billy Idol that way,” a disguised male voice from the back row quotes a line from Adam Sandler’s new movie, The Wedding Singer.
One of the other girls in our circle growls in response, but again, this is mostly for show. Daily we are annoyed with their antics, but this same idiocy that annoys us also partially endears them to us as fellow classmates and friends.
“Where is Ms. B?” I ask only out of nosiness. Ms. B’s is our second-to-last class of the day, and though time spent dodging spit wads is far more pleasurable than conjugating verbs, half the class period is nearly over.
Pop! One of the boys who had been standing in the doorway on “teacher watch” duty (so as to alert the others when to stop misbehaving) pops one of the girls’ bra straps as he hurries back to his seat. “She’s comin’!” he squeals in a high-pitched, mock voice, purposely trying to heighten the excitement in the room. We all heed his warning then, shuffling our desks back into less than tidy rows.
When Ms. B steps into her classroom, red-rimmed eyes and slumped shoulders evidence of her weariness, we are composed and orderly, no sign that anything amiss has been taking place. I assume that her lack of notice means we’ve been successful in our façade, but as she stands in front of us, head down and very obviously collecting her words, I know it has nothing to do with our successfully hidden shenanigans, and that, instead, she is preoccupied in her thoughts.
We shoot sideways glances to one another, eyebrows raise, shoulders shrug… none of us know what to say or do. After all of our eyes meet each others’ and a silent consensus is reached that none of us know anything, Ms. B lifts her gaze from the worn industrial carpeting and focuses intently on the sheets of student artwork plastered along the back wall of the room. I wonder if she is assessing the plethora of spit wads littering the room.
“Mr. Green got a phone call from a colleague of his in Jonesboro.” Her voice quivers as she references the principal of our school. “We don’t know any details yet, but…” she pauses, again, takes a breath, then begins again. “We don’t know any details yet because it just happened, but… someone took a gun to a school in Jonesboro and… I don’t even want to imagine…” Ms. B voice trails off. She cries, heartbroken. Amongst my peers there are some small gasps, a sniffle, and a couple of classmates squirm uncomfortably in their seats.
Someone sucked all the air out of the room. The tick of the clock on the wall above the chalkboard, the hour hand holding steady at “1,” pushes the minute hand past “27.” How strange time is, to continue on in spite of ourselves. I think about time for a minute; about how, in the very same minutes – seconds, even – while we were dodging spit wads, terrified students at Westside Middle School, just three hours away in distance, were dodging bullets.
I stare intently on the spit wad stuck to the chalk board behind Ms. B’s head, marveling over how mundane the silliness is. I wonder how many mundane spit wads witnessed the horrors that had taken place at that school not even an hour earlier.
We sit in silence; some watch the clock, others close their eyes. We don’t know what any of this means. We know it is sad – the loss of human life is sad – but we cannot fathom it. Our lack of experience has not fully developed our aptitude for empathy yet. Our perspective is skewed; incomplete.
Realization of the implications of what Ms. B has just told us finally dawning, we slowly look around the room at one another, beginning, for the first time, to consider each other in new light – in suspect light?
No. That sort of thing doesn’t happen in places like this.
Thwack! The spit wad that had been trailing a slow descent finally loses its grasp on the chalkboard, and we all startle as it falls, sloppily, in a collection of dust onto the chalk tray.
About this essay:
I was inspired to write the essay, “Spit Wads and Bullets,” by a prompt in a college textbook asking the writer to recall a national event, using his/her senses to re-create this memory. As I’m sure would occur with most people, several national events came to mind, but this one in particular unfolded effortlessly in my mind, begging to be penned. It tells the story of the Jonesboro, Arkansas school shooting which occurred on March 24, 1998, subtly and indirectly, by employing the parallel of what myself and my classmates were doing at our own school three hours away, in the very same minutes as the tragedy in Jonesboro.
My use of italicized “sound effects” throughout the essay were implemented as a “startle” technique, to prompt a sort of “mental jolt” in the reader. Similarly, my ending is intended to leave the reader with a leaden feeling as the heaviness of the essay begins to sink in.
Disclaimer: Names have been changed in this essay.