Home > Fiction > Mister Nowakowski
Published: Sun Oct 15 2023
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destruccion por un remolino del aire Xocomeel del Lago Atitlán / Destruction from a Vortex of the Xocomil Winds around Lake Atitlán (detail), 2014, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
AGNI 98 Aging Education Youth
Mister Nowakowski

I write my name on the whiteboard in bubble letters, my teaching name: Mr. N. Only adults can form Nowakowski, I’ve learned. I smile at my third graders like a puppet they know. Like Elmo maybe. Like Cookie Monster. I straighten my bow tie; it’s pink and neon; it’s for the eyes of children; a student already asked if she could take it. “This will be a super super year,” I say. I’ve taught myself to speak like my elementary school teachers spoke. Like how I remember them speaking, whether that is true or not. I remember them all hazily, with flowers growing out of their faces. I miss their flowery faces. And then a boy cries into his desk: Tyler. His friend was placed in Mrs. Alterio’s class this year, Mrs. A’s. Tyler also broke an arm over the summer. He also lost his mother. So I take off my bow tie and put it around Tyler’s neck. He pets the pink as he cries. At lunch, in the teacher’s room, I bet Mrs. A that Tyler will think fondly of my bow tie forever. She asks why I’m so determined to be remembered.

I’m forty-one and have taught elementary school for eighteen years. Third graders, second graders. I teach math, of course. History. Science. “Eye color is hereditary.” “Magnets produce a magnetic field.” But it is equally important, I feel, to give students the ingredients for nostalgia. In fourth grade, they should be nostalgic for third grade. In high school, they should be nostalgic for straightforward tests. And then they should be perpetually nostalgic, for easier times, for bright colors, simplicity.

On the third day of school, I mention my husband and give the class more about me to hold onto.

Each morning, when my students walk into class, I have on music they will love forever. “Oh! Susanna.” “There’s a Hole in the Bucket.” “If I Had a Hammer.” “Waltzing Matilda.” “Danny Boy.” “This Land is Your Land.” “You Are My Sunshine.” They’ll remember these songs only as fragments. They will sing their fragment and get stuck, restart the fragment and get stuck while driving to work, bored, while waiting for their date, anxious. I tell my students, “These songs will keep you sane.” “Danny Boy” is my favorite.  And “You Are My Sunshine,” always the best.

In November, my husband loses his sister, Mrs. T. She taught fifth grade at a Catholic school close to mine. “I’m the last line of defense before middle school,” she liked to joke. She died uneventfully—thyroid cancer. The cancer poked out from the side of her throat, a button some students wanted to press, a growth that made others throw up. She stopped teaching when she felt her students were learning the fundamentals too close to a declining body. If she hadn’t stopped, she would’ve been forced to.

I told Mrs. T not to stop teaching. I said, “It won’t hurt the kids to be exposed to a graceful death.”

At her funeral, my husband won’t stand near me. I try to be a good husband—my hand on his shoulder—but he walks away the moment I touch him. I used to suspect that his love for me was tied to his love for his sister. I suspect that now. He has a heart tuned to teachers. I can never tell if he loves me only because I’m a teacher, because I draw kind doodles on my students’ tests. Now his sister will be buried in a dress appropriate for Catholic school. And with one less teacher in his life, I fear my husband will lose interest in us all. Perhaps I’m just thinking like a third grader.

Every morning, I have my students stand on one leg during the Pledge of Allegiance. Third graders have bad balance. Whoever lasts the whole pledge gets a Jolly Rancher. (The kids whose parents won’t let them have sweets still get Jolly Ranchers.) The students often cheat; I let them; cheating is part of being a kid. By December, most of them have forgotten the words, if they ever knew them. I like to think they’ll remember the silliness in place of the Pledge. But one morning Tyler loses his balance. He has the worst balance of the class and hits his head on a desk and bleeds.  After twenty years, the principal finds out what my classes do during the Pledge of Allegiance. I am treated like a suspect, like a bad student. “The Pledge is important,” the principal argues. She wants children nostalgic for the Pledge, I know.

At home, I rant to my husband: “The Pledge won’t help kids when they’re older. When they’re stuck at work, when they’re sick in the ER, they’ll think of the Pledge and smile? No. What will make them smile? Memories of art class. Chalk. ‘Danny Boy.’ Bow ties. I should get all the kids bow ties . . .” And on I go.

