Amy Souza and
Lisa Lipkind Leibow

Amy Souza
Acrylic and tulle on paper

Lessons From a Squirrel
By Lisa Lipkind Leibow

Inspiration piece

Ms. Ward asks, “Do you know why you’re here?”

Cody removes her MP3 earbuds and asks, “What?”

Ms. Ward elaborates. “Yes. Do you know why you’ve been sent to in-school suspension today?” Cody’s eyelashes—never closing completely—flutter with amazing rapidity and then focus on Ms. Ward, whose wide-eyed stare burns into Cody’s brain.

Why is she here? She’s here because the principal has it in for her. She’s here because when the English teacher asked her to write a poem about her parents, she had a meltdown. She’s here because if she wrote a true poem about her father, about the only thing she can recall is his back as he walked out the door and never returned. This, of course, is none of this bitch’s business.

Cody needs to come up with an answer that won’t get her into more trouble than she’s already in. Ms. Ward’s eyes sear, unblinking. Those eyes protrude just enough to make the teacher look perpetually surprised. Cody read in biology about the function of the thyroid gland. Bulging eyes are a symptom of a hyperactive thyroid. However, Cody guesses Ms. Ward is far too chubby to have hyperthyroidism. Her eyes just stick out farther than most. The unblinking, bulgy eyes must be getting dry. Cody wishes Ms. Ward would blink. Cody swallows saliva that has collected under her tongue while she contemplates her answer.

Is she here because she was late for class without a pass when she snuck into the girls’ room to avoid Nate Ward? He’s so cute. Whenever she thinks about him, she wants to jump his bones. She can’t tell Ms. Ward that. If she knows Cody is thinking of hooking up with Nate, she’ll double Cody’s time here, for certain.

Cody looks at the clock. Ms. Ward continues to look straight at Cody. At least seven seconds have passed.

Cody stares back and answers, “So I’ll stay out of trouble.”

Ms. Ward’s eyes release their hot-iron press on Cody’s brain and shift to the attendance book in front of her on the desk. In doing so, the eyes transform from branding irons, making the whites seem less bloodshot.

Hours feel like decades at in-school suspension. Using that conversion, Cody’s sentence is fast approaching its century mark. Ms. Ward closes her attendance book, pushes her chair back, and stands, signaling the end of the day. Cody stops reading an article about a man who spends weeks creating masterpiece cakes that look like Egyptian pyramids, the Mona Lisa, and the Thinker statue, only to have the works of art devoured. She closes her magazine, which is hiding in her History book. Ms. Ward says, “Maybe tomorrow you’ll tell me the truth about why you’re here. It will help you to move on.”

Cody asks, “What?”

It seems to Ms. Ward that Cody’s eyelash flicker is a clear tell that Cody doesn’t like the question and is about to lie in response. She explains as much to Cody.

Cody smirks and raises her eyebrows, believing it’s goofy that Ms. Ward thinks she’s lying. How could Cody lie when she doesn’t even know the truth?

The next week, and for several weeks afterward, Cody is back with Ms. Ward at in-school suspension. Cody gets through the endless hours by hiding magazines inside a textbook. She reads articles about tattoo artists whose artwork lasts a lifetime—longer than the cake guy’s masterpieces but not as long as a sculpture, painting, or even a picture in a book.

Ms. Ward encourages Cody to find some after-school activities. If she’s busy, she won’t get into trouble. “It’s how I keep my own kids on the straight and narrow,” she drawls. “They’ve never had time to misbehave.”

Ms. Ward asks Cody the same question at the end of each meeting: “Have you decided what after-school club to join yet?” Cody answers, “Not yet.” Ms. Ward nods, pressing her thin lips so tightly together that they practically disappear. With vanishing lips, the big eyeballs seem to protrude even more.

Each time they repeat the conversation, Cody cares less and less. It’s like the first time she was sent to the principal’s office; her palms sweat so much that her jeans had dark-blue stains where she kept wiping her hands dry. By the third time Cody sat in the school office awaiting punishment, she mindlessly nibbled on a hangnail, barely noticing when the principal called for her. Likewise, the day her father moved out, her heart felt as if it had been slammed in the car door. Every day when she came home from school to rediscover his absence, the pain returned but duller.

