Take Care


1997


Megan Craig has been measuring afternoon’s switch to evening in teenage heads. Heads have slowly been disappearing, none of them turning to see her at her desk with her stack of quizzes. Meg only thought to open the blinds on the first warm day of the semester, and there it was: the Junior/Senior parking lot, the carpool pick-up, those few confused trees thinking it was safe to show their pink. She’s been in this room since August and had no idea her window faced the parking lot.

She’s told herself three times now to go home. It’s probably disconcerting if the students see her here now that Track practice is over, now that the drama kids are leaving rehearsal. Her nose feels sandy with sweat, even though she only ran warm-ups with the JV girls, even though it’s 40 degrees again—don’t those early buds feel sorry. The back of one blonde teenage head is still out there, down a ways from her window, not as far as the trees, a head that’s too young to drive itself home.

Meg tries to picture floor plans but still can’t place the back door near her classroom. She’s one of those people who can’t stand in her own bedroom and tell you what is above her, what part of the street her wall faces. This is why she left Guilford High for St. Cecilia’s. With all the State cuts, “non-essentials” let go and “essentials” leaving on their own, Guilford asked Meg to teach a semester of Geometry, just a semester. Had it been help with reading, she’d only need a little arm-twisting, but her degree is in History. Plus, these past two years at St. Cecilia’s have been a breeze. The kids come conditioned for sitting in a classroom. She knew the Guilford kids were screwed and still feels guilty for leaving, but it’s not like she’d formed a bond with any of those kids, and it’s not like her absence of spatial intelligence would have done anything to change that.

Meg can’t remember what was outside of last year’s classroom window. She knows she opened those blinds plenty.

More drama kids stream out the back door, singing “If I Were a Bell” and walking to their cars. The one blonde head is still there, but Meg realizes it doesn’t belong to a younger student, just one without a Pathfinder. Dakota Walker.

A blonde head is nothing special at St. Cecelia’s. Two-thirds of these girls dye, highlight, Sun-In their hair. Michaela in American History has deep chocolate curls that she just frosted, and now her hair looks gray.

But it’s strange to watch Dakota’s head so still, and right next to her.

She’s one of those girls who transferred in with a reputation, some pretty toxic whispers in the halls. But those seemed to start when Dakota took Jason Storey off the market.

It’s the usual high school bullshit: Dakota wants to burn down the school on 4/20, Dakota has a porn website and will blow you under the bleachers for a joint (in other versions, a pack of gum), Dakota is white trash, plain and simple—have you seen her manly Mom in those coveralls with that perm, and, well, isn’t the name Dakota proof enough.

But what gets to Meg is how seriously the teachers take Dakota, her bad influence on Jason, as if Jason is new to girls or marijuana.

Meg hasn’t known her to cause any major problems besides refusing to look you in the eye when you engage her. She skips out on school, she’s probably high in class, and she wears a black bra under her white oxford. But she takes the tests, gets Bs. This all seems fairly normal. She’s harmless for a boy about to enter college. Dakotas exist all over, Meg has known her share of Dakotas, just a girl who needs to move somewhere even as big as Raleigh to realize she’s not as special as they’re all encouraging her to be. And a kid as well-off as Jason could use a little tragedy. It’s not like he’ll stay Catholic—he’s too smart. It’s not like he’ll stay here.

Dakota’s head disappears then reappears, disappears again. She must be digging in her book bag. Where is Jason anyway? There are plenty of rumors about the two of them in his car. In this very parking lot. Meg thinks they’ve been cramped and bumping their heads on doors, and all the while she’s been behind her blinds waiting for home to feel possible.

The first short answer on her stack of quizzes identifies Bao Dai as a crucial battle site in the Vietnam War, and Meg puts the stack back in her desk.

Looks like Dakota found a cigarette in her bag, which is somehow a relief, and a pen. She’s scribbling on the phone booth next to her. Truthfully, she got worse once the rumors started.

A young teacher, Meg has her own share of rumors. She and Coach Dawkins in the locker room showers after practice. Or she’s a lesbian—the whistle, lingering too long when girls are changing.

The one that’s true is that her room smells like cigarettes. But that was only twice and she doesn’t anticipate it happening again. Not like Guilford, not like that State testing week when she’d dropped a shot of Bailey’s in her thermos every day before adding her coffee, which she still feels guilty about. It comes back to her sometimes when she’s getting ready for the day, and she has to squeeze her eyes shut.