I have come to believe that nostalgia is like sleep, exercise, owning a pet. If you put time into it, you’ll live longer.

There are similarities between my husband and my mother. I noticed this early on in our relationship. My husband hums. My mother hummed. My husband can be bleak as could my mother. My mother liked the classics. My husband reads Orlando every year. I mentioned this once to Mrs. A and she said, “Yeah, you marry your parents.” I want to be a nostalgic person. But I don’t want to be a cliché. 

My students learn cursive. Well, they do their best. They all can write m, n, i, d, l, s, t, a. They all can write an uppercase s. But they know they’ll never need script. They know I, their teacher, can barely read cursive. (My eyes have become too accustomed to kiddy handwriting.) Still, I follow the curriculum and teach them swirly letters. At the end of one of these lessons, I apologize and say, “You’ll miss these days when it barely matters what you do with your time.”

Like a good teacher, I read about nostalgia. More research exists than I would’ve thought. Nostalgia is restorative. It can help you last longer at a tough job. It can spur you to plan positively for your future self. But one philosopher talked about the weight of it. Nostalgia, she wrote, anchors you to a moment and anchors are designed to sink.

My husband, with no sister, misses his mother. His mother died three years ago: a heart attack. I miss my mother too, who died when I was nine: a car accident. My husband and I sit on our couch and reminisce. My mother wore clunky glasses, always dirty. She sang “You Are My Sunshine.” She was an academic, “a thinker,” my father said at her funeral, “a beautiful kook.” Starting on my fifth birthday, Mom had me mix her old fashioneds while we watched TV each night. She gave me notes on mixology. More fruit. More scotch. Less water. She hated huge ice cubes. More bitters. More syrup. When she finished a drink, she graded me from F to A.

On our couch that night, my husband also talks about his mother. She was a defense attorney; he focuses on that. He gives a statistic, maybe the number of people his mother saved from prison. But I’m still thinking of my mother and how roughly she patted my head. And then I look over to my husband. We are not close to each other on the couch. We are far apart. We are actively leaning away. So now I pay attention to his stories. He’s gotten to the ones I’ve heard before. His mother had a girlhood cat that climbed through windows, using the gutter as transport from room to room. And I scoot closer to my husband. And closer. But he stops talking as if I’m stealing his stories.

That night my husband talks in his sleep: “Mommy, Mommy.” And in the morning he won’t leave bed. He tucks each of his limbs far under the blanket. I bring him scrambled eggs and sit by his side. The eggs are dry, he says. I ask for a grade. C-minus, he says. At school, I tell my students about my husband’s sadness; I like being remembered as the teacher who overshared. And then Tyler asks if he can help; he is turning out to be the sweetest student in class. I light up. I say yes. Under Tyler’s direction, we film a music video on my phone to “Cheer up, Charlie,” my husband’s favorite Willy Wonka song. Each student sings a phrase, holding out a piece of chocolate toward the camera. That night, I play the video for my husband. I expect him to say, “Don’t tell me to cheer up.” But he watches the video five times and smiles as if it were his mother who made it.

Perhaps it’s unfair how much nostalgia gets placed on mothers. They are treated like love stories and family heirlooms. Most mothers never asked to be thought of like this.

Unlike my childhood friends, I never believed my dreams would come true. In fifth grade I knew I wouldn’t be the person who cured cancer. I wouldn’t make a career out of the French horn. By college, less of my friends believed in good futures. I tried to believe in one for myself: a future of small, tame dreams. A dream: to have time to relax. A dream: to be happy. I’ve never known anyone who seems happy, anyone grown. Perhaps that is a failure of my adult imagination.

Tyler is bullied like I was bullied. Kids step on the backs of his shoes. They twist his ears, put twigs in his hair, and sometimes pour glitter down his shirt. And they say, “How’s your mom?” At first he thought the question was innocent and kind. He said, “Mommy died. This thing called pneumonia actually. I was there when she died actually. How’re your moms?” And the kids laughed like they’d always be bullies.

