Mrs. Mendall filled another cup with lukewarm coffee and exhaled heavily. The hours on her feet were not as kind as they once had been, and she gratefully sank into a seat opposite a younger teacher.
“How’s your first day going?”
Mrs. Williams, the younger teacher, smiled shyly. The older teacher considered her bright eyes and brighter cardigan. It had been several decades since she’d been the new teacher, but she remembered the nerves that had sustained her through those first lessons. A rush of sympathy came over her. Or, perhaps, it was simply the caffeine.
“Not bad,” Mrs. Mendall said. “I’m happy with my class’ overall behavior. They’re a bright bunch, it seems. But I’m worried about one of the girls. She seems ill.”
“Anyway, that’s neither here nor there,” Mrs. Mendall went on. “How is your first day going? Your very first day if I’m not mistaken?”
“Oh,” Mrs. Williams blushed. “It’s a lot, I’ll admit. And jumping straight into a project as big as this one is intimidating, especially since…”
There was a catch in the new teacher’s voice. “Well, my subject isn’t viable. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but I got an alert on the CM2029’s monitor this morning just after the children left for P.E. There was a problem, some sort of complication with the chromosomal alignment. Something just didn’t divide properly and I had to discard it.”
Mrs. Mendall was taken aback, for the young teacher was nearly crying. Mrs. Mendall swallowed her stale coffee. “I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Just send a lab order for another; they have a viability guarantee, you know.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Just order another. It’ll be here soon enough.” Mrs. Mendall was on her feet a split second before a bell sounded in the hallway.
“I suppose.” Mrs. Williams rose and pulled her cardigan more tightly around her shoulders. “It’s just that the kids were so excited about this one. They were already talking about names for it, whether it might be a boy or—”
“Order another,” Mrs. Mendall said. She held the door open. “Your students can look in on ours in the meantime. Then they’ll have a head start on the curriculum when your replacement arrives.”
“Really?” Mrs. Williams brightened. “Thank you, I’m so relieved.”
But the new teacher slowed her pace and, as soon as it had lifted, the fog settled over her face once more, a gloomy contrast to her sunshiny sweater.
“What is it?”
“It’s nothing,” said Mrs. Williams. “It’s silly, anyway.”
“I don’t know…” she hugged herself for a moment. “Part of me just feels as though I’m to blame and, well, as if something died and I killed it.”
All sympathy vanished from Mrs. Mendall’s face, replaced only by a blank look, bland as a sleep-mode SmartBoard “Don’t be silly. It wasn’t your fault.”
At the door to her classroom, she turned. “Besides, nothing can die that did not really live.”
The bell sounded its last, sending both teachers back to their classrooms, which lay across the hall from one another, the younger with apprehension and the older with stiff resignation.
As the semester passed, the sixth-graders of Mrs. Mendall and Mrs. Williams’ classes grew, but not quite enough to be noticed until picture day rolled around to reveal the changes that a year may bring to a young person’s body and being. Bangs cut. Braces removed. Height increased. Waists whittled. Small changes were made enormous when the two pictures sat side-by-side on refrigerators or desktops, but went undetected during their actual evolution.
There were three exceptions to this rule, however, the first being Bethany. Insubstantial as mist, Mrs. Mendall feared the girl might melt away at any moment, perhaps if the sun struck her too hotly or the wind blew too gustily. She seemed to whither by the day, yet still showed up to school promptly and stayed, wheezing resolutely, until the final bell. The second and third exceptions were the residents of the two Class Mother 2029 incubators. The machines hummed across the hall from each other, mechanically lulling their swaddled charges. The first, in Mrs. Mendall’s classroom, progressed with visible proclivity and the second, in Mrs. Williams’ care, was coming along just a week behind with a smoothness that reassured the anxious teacher.
“Second time’s the charm, I suppose,” said Mrs. Mendall. “I’ve never seen one grow so quickly.”
“You mean it?” Mrs. Williams looked up from where she was hovering over the incubator monitors.
“Of course. You’ll explain nutrition and such soon, correct?”
“Yes that’s the lesson plan for this week, so long as the tubes and catheter are all looking good…” she glanced at the older teacher for approval.
Mrs. Mendall nodded and said, emotionless as the monitors, “Your subject wouldn’t be developing so healthily if they weren’t.”
Mrs. Williams’ shoulders relaxed. Still, she frowned. Mrs. Mendall watched her creased brow and raised her own in question.
“Maybe—” faltered Miss Williams. “Maybe that’s why the first didn’t make it.”
The younger teacher whimpered as Mrs. Mendall cut in, “I’m going to stop you right there: It was a biological issue, not your fault and not in your control. Even if it was, you have no reason to feel guilty. No reason at all.”
Mrs. Mendall repeated the phrase under her breath: No reason for guilt. Mrs. Williams watched her face in concern. Noticing, Mrs. Mendall shrugged, pulled her blouse straight, and marched out.
“Coffee,” she said in explanation.
Instead of going down the hall to the lounge, however, Mrs. Mendall, after a quick glance over her shoulder, turned back into her own classroom. She had twenty minutes or so before her students would traipse through the door, still yawning as half-digested cereal and Pop-Tarts sat heavily in their stomachs.
She glanced over the monitors on the CM2029. All well. But she avoided squinting at the curled figure within. Something like a shudder passed over her and she clenched her fists.
“Not your fault. No reason to feel guilty. No reason at all.”
Alone, she recited this litany, inhaling like incense the stale air that reeked of sweat, hormones, and sterilization. She sank into her seat and drew open the metal drawer of her desk with a clang that set her teeth on edge. Forcing herself to unclench her jaw, she reached into the drawer, paused, and withdrew her hand: Empty.
A knock at the door startled her from her trance. She slammed the drawer shut, cheeks burning like a caught child, and beckoned for the visitor to enter. The school nurse poked her rosy face inside.
“Oh!” she clasped her hands in delight. “Another incubator lab, I see! Going well, I hope?”
“I remember doing these projects in grade school, too many years ago now! You’d never know anything about that—” (The nurse and Mrs. Mendall were the same age.) “—but we did them with chicks then, you see. Baby chickens. They were the cutest little fuzzies when they hatched, but boring until then since all we really saw were the eggs. You’re lucky here since you can see the dear little creature every step of the way! How wonderful that must be for the children to see—”
As the nurse prattled on, Mrs. Mendall found that she was still gripping the drawer handle and forced herself to release it, finger by finger. Joint by joint.
Still clucking like the chicks she was remembering, the nurse made her way to Mrs. Mendall and slid a notice across the desk. “—I can only imagine what we would have thought of this project back in my school days. It would have stunned us into such studious moods, I’m sure! Never expected to have such innovation in this century, let alone this decade—”
Mrs. Mendall scanned the nurse’s report. “This could have been an email.”
“You’re probably right,” said the nurse, dropping the chatter. “But it is a sensitive case and I know you were concerned for the poor dear—”
The nurse nodded.
“Is it as serious as that?”
“Well, we won’t know for sure for a while yet, but I’ll tell you honestly that I’m not hopeful.”
The bell, as it so often did, ended the conversation and ushered in twenty-six students when there ought to have been twenty-seven. The nurse left with a final glance at the CM2029. “You know,” she said, perhaps more to herself than to Mrs. Mendall. “One of our chicks didn’t make it. I remember. It was hard to understand as a child, but at least the shell hid it. A natural cover-up, clean-up, and coffin, I suppose. I’m not sure why I thought of that. One advantage to the old-fashioned lab, I suppose.”