Everything about St. Cecelia’s is different. For some reason, they don’t even have to take the State test. For some reason, this is not a measure of how well Meg teaches them. Even her mailbox is different. The same birthday cards she signs without reading, the same stale SGA candy. But no asks for someone to please help out with carpool duty, please. No lost textbooks from two years ago she has to deal with. No notifications of pregnant students. No notifications of students who don’t speak English or have developmental delays and will be taking American History along with Honor Roll kids.

Meg is still having trouble leading her classes in prayer. In the teacher handbook, Sra. Perez wrote it was a great way for students to apply what they’ve learned in Spanish. Ms. McAllister is famous for chanting, “Rise like biscuits, children. We gonna pray,” while they study Faulkner—Faulkner, the kids read Faulkner.

But Meg still has to read prayers off a sheet. Last semester, she realized that all this time, when reciting The Glory Be, she’d been saying, “Is now in every shout be” which really makes no sense.

When she looks up from her desk, she sees glassy blue eyes staring back. This time it’s the front of Dakota’s head in the window. She breathes smoke against the pane, waves. Meg waves back, the red pen still in her hand. She wipes the salt off her nose.

Dakota turns back to her doodling.

She’s surely not as bad off as some of these girls. The art teacher told Meg what you can mainly expect at St. Ceclia’s is a pregnant girl who withdraws before she’s showing and the rumors that show up later. But there had been more drama last year. Courtney Callahan’s medical withdrawal after a two-day coma when she fell two stories “trying to open a window.” Madeline Carlin’s withdrawal. Madeline had not been pregnant, but it was the same idea, dropping out to be with some man, some adult—Meg never got the details.

No one expected Meg to bond with the students at Guilford. She just had to teach them, most of them just as smart as these kids, except her last period kids. That’s the major difference. In her mailbox now, she gets phone messages from parents marked urgent. And they’re never urgent. And they’re always about grades. She’s learning St. Cecelia’s has expectations about student relationships, that the parents do too.

The clock in Meg’s room says 7:18. Her phone says 7:22. She packs a few pens in her purse, sips the backwash of cold coffee out of her mug.

At Guilford, Meg tried to address the educational needs of her last period, but she’s pretty sure the kids on the “right track” were just worse off by the end of the year.

That year, she used to find herself at the grocery store with a wedge of Brie in her hand as she pushed the cart back to the dairy counter and put it in its place. It’s not that she didn’t want to reach out to the kids who were worse off. It’s just that there were only so many hours in a day, and that wasn’t part of her job description. Start helping small scale. Start locally, she used to say. But the truth was, she was only good with kids who wanted to learn, with kids who could learn the way she had. And the problems just kept feeling larger. She could think globally. Locally, she couldn’t figure out how to start.

And all that attention on Dakota, all the rumors—she’s acting out because of them. Yes, she’s difficult. Yes, she’s angry. But Dakota’s not one of these wilting flower girls like Courtney Callahan. She’s not a quitter like Madeline Carlin. It’s two months until graduation, and no one is going to fail Dakota Walker.

Meg thinks about corners and hallways as she heads for the back door. It’s still hard to picture what the walls are facing.

“Waiting on a ride?”

“Not exactly.” Dakota’s been drawing a dog on the side of the phone booth, is tracing over the blue lines repeatedly.

“If you need to use a phone, I have one.”

“Nope.” She sneaks a quick look at Meg and then starts to add fangs to the dog. Maybe it’s a fox.

“Nope? Do you know how you’re getting home, Dakota? They’re locking up soon.”

Dakota can make a sniff indignant and does. “I was thinking of walking to the Texaco to hitch a ride with some of the Mexicans.”

“Don’t be racist.”

“I’m not racist.”

She’s wearing her uniform, and maybe it’s the strange lighting out here, but her knees look purple.

“Do you want a ride or not?” Meg asks.

Meg’s job is to teach, not to take care. Taking care is an entirely different skill. Last night she’d left a strand of pizza cheese on the table and this morning found it covered in tickling black bodies. The ants were concentrated enough for her to smash them all with one bang of a shoe.

Dakota fiddles with the radio, but the University of the Oaks station doesn’t come in this far away. Meg tells her they can check back in ten minutes. Dakota says she hopes she doesn’t miss the metal show and waits for a reaction. She unrolls and rerolls the window.

“Manual,” she says. “Retro. Or something.”

“You’re going to have to give me directions,” Meg says. “I don’t know anything about Lafayette.”

“It’s la-FAY-IT. Make sure you say it how it’s not supposed to sound.”

