THE LANGUAGE OF SPACE

Danielle Stonehirsch

There were eleven where there should be twelve. Elena was sure. She counted three more times anyway because she was the math teacher and if she counted wrong the English teacher was going to be all in her face at the debrief Friday. But no, six boys and five girls, which meant one was missing, and for the life of her she couldn’t remember who it was. When she had volunteered to take the first and second graders on their field trip she hadn’t realized how much she would miss her familiar sixth-grade faces. Those Madisons and Jacobs she could tell apart. These Madisons all seemed to be wearing the same Princess Elsa shirt and all three Jacobs had the same haircut. She was pretty sure one of the not-Jacobs was named Aristotle, but that one was here and accounted for and pretending to pee on one of the Jacobs from another group. What was not accounted for was why he was named Aristotle and why he was pretending to pee on other children, but determining that was not going to help with the problem at hand which was that of the eight Harris Academy teachers standing in front of the Air and Space Museum, Elena appeared to be the only one missing a student. Other teachers were beginning to herd the mass of wriggling backpacks and light-up shoes into the buses, and the sick, leaky-stomach feeling of pure panic started to press against the inside of her skin. She had way too much undergrad debt to lose this job in the first eight months.The eleven kids were already turning their pale faces toward the nearest bus under the watchful eyes of teachers with years of herding experience. These teachers were used to keeping track of four-foot-tall rogue agents but were not as attuned to the movements of other adults, so she was able to dart unnoticed up the wide white stairs and into the museum, turning her head back and forth, scanning for the name tags with school colors all students were required to wear around their necks while off school property.

The chaos in her head was mirrored in the entryway as other schools shepherded their own students through the doors, each group wearing a different distinctive brand. Just as she realized there was about as much chance of finding her missing kid in this museum as there was in actual outer space, her eyes landed on a shorter-than-average boy with the Harris name tag looped over his neck. Relief flooded over the panic, covering it like a cooling balm, and she finally remembered his name.

“Mario!”

He didn’t turn, and she walked toward him with purpose. His curly black hair was badly in need of a cut, and the curls sprung out in all directions as though whatever was on his mind was too much, as though they needed to escape. What had caught his attention appeared to be a rocket reaching up to the ceiling.

She squatted down so he had to see and hear her. “Mario, all the other kids are on the bus. We have to go.”

The boy nodded, but didn’t turn. “This goes into space?”

She looked at the plaque in front of them, but didn’t read it. “Yup, it goes into space. That’s so cool. Bet you want to tell all your friends about it on the bus.”

“No,” he said. “Not really.” He turned to look at her. “What language do they speak in space?”

“All the languages, I guess. English, Russian, Chinese—”

“Spanish?”

“Probably.”

“Like you and me.”

She nodded, and he turned away from the rocket to look at her. “Does that mean aliens speak Spanish?”

She wasn’t sure what the right answer was. The true answer was no. Aliens were probably more like algae than anything with a language. But she had learned in eight months as a teacher that the true answer wasn’t always the same as the right answer.

“It’s always possible,” she said.

He smiled. It was the genuine smile of a first grader who didn’t know the other smiles like her sixth graders, like the other teachers: sarcastic, sardonic, secretive, false, manipulative, disingenuous. She returned it, and for a moment they were a matching pair.

She stood up, and together they crossed the crowded space of the museum to the buses waiting to take them home.

Copyright © 2019 by Danielle Stonehirsch

DANIELLE STONEHIRSCH’S work has recently appeared in the Washington City Paper, Montgomery Magazine, and Roar: True Tales of Women Warriors. She has taught English and French in France and the U.S. Now, at First Book, she helps deliver diverse books to kids in need around the country. She is grateful for the support of her family and writing group.