Yes, I’m nostalgic for childhood drama, for getting bullied. And swirlies, I’m nostalgic for those. Unlike some kids, I never was close to drowning in the toilet water. The biggest issue with swirlies: the water was ice cold in winter and froze my skin. After a swirlie, the toilet water dripped down the front of my shirt, which I hoped people thought was sweat. When I see Tyler bullied, I become wistful for schoolyard problems that evaporate after a bus ride home. But then my mind softens, and I become wistful for my teachers, the ones who protected me and soothed me and held me while I cried despite the toilet water that got on their clothes. I always punish Tyler’s bullies. But I should be more efficient about it.

My husband’s mother studied abroad in London, close to Parliament and the dusty wigs. In March, my husband decides to visit. He’ll take a month off from work in search of his mother’s comfort. I ask to come along. He says, “Don’t come along.” He pats my shoulder and straightens my bow tie and mixes me a gorgeous old fashioned. A-plus, I say.

Like most people, my recollections are uninventive. They follow the mainstream, the expected. An example: I have more fondness for my female teachers than my male ones. First grade: Ms. Adler. Third grade: Ms. Morales. Fourth grade: Ms. Kane. Fifth grade: Ms. B, the best hugs I’ve ever had. My male teachers were no different in quality. They read to us in silly voices. They cared. But when people think of elementary school teachers, they think of women first. I think of women too. It is them who I want back in my life now that my husband is in London, silent.

Tyler’s father has to go to the hospital, a bad fall. His grandmother tells me when she drops him off at school. That day at recess, Tyler stays inside with me and cries. He believes his dad is dying. “I can’t be without him,” Tyler says. “He’s not dying,” I say. (I know a teacher who never uses contractions. “Contractions let the kids get too close to you,” he says.) I learn that Tyler’s mother would let him wear her clothes on bad days so I wrap him in my jacket. He sits on my lap, swaddled, until recess ends. We listen to big boy songs. I want him to have my reservoir of nostalgia. He’s younger and needs it more than I do.

My husband is still in London. On a short phone call, I ask again why he went. He says, “Because that’s where she became who she is.” I say,  “So you’re there for sentiment.”  And he says, “No, I’m learning.”

I can never tell which of my students will have good lives. This makes my job difficult. To cover my bases, I prepare each of them for bland existences. With my husband away, I am more aware of my tepid existence. So it takes me longer to make breakfast. So the bank seems like a sadder place. And then comes the day for the third-grade field trip. The kids will all think warmly of field trips, I know. Mrs. A and I take the students to the natural-history museum prepared with facts I have loved since childhood. At the museum, a kid says, “The dinos look janky.” But most of the students fall in love with the past. Tyler’s favorite dinos are the small ones, the prey. The kids eat dinosaur chicken nuggets in the museum cafeteria. They spare no money in the gift shop. Afterward, Mrs. A’s students load onto one bus with her, mine load onto the other with me. They shout a dinosaur song. With their energy as my backing, I call my husband. I feel cheered on. But he doesn’t answer. And I begin to feel like the bus is conspiring against me, like I’m being driven further and further away from my marriage. No one taught me to be nostalgic for a failing marriage. I wish they had.

I know children are not as fragile as they seem. But sometimes I want to check the tops of their heads to be sure their skulls are hardened.

On the ride back from the museum I announce a detour. My students grin at me like I’m covered in chocolate. At my direction, our bus peels off from Mrs. A’s. We pull into a bank and I march all my students inside the lifeless branch. “Are we doing a heist?” a kid asks. I sit all my students in a circle in the corner of the bank. The tellers look confused. “We’re on a field trip,” I say, which seems to stir something in them. I gather pink bank forms and hand them to my students. And then I rip one up. They laugh. The tellers laugh. I say, “Be silly in banks.” The kids tear up their forms as if they’re saying goodbye to homework. Tyler has a habit of eating paper and chews on the pink form. Today I don’t tell him to stop. I fold a form into a bow tie and balance it on my head. I worry for these kids. I’ve had nightmares of their bank accounts low and their loans denied. I plan on saying, “Think of today and you’ll be fine.” But I don’t. I don’t want to be remembered as histrionic. Toward the end of our detour, the tellers let the kids apply for fake bank accounts with fake names. Mr. Rhinoceros. Mrs. Gabagool. I give the most inventive student five dollars. I give Tyler five dollars too. And then we clean up our mess and leave.

