A Story by Lindsey Palmer, first place winner,
Phi Kappa Sigma Prizes, 2003
It is when the chalk's Monday morning whine across the blackboard squeaks to a stop, and Mr. Tanner swivels his head around, with eyebrows arched in asking, "are you with me?" to the twenty sets of eyes wandering, glazed, or closed, that Kendra decides she will swipe her teacher's calculator. The same TI-83 model is zipped into the front pocket of her book-bag. Hers probably has fewer scratches, more games than his. But she wants the calculator secured in her teacher's grip, with its "MR. TANNER" screaming from one of those teacher catalog special-ordered name labels. She wants to take it. She has considered during geometry lectures and graphing lessons creating her own calculator-cover label out of masking tape and a thick Sharpie-"MS. SATLER," "KENDRA SATLER," or maybe "MS. K. SATLER." But Kendra usually forgets her Sharpies; Jeff on her left is protective of his permanent markers; Sara on her right claims none to lend. She considers the act of peeling the "MR. TANNER" from the calculator cover, still sticky, affixing it to something else-her locker, a mirror, her own calculator. Mr. Tanner adjusts his neck, returns to scrawling solutions to the weekend's trigonometry homework across the board.
At the end of chalking number ten's explanation, calculator-in-hand, Mr. Tanner begins checking and rechecking-eyeing his numbers on the board, punching in the corresponding digits, processing the calculator's answers, verifying his board solutions, repeat. Kendra watches the beads of sweat on the back of his neck collect and drip, staining parts of his pale peach shirt a bold pink. He turns and clasps right hand to calculator-clad left hand, "Allrighty folks. Numbers one through ten all spelled out for you here."
The bell rings, announcing Kendra's chance. The two or so kids who still bother trying in math hold Mr. Tanner hostage with their homework questions and triangle concerns. The few who should be enrolled in regular or even honors math bolt out the door. Scheduling problems have forced them into the only math offered second period, "Remedial;" their daily doses of the intelligently-inferior have been swallowed and stomached. The rest of the kids hover after class, gathering books, checking cell phones, searching for cigarette packs. Kendra swings her book-bag over one shoulder and walks up to Mr. Tanner's desk at the front of the room. His calculator sits poised, a proud centerpiece. She fingers the device, smudging the large ID label with ink and mint hand cream. Some notice Kendra pocket the calculator. It rests warm in her jeans pocket as she heads to history class.
Teeth crack wads of gum, filed nails click desktops, eyes glaze when Mr. Tanner mumbles about his missing calculator in front of the room Tuesday morning. He wonders if anyone knows its whereabouts, asks that they spread the word to their buddies, that they notify him with any updates on its location. Kendra imagines Mr. Tanner at his desk at home, struggling to steady a ruler and protractor, laboring over right triangles to calculate cosines. His long fingers shake, his solutions suffer.
Wednesday at the beginning of class, Mr. Tanner again mentions the missing calculator and asks if anyone has since become aware of its whereabouts. He pauses for response, or emphasis, or empathy. His pale eyes plead, darting from face to face. Rows of desks stare back neatly. Mr. Tanner delivers the day's lecture, "Tips in Triangle Trig," aloofly, in the abstract. No real life examples. No calculations.
Thursday there is no mention of the calculator. There is no mention of anything. Mr. Tanner weaves his way through the rows of desks, like the sole member of a funeral procession, distributing worksheets two-, or three-, or none-per-desk. He returns to his own desk empty-handed, slouches in his seat for the rest of the class period. They know enough to do their work, speak in whispers, play their roles as students.
Friday morning: the ten-question quiz. Peeking over at Jeff's paper or checking on Sara's responses is useless for Kendra, though it is unlikely that they would know the answers any better than she. No one within a five-or-so person clump takes the quiz in the same order. So today, some get hit with the question straight away-(#1.) Have you seen my calculator? Others find the quiet plea tucked between number four, a quick calculation, and number six, a real-world application problem-(#5.) Have you seen my calculator? Others' quizzes end, lingering like a moral-(#10.) Have you seen my calculator?
After school Mr. Tanner sits cross-legged on the lawn by the building exit, the stack of quizzes in his lap. Crowds of kids bustle by fresh out of class, ripe for the afternoon. Mr. Tanner flips through the pile, ignoring the numbers and equations scribbled under nine of the questions. They answer "no" and "nope" and "uh-uh." They skip the question. They write apologies and offer hopeful platitudes. One writes, "Dude, buy another one." Another writes, "sin X = 3/5, sin-1(3/5) = 37, X = 37." One offers to share her calculator. Kendra responds: "yes, mr. tanner, i have seen it."
Monday morning Mr. Tanner delves into his lesson plan right at the bell, when only half the kids have arrived. His first example requires calculating sine of 45 degrees and cosine of 90 degrees; his index finger pokes the air in front of him at what Kendra assumes to be the idea of a calculator. "Aha, square route two over two," he almost screams. "Look at that, zero," he shouts, scribbling a large answer on the board. He darts back and forth in front of the class. His lanky frame becomes the telephone pole with the mysterious, unknown height. His long arms cast the pole's shadow onto the ground. He mimes, dances, sings praise to the right triangle the situation creates. Kids, we have the tools to tap into these undetermineds, to solve these things we desire to know. The height of a telephone pole! Obedient eyes follow his flailing. Chewed pencils stay suspended above note-less pages.
His imaginary calculator errs. Kathy from the front row snaps, "Sine 30 is one half, Mr. Tanner." She contorts her face into a winced smile and flashes it ice-cold to her teacher. His frenzy slows to an unsteady stop. His toes teeter back and forth, "Excellent. Super." His voice is even, calculated, "Thank-you Kathy, great of you to draw that to my attention. Super."
