My life almost ended when I was 12 years old. It had been a long summer of change, a turbulent time when things seemed to make sense less every day. My body was changing in strange ways. sI started to change my attitude toward girls: I used to think they were icky and weird. Now, they seemed okay, especially the ones who kissed with tongue.
No one noticed these changed more than my teacher Mrs. Malloy, a tall bleach-blond woman who carried her chalk in a wooden pointer. She demanded constant attention; no student’s imagination was strong enough to break free of her. Sometimes she would tap the chalkboard loudly to catch our attention. On certain days, she would scream suddenly when she saw someone in the class was sleeping. Once, she killed a kid in class, but that was probably for a different reason.
Mrs. Malloy’s voice was a high, breathy chirp, like the first faint sounds of a kettle boiling. When she was upset – perhaps a student tried to lie about a missing homework assignment or an ill-advised passed note -- her voice would lower suddenly, as if a brick was pulling down at the center of her vocal cords. "Oh… really?" she would say, the last word unusually deep. It sounded like the squawk of a tuba, foreign to the rest of her bird-like admonitions.
I was terrified of Mrs. Malloy.
On the days when my nose was runny, she would ask me to come up and solve problems on the board. On days when my own voice slipped up and down octaves like an eel on a xylophone, she demanded that I read an essay out loud. On the first occasions that I felt the random stirrings of something beyond boyhood below the waist, she made sure I stood before the class, reading from my textbook.
Mrs. Malloy may have been pretty once. But she was now a block of a woman. Her dresses made her look as if she were carrying wooden chests within. The top half of her body seemed to move on its own, as if the jiggling mass below her stomach were on a different set of platforms holding up the bulk of her body. When she called my name, which was quite often, my arms tensed up and I usually dropped the pencil I was holding. "Oooh-Mar," she’d say, letting her voice drop the "O" deeper and deeper until I was sure it had reached the Devil.
Halloween day that year, after more than two months of her terror, Mrs. Malloy seemed suddenly bright. My best friend Luis Perez suggested we take off our costumes before going to class. Who knew what she would do when I walked in as Spider-Man and Luis trounced in as Zorro? But as it turned out, she smiled as we all walked in, carrying out school-only Halloween bags and adjusting our cheap plastic costumes as we sat.
"Is everyone going Trick or Treating tonight?" she asked. An uncomfortable silence followed. I thought she would yell at us, but before she got the chance, a few brave students said, "Yeeees." It was a tentative, sorry answer. But it was an answer nonetheless.
"That’s wuuuun-derful," Mrs. Malloy said. "I think Halloween is about my favorite time of year. What about you, class?"
The students in the front row sat motionless, but those of us farther back looked at each other, trying to unmask the trick in her words.
The rest of the class went just like that. She acted happy, not at all like the evil-tempered queen ant who had belittled us for half a semester.
"Maybe I’ll see you out there," she said at almost the end of the day. "Maybe I’ll see you when you’re out there collecting all that candy."
She smiled. Behind her puffy cheeks and sagging jowls, I was sure
I could see the determined, unbreakable skull beneath.