It’s on the fifth suspension session that Ms. Ward asks, “Where do you see yourself ten years from now?”

Cody says, “I don’t know. Nobody plans that far ahead, do they?”

Ms. Ward replies, “Sure they do.”

Cody turns it around and asks, “Okay. Where do you see yourself ten years from now?”

Ms. Ward answers, “Hopefully, a high school principal. By then, my kids will graduate and have their own careers.” Ms. Ward’s eyelashes flicker rapidly over her bulging eyeballs.

Cody says, “So your kids stay out of trouble?”

Another eye flitter just before Ms. Ward answers. “My son Nate? I keep him busy.”

Cody clasps her hands together and rests them on the desk in satisfaction.

She considers asking whether Ms. Ward knew where her son goes in the middle of the night, while she’s sleeping, but dismisses it and considers that might go too far. Those bulging eyeballs might burst like blisters in too-tight shoes.

Cody takes out a mirror, returns the small silver ring to the piercing in her left eyebrow, and slings her backpack over her shoulder. Ms. Ward slips on her cashmere cardigan, buttons it, and jangles her car keys.

Cody follows Ms. Ward through the door, leaves school, and heads straight through the parking lot to a pathway leading to a row of aluminum-sided Cape Cods. She thinks of Ms. Ward, who wears the same pale-lavender shirtdress with a white collar each Wednesday. The dress likely has more shape when hanging in the closet than when it’s on Ms. Ward’s boxy figure.
Cody likes the sound her sneakers make as they shuffle along the gravel path. She purposely drags her feet. The rhythm carries her past the aluminum-clad houses and along a winding path through the woods. Ten years from now. She repeats the phrase over and over again. The scraping beat of her footsteps subsides as her feet reach a fork in the path. She continues to walk straight between the two gravel trails, over decaying leaves, until she reaches a cluster of birch trees on the bank of a small creek. She sits by one of the trees, pulling the waistband of her hooded sweatshirt between her and the damp ground.

Cody knows that nobody can plan that far ahead; she knows, in general, what all people know: that life happens a moment at a time, and that setting goals only gives the illusion of direction. Knowing this makes Cody crave a cigarette. She searches her sweatshirt pocket, finding only a pencil with a hollow metal end where the eraser used to be, a torn advertisement for a low-priced Ready to Draw Manga Kit, and a napkin with a rough sketch of an anime girl she drew during lunch.

She knows ambition only set up her mother for disappointment. Cody’s mother worked to put Cody’s father through school so they could have a better future together. The day after graduation Dad left her. Cody’s mother says her daughter isn’t a burden, but dark circles under her eyes tell the truth. Each morning she gets home from the night shift at the nursing home just as Cody leaves for school. Sometimes Cody’s mother’s pink uniform is splattered with brown goo. Cody doesn’t know if the stains are from feeding the raisin-faced grannies or changing their diapers. By the time Cody gets home in the afternoon, her mother has already napped and headed to the Safeway for her shift at the register. Cody is certain that ten years ago, juggling two jobs just to afford the rent wasn’t where her mother saw herself.

Cody sits like a pretzel, picks bits of gravel from the tread of her shoe, and chucks them into the creek. With each splash she asks, “Did you plan for that?” Splash. “Or that?”

After watching the third stone plummet to the bottom of the creek, she unclenches her teeth and focuses on a squirrel stashing an acorn under the leaves at the base of an oak tree ten feet away. The squirrel, planning ahead for a harsh winter, inexplicably reassures Cody and points to the real answer to the question Ms. Ward posed. Cody stands and brushes bits of brown leaves from her ass. “In ten years I see myself doing whatever I need to do to survive,” she says to herself. This realization makes Cody feel proud of her mother. She’ll hug her mother tonight, gross stains on her uniform or not. She’ll bury her face in her mother’s shiny, brown hair. Cody feels lucky to have a mother who has her priorities in the right place. She kicks dirt as she steps away from the creek.

Then Cody thinks again of Ms. Ward’s light-purple outfit and starched white collar. With the lilac hue flashing in her brain, she begins to hum her mother’s favorite song, Prince’s “Purple Rain.” She sings it to herself as she hops over a fallen tree, crosses back to the gravel path, and walks all the way past the street with the Cape Cods to the ranch house with peeling gray paint that she calls home. On the way she makes no plans for her future.

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