Dakota settles on keeping the window down now that they’re on the highway.

“So you didn’t have a ride set up?” Meg asks. “Is that usually true?”

“Is this the part where you ask me about my family life?”

“It doesn’t have to be.”

“Good. You want to buy me dinner?”

“With my big teacher’s salary?”

The open window pushes all that blonde hair into her face. It probably is naturally blonde. “You could afford Taco Bell.”

Meg had recited, “Lead us not into temptation” a million times as a kid, but seeing it there in print she’d thought, does God usually lead us into temptation?

She’s pretty sure Dakota is leading her a roundabout way home, tiny eyebrow streets that spit her back onto main roads. They missed WUOO’s metal show, but Dakota seems content with the ska show that’s playing now. She taps her hand on the open window. She watches herself in the mirror, probably imagining some movie of her life.

She offers Meg a cigarette in lieu of gas money, but Meg doesn’t take it. Being alone in the car is already a firing waiting to happen.

There are questions you’re supposed to ask students like this. Meg can ask Dakota about Checks and Balances. She can ask her about Oligopolies. She cannot bring herself to ask, “What’s wrong?” Meg is not a guidance counselor. But she’s also not a chauffeur.

“You live alone, Ms. Craig?” Dakota asks.

“Yes.”

“How’s that?”

“It’s nice.”

“I’m going to next year, too.”

Dakota doesn’t have college plans. At last year’s graduation, the principal gave a glowing speech about how every graduating senior was headed to college in the fall. This did not include Courtney Callahan. It did not include Madeline Carlin.

“You can bring guys home whenever you want,” Dakota says. “Mr. Dawkins wears the same thing every day so no one would know.”

Meg can feel the pink start in her ears. She’s known plenty of Dakotas, but she’s never known how to talk to them.

“Don’t worry, Ms. Craig. They don’t really think you’re a dyke. They talk about that see-through dress that you wear sometimes. They make bets on the underwear. Last time it was white or yellow or something. No pattern.”

“This isn’t exactly appropriate, Dakota.”

“Okay, well, they talk about your gray hairs too. How about that?”

Meg knows she’s being stared at. “I’m sorry I asked about your ride situation. I won’t pry, okay?”

“Um, yeah. I know.”

Dakota lives in a decent house, actually, bigger than Meg’s for sure. Was she really expecting a trailer? The lawn is cared for. There’s a flag with a sunflower smiley face flying, tacky but friendly.

“Home, sweet home,” Meg says, and Dakota watches herself in the mirror.

“Time for me to get to mine,” Meg says.

“Don’t worry, Ms. Craig. Just get a cover-up, and you could still get Mr. Dawkins to bang you.”

“I don’t want Mr. Dawkins to bang me.”

“Well, he won’t without some Nice N Easy.”

“Okay.” Meg reaches across Dakota to push the door open. “We’re done.”

There’s some give and after she’s pushed it all the way open, she realizes Dakota was gripping the window. Her shoulders are almost touching her ears and her lips have disappeared into her mouth. When she sees Meg, she shrugs. She sniffs again. Her face recovers to blank.

“Well gee, thanks, Meg Craig.” She unbuckles her seatbelt and steps out of the car. She holds out the unlit cigarette, and Meg takes it.

“Dakota, is everything alright?”

“Yeah, I tell you and then you tell the Guidance Counselors, right?”

“No.”

“That’s your job.”

“Well.” Meg puts the cigarette between her lips. “I haven’t been doing such a good job, have I?”

“It’s cool. You’re one of the better ones.”

“Well, I doubt that.”

“Me too.” Dakota closes the door. “I was just being nice. See you tomorrow. It’ll be weird.”

Dakota stands on the stoop, scratching at her arm while Meg backs up. She hasn’t moved when Meg figures out she’s driving in the wrong direction and turns the car around. She hasn’t moved when Meg calls out, “Look, my job is to teach you American Government.” Or when she says, “But we can talk about things, if you want.”

“No, it’s cool,” Dakota says.

She’ll probably still be standing on the stoop while Meg listens to the same chord progression, the horn sections, the awkward mic breaks, until WUOO finally fuzzes out on the highway.

There are crumbs all over Meg’s coffee table. But when she stoops to wipe them into her hand, she realizes they are actually heads and thoraxes, tiny ant parts.

Meg wets a sponge, wipes up the parts, and walks back to the kitchen. The faucet lets out a heavy stream, and she doesn’t see them go down the drain.  

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