My husband is still away. It’s been two months. I start to give my students nap time. I call it Kindergarten Time. I can’t get cots so they sleep on the floor with backpacks as pillows. I sleep on the floor too in the middle of them all. I wish my mother were here to tuck us in. 

My husband comes back. He takes me to a restaurant that his sister loved. She loved the incompetent staff, and so do we. “London was good?” I ask. We talked only twice during his trip, because of the time zones, he claimed. “London was good,” he says. He tells me his favorite London spots for sitting. He sat in front of buildings that looked motherly and warm. He sat in courthouses where his mother might’ve visited. And he sat in bars, making friends with people who hate Americans; he drank old fashioneds. Neither of us say, “I missed you.” I am not sure why I missed him. There are other things in life I miss more. I ask the waiter for an old fashioned from the bar but he is here just to pour wine. During dinner, I try not to cry. A third-grade tantrum builds in me; it gathers in chaos throughout the meal. But I am not a third grader. My tantrums can be swallowed and digested. I try to digest mine now but am tempted by how comfy drama can feel. So I say, “You met someone in London.” He slows his chewing and says, “I met someone. I did. Sorry.” I say, “Who was it?” He says, “A fling. Sorry. Sorry.” I say, “It was a lawyer?” “A lawyer?” he says. He says, “Why would it be a lawyer?” I say, “A lawyer because your mother was a lawyer? Because now you’re done with teachers?” My logic comes from a child’s world. My husband stares off to another table.

After that dinner, my husband says, “In England, they’re called solicitors.” I say, “I know they’re called solicitors. Of course I know that. I studied abroad in London too. I’m not dumb. They’re called solicitors. Duh.”

At night, I can make myself nostalgic for the familiarity of a man who cheats on his partner. But I can’t give myself a fuzzy feeling for my husband cheating on me.

On one of our first dates, my husband and I drove around town to the houses of his childhood. He moved through five from birth to college. This confused me because all the houses looked the same: two stories, bushy yard, neat exterior, like they’d have children inside. There was no progression from poorer to richer or the opposite, no progression from excess to modest living or the opposite. “Why the moves?” I asked. “Ask my mother,” he said. I came to appreciate the consistency of those houses. They all clung to each other. A state away, I showed him my childhood’s two main locales. First there was a house that his parents might’ve chosen for themselves. Then there was the apartment my dad got us after Mom died. “Before and after,” my husband joked. I loved the house, or that’s what I remember. And I enjoyed the apartment, but it never looked like children were inside. When I married my husband, I hoped to gain a history. We would stir our stories in a pot for us both to live on, I dreamt. His nostalgia could be mine, if I thought creatively, if I was greedy. Yes, I wanted to live off his life.

Before my husband leaves me, we argue. He argues that I’m a simple man. He has a theory that I reduce everything to its most basic parts. I am like a cow-noise maker, he thinks, that moos but won’t bellow, snort, or grunt. “I’m not a child,” I say. And he agrees. But he can’t stand all my looking back followed by more looking back.

I can’t help but suspect he’ll marry his divorce attorney. Or mine.

I am nostalgic for the days that followed my mother’s death, when the portion of my life without her was small, a decoration.

On the last day of school, which I think of as Tyler’s last day of school, I dress the class in bow ties. I put Tyler in my sunny bow tie, everyone else in cheap ones that I found online. We have a pizza party, of course. We sit on top of our desks. A kid notices the quality of Tyler’s tie and moos in his ear. I intervene right away. When the day is over, Tyler tells me he loves me. He holds onto my leg as if it could absorb him. I love Tyler. I tell him so. We hug as other students wait their turn. I hope theirs never come. I don’t want to let go. I don’t want to move on. “Visit me,” I say to Tyler, “no matter how your life turns out.” And I begin to miss this moment before it even ends. I want to get stuck here. It’s safe here. But I stop our hug. No one grows up while I’m around. I’m gooey. I have flowers growing out of my face. So I send Tyler away. But first he gives me back my bow tie. I can picture the hairs that will grow from his chin.

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Max Kruger-Dull’s recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Quarterly West, Litro Magazine, Roanoke Review, AGNI, The MacGuffin, Hunger Mountain Review, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in New York with his boyfriend and two dogs. (updated 10/2023)

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