Thereafter Mr. Tanner retires the defective air calculator. He continues the lesson speaking softly, writing slowly. At the next calculation, sine of 38 degrees, Mr. Tanner stops and turns to the class. Slowly he enunciates, "Kendra," willing her eyes to meet his own, "Could you help me out here?" She feels his gaze following her fingers unzipping her book-bag's front pocket and removing her TI-83. Kathy, whose own calculator has graced the edge of her desk all of class, sighs and glares back at Kendra. Kendra searches the keypad for the Sine key.
"Okay, sine 38. Let's see. .616." She offers a slight smile. Mr. Tanner continues. For each calculation-he seems to need a lot of them this lesson-he calls on Kendra, the two-syllable lilt a breath of fresh air from an otherwise-mathematical monotone.
"Sine of 26 is, um, .438."
".73, Mr. Tanner." She tests out different inflections, tones, methods of delivery.
"Kendra, sine of zero please." She holds his gaze steady, frozen, "The answer is zero," a deep, rasping response. After a moment, adds almost inaudibly, "Mr. Tanner."
They pick up Friday's quizzes from a stool on the way out of class. Seven out of ten, not bad, Kendra thinks. She reads at the bottom, in the shaky print of an eight-year old, "Ms. Satler, Thank you for your response. Would you mind expounding on this information? Cheers, Mr. Tanner."
They turn in their quizzes again with corrections. They can earn up to half of their points back. Kendra's quiz is crumpled; she has carried it with her to school, held onto it during health class and chemistry. She has thought out dozens of replies, testing them on her tongue, picturing them in print on the page below Mr. Tanner's signature. She could wow him with her words. Or seem cryptic, with no response. She could just give him back the calculator. A minute before the end of class, she pens in, in loopy cursive, "I have it. Would you like it?" and drops her quiz onto the pile. She races out the door, her pulse drowning out the bell's ring.
Mr. Tanner doesn't usually pass out the re-corrected quizzes, like he's doing today. He usually leaves them on the stool to be picked up. Passing out papers doesn't generally make him nervous either. With one quiz left in his hand, he pauses between Sara and Kendra's desks. He hands Kendra her quiz. As she drops her head to scan the scribbled conversation at the bottom of the page, he says,
"I really would like it, Kendra. Thank-you." She darts her head up to his face, strikes him with large green eyes. She doesn't respond. He holds her gaze, tries not to notice how her thin t-shirt hugs her body and crops off, exposing an inch of suntanned stomach and hip above her jeans' waist. Kendra has watched Mr. Tanner speak at the front of the class; she's never spoken to him one-on-one, so close. She stays silent peering up at her teacher. She watches him blush and squirm.
Mr. Tanner clears his throat (he feels this is something a sensible, professional person would do). "Ms. Satler?"
"Oh yeah. Umm ok," her voice feels funny, like it's being played back from a tape recorder, "Well I can bring it to you after school."
"That would be great," he wishes he had an appointment book, so he could pencil her in, so he could say, 'I'll pencil you in.' Instead he stands there, hands empty now of quizzes and fumbling for a gesture or a resting place. Kendra's hands brush through her dark silky hair; he notices this. He continues, "I'm always right outside on that lawn. Under the big oak tree. I'll be there grading after school." Each considers the setting-a grassy field under the tree's shade next to the tulip garden. Never mind the yellow school buses, the giant brick school building lurking feet away.
Mr. Tanner attaches to his face his best teacher-like smile, "Super. See you then." He marches to the front of the room to attend to something of importance.
'Oh yes, we have a date together this afternoon. He's in teaching, at the local high school,' Kendra considers in her head. And then, 'Yeah, well, I confessed to stealing from my teacher, so now I'm meeting with him after school.' Then immediately, 'Under that nice big tree by the garden. We'll take it from there I suppose.'
She cradles Mr. Tanner's calculator while watching a video on the Cold War, in line at the cafeteria, during student presentations on "Las Ciudades de Argentina" and "Un Dia Tipical en Chile." When the last bell rings, Kendra heads to the girls' room. She turns on the faucet's hot-water tap full-blast and waits until the stream of water spouts steam. She detaches the fingerprinted cover from its calculator, places it under the scalding water. Her fingers scrub and scrub the piece of plastic until they whiten and wither. She positions the cover under the steam air-dryer until the water droplets evaporate, leaving a sparkling background for the "MR. TANNER." Kendra checks her watch. She strides quickly towards the school's exit.
"Hi," she says. Mr. Tanner looks up from his lap to her tall figure, slouched in a cotton t-shirt, framed by the sun's glare. He spots his calculator, clutched tight to her body. He waits for her to let him know she's ready. Face still up, he closes his eyes and soaks in the sun. Slowly she looks around her at the groups of kids, the school, and the yellow buses lining up at the curb, then down below at her teacher cross-legged and sunbathing.
"Mr. Tanner, I-" His eyes open and remember her standing there. He fights to adjust his eyes to the brightness, sees her out of focus, spotted with light. His calculator dangles from her arm.
He interrupts her, "-Kendra, thank-you so much for finding this. It really means so much to me." He takes the calculator from her hand, relieving her arm of the burden, "I guess you must know that I really do need it. I'm not so quick with numbers on my own." He winks. She smiles.
"You're welcome." She shifts her balance. She hoists up her book-bag, "Well," she says, "I'll see you in class tomorrow."
Kendra turns away and walks across the field to board a yellow school bus. Mr. Tanner gets up and walks inside to the teachers' lounge. His calculator rests warm in his pants pocket.