She stares into the camera, no trace of a smile.
Her dark eyes look straight at you.
Not more than ten, thin, with a mass of dark ringlets.
Her white blouse hangs loose on her,
a hand-me-down from the half-sisters.
You can’t tell that she’s motherless,
lives with her father and the grandma,
lives in a crowded old house,
the three girls sleeping together,
this one stuck in the middle, not much room
but at least she keeps warm.
The classroom is empty, though it’s likely
the photographer lined up the children,
told each one to sit quiet while he looked
through the viewfinder, made them keep still,
clicked away until he’d captured them all—
boys who would go on to work in the tin mills,
or the Cumberland coal mines, where the pay
was good but the air would soon corrode the lungs,
early death was unavoidable.
Girls who would marry, have too many children,
who’d endure the hard times to come—
but that was a long way off, a decade ahead.
On that spring day of school pictures,
the teachers, all single women, lined up in rows
in front of the brick school for their picture,
standing at the exact midpoint of the two entrances
one proclaiming GIRLS, the other BOYS.
The photographer arranged the teachers by height,
the children stood on the narrow sidewalk,
giggling as the photographer said, “Say cheese, ladies!”
The teachers couldn’t stop laughing. That was the day
the girl at the desk made a vow to be like them,
be one of them. She wrote the word in her copybook,
Teacher. Then, I will be a teacher. There might be
a husband, maybe children, maybe not.
She walked home in the bright afternoon light,
her plan, her wish pressed against her chest.
Originally published in October, 2017, in This I Know, Warren Artists’ Market anthology