The grandmothers walk through the front door, two and three at a time, bonding over talk of the weather. They lower their umbrellas, brush raindrops from their shawls and smooth their sheen grey hair, propped up in helmets or draped over grandmotherly shoulders. Cats and dogs, they say. Absolutely cats and dogs.
A few of us are sent to herd the grandmothers toward the macaroni artwork, but the grandmothers can’t be corralled. One grandmother begins reorganizing the library; another labels science lab beakers in a size 20 font. The grandmothers test the locks on classroom doors, pull tacks from hallway corkboards. Ricky Cunningham’s grandmother gently lectures the pregnant secretary on the merits of cloth diapers while Brianna Mack’s grandmother slips and sprains her ankle on the bathroom floor. We sympathize with Brianna Mack’s clumsiness—such a sweet girl, and quiet, too—but when Eunice Mack cries out in pain, those of us leading students down the hallway feign deafness. Eyes forward, we command. We increase our pace.
A handful of grandmothers walk into the kindergarten wing and, within seconds, disappear. We send Ms. Bellweather to the intercom like a sentry to the alarm.
The grandmothers have arrived, she says, her voice atremble. Students, please locate your grandmothers.
Do we blame Principal Schultz? Do we think him a fool for not learning from the great Father/Son Spaghetti Lunch Disaster of 2009? Would we think poorly of any man so eager to show off minor cafeteria renovations? Had we tried bribing certain weaker members of the board to veto this dreadful idea? Impossible to say, really. There are so many of us, and we rarely assemble.
Ms. Lopez smiles politely as one grandmother interrupts her history lesson to teach students cursive. Mrs. Nelson compliments the grandmother she finds mopping the lounge. Through a clenched jaw, Ms. Womack says thank you to the grandmother who picks the lock on her classroom door and gives her desk a thorough dusting. Principal Schultz, he’s not such a terrible man. Better, at least, than the others. We are not finished with him, not yet. But we are growing angry.
In the cafeteria, nervous grandmothers wander from the snack line to the hot lunch line, back to the snack line again. Fussy grandmothers brush their grandchildren’s hair, button their buttons, tie their shoes. Are you hungry? the fussy grandmothers ask. No, the grandchildren say. Are you hungry? the fussy grandmothers ask again.
When the children roll spitballs, when they dump salad on their shoes, when they use their fingers as rubber band guns, the grandmothers turn their heads. We teachers swoop in to scold.
We teachers, we have our complaints. Do we ask for much? Just crayons and books and tissues, occasionally an ousting. But we teachers, we feel insulted. Principal Schultz thinks us insurance for the grandmothers’ negligence. And it’s true: we don’t let our students down. We are, after years on the job, hardwired for discipline and care.
The grandmothers wander back to the kitchen, and in minutes they’ve churned out trays of cookies and brownies, sugary treats the students jump out of their seats to inhale. A few teachers, the same ones as always, are ready to threaten mutiny. The rest of us pray for strength.
At the end of lunch, Principal Schultz begins his speech. On behalf of Crestfield Elementary, he starts, but his voice is quickly overpowered by the grandmothers’ applause. They sidle up to him and pinch his cheeks, slide their hands down his jacketed arm. Beautiful speech, the grandmothers say. They ogle and pry. Grey already?
We teachers collect our students and lead them to safety.
We are open to forgiveness until we see rooms. Our sanctuaries, origins of our identity and control. They are unrecognizable when we return: educational posters replaced with floral print and hummingbirds, glass knick knacks on the shelves where books should be. Clusters of desks separated and padded with cushions, plastic chairs made into rockers, a podium swallowed by violet crochet work. Hours of summer organization, ruined—each chamber of learning transformed, in minutes, into a grandmother’s den. They’ve left us notes of admonishment, critiques of our design. A perfectly suitable space, the notes say. The years will teach you.
We teachers, we are furious. Our spaces have been violated. Our computers are locked from excessive login attempts.
We leave our students with Magic School Bus reruns and track the grandmothers by the destruction left in their wake: flickering lights and broken glass, Werther’s Originals stuck to the bottoms of our shoes. We find them outside the music room, dancing to an orchestra of squawking recorders. It’s Principal Schultz we want, but he’s collapsed on the floor, weeping, a beaten man, and it makes us even angrier to know they’ve done our job for us.
Two grandmothers twirl on the tile around him. The rest of them link arms and sway.
Thank you for inviting us, the lead grandmother says, pulling Principal Schultz up from the floor. We’ve all had such a wonderful time. She is wearing hummingbird earrings, a violet flowered blouse. Principal Schultz tries to speak, but the grandmother puts a finger to his lips and turns to the others. She pulls a tuner from her purse, and the grandmothers match pitch. A-one, and a-two, and a-three.
Their voices rise in harmony, strong in unison, perfected by years of church choir. Soulful tones, fragile bodies. We teachers, we listen, and in this moment, we are reverent. We can’t help but admire the coordination of their attack, their skillful pursuit of power. Though none of us will later admit it, we are grateful for this moment of peace they bring us, the perfect stillness of their chorus, the likes of which had never graced our halls before. We listen carefully, but cannot make out the words. The grandmothers are too beautiful, too wise and gentle and sad, many of us shed tears before we set ourselves upon them.