Deep in the woods, a shadow appears on the trees and moves upward, ground to apex. I know it’s a bird overhead — a majestic bird — and I’m right: a magnificent, broad-shouldered red-tailed hawk blocks the sun’s hold on the trees in front of me. I’ve ridden these trails hundreds of times, and my twenty-six-year-old paint horse is eager to be out on them again, familiar terrain after a long winter in, in not out. The arrangement of inness and outness is one of safety. Ice keeps you in, one quick slip reminding you that you are safer inside. The spring’s thawing temps open the gate for you to make your way out onto solid footing. The deceptive sun has no way of warning you that danger lies inside and out, no matter the temperature.
The winter kept us inside, icing over the high school’s front lawn and the picnic tables set up for student use. I’ve always been a library rat; the library was where you could find me during every free period November through April, and sometimes during other months, too. Sometimes I hid in the stacks when I didn’t feel like going to class.
I think it was March of my junior year when I noticed the stares during her second period library duty. We could all feel it, and maybe I participated. Maybe I stared, too. The Pledge would come on the PA and she’d just sit, planted in one of those hard, wooden chairs. Sometimes she’d just keep doing what she was doing — grading papers, writing on her laptop. Sometimes her dark eyes would look up through her jet-black bangs, and she’d catch us staring while we mouthed the words: “I pledge allegiance to the flag…” I didn’t even know her name then. But I knew what everyone thought about her.
I should be smarter than I am sometimes. The Sunday stall girl, whose name I still don’t know, offered to ride out with me if I could wait until after she’d thrown down the lunchtime hay, but it is a gloriously blue morning, and I’m anxious to test Rick’s mettle. The first ride out after months of ice should never be alone, but this is our fifteenth spring together, me and this horse. Trust him, I think. Trust yourself.
We were deceived; we trusted that the heavy wood of the library kept our secrets. There was no bold reverberation like in the bare tiled and sheet-rocked classrooms, no echoes of whispered tell-alls. We thought our secrets were safe there, that library silence was a real thing, but underneath the quiet was a revealing rumble, an earthquake beginning in each restrained conversation. I have always had really good hearing. In the library, I’ve heard strained voices confessing love. I’ve heard stories of bitter enmity. I’ve heard secrets threatening to out themselves at any moment.
I first heard the word whispered in the carrels next to the fiction section — somewhere around the A-authors: Anderson, Asimov, Atwood. I knew their location because I’ve read them all. I have always read voraciously. It’s why my vocabulary is expansive. I even know which words came to me from which authors. Hawthorne taught me “ignominious.” Poe taught me “sepulcher.” Atwood taught me “transgression.”
Students were staring at her when the word teased my ear in their direction. They whispered it surreptitiously, dangerously: “Un-American.” They said it again, dividing it into two words: “Un. American.” They said it a third time, emphasizing the first syllable: “UN. American” — just audible enough to sit heavily in the air. It passed from one student to another — sophomores, I think. I wondered about their motive. Did they mean only to share secretive impressions, or did they mean to destroy her? The word stayed out of her earshot as she penciled numbers into her grade book. But in that moment, the word became the word of all words, the word which took on every declaration, every confession, every secret before it. It held the weight of a stone daring passers-by to lift it, to chuck it aside. Too heavy for lifting and chucking, though, it sat.
Fifteen years ago, Alex surprised me with my boy, a rescued paint horse, and I named him Rick, for his red-white-and-blueness — red and white coat, blue eyes. Ame-ric-a. He was too heavy and very sore on his right front. We put him on a diet and rehabbed him back to soundness — a second chance for him. Alex said his name was a clever tribute to our nation, the nation given a second chance. Alex often talked about how years ago there wouldn’t have been room for couples like us. But here we were, living in Version 2 of Our Nation, with a second- chance horse named to celebrate the way things appeared to be going. We toasted Rick with wine from the Napa Valley.
Rick is spirited but solid, and on the trails he’s seen it all: white-tailed bucks springing into action to protect their does; the startling red coat of a fox darting through white snow; blue jays raiding chickadees’ nests; hunters in camo hiding in stands, rifles pointed, shutters cocked; turkeys positioned like soldiers at attention, begging not to be disturbed; elusive coyotes peering around trees. Today he is fully out — ears forward, springy in front, mustering power behind. I don’t detect nerves so much as excitement. The ice is finally gone, we note.
A half-hour into our ride, we’re feeling good. I say “we” because this is what it feels like to move together, to be in the same frame of mind. We look around, take in the woods, the light, the sounds, and when they stop, the soundlessness. I have the reins in my left hand, and my wrist rests nonchalantly on the horn of my western saddle. My right hand lies open on my right thigh. My hips and spine are loose. My legs, too. My feet rest casually in the stirrups. I’m singing quietly to the both of us: “Life is old there, older than the trees, younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze.” Between verses I hold my breath to listen to Rick’s. I can feel the steadiness of his heartbeat through the denim covering my lower legs.
How did she not feel us staring at her? It’s weird to think she just didn’t care. Was she that oblivious? You didn’t have to have my good hearing to pick up the vibe in the library those days, to know what kids were thinking. The Pledge would come on, she would just do whatever she would do, and the whisper-rumble would pick up.
“Who does she think she is?” “So disrespectful.”
“Has anyone told the principal?”
“I don’t know, but someone should.” “Right?”
“I’ve heard there are other things, too.” “Yeah?”
When the squirrel appears in front of us about five seconds after the hawk’s shadow makes its way up the trees, I wonder how hungry the hawk is. Just as the thought completes itself, the hawk swoops. It is unfortunate for all of us that the squirrel is only ten yards ahead of Rick’s nose. The hawk maintains her focus, although it looks for a second like she’s missed her target. In the ensuing commotion, she escapes unharmed through the thick branches of a large pine with low branches. The squirrel takes off dragging an injured hind end. The hawk had been precise, after all. Rick spooks and rears, and I tumble backward, I think. Later, I’ll process this as that’s-what-he-must-have-done, because my memory won’t be exact. I’ll remark to a nurse that this is my first National Geographic moment of the season; there will probably be more. But when I’m finally able to say this out loud, it will be because the Oxytocin kicks in and lowers the volume of whatever my fractured ribs are screaming at me.
In a low volume, rumors that the teacher was under investigation crept through the school. Whispered library conversations, suddenly punctuated by long dramatic pauses, grew more frequent and more ferocious with every passing period. Nothing said there was secret anymore. I heard in the whispers that she might be teaching Anti-American material. I heard in the whispers that any book could be considered Anti-American if presented a certain way.
The investigation began just after the debut of the word “Un-American.” I started to think of it as a debut because the way it appeared wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen. At night I lay awake saying the word out loud, but I couldn’t put my finger on the tone of it. Disgust? Disdain? Malevolence? It’s hard to detect tone in a whisper, and since no one whispered it to me, I had to admit that I was out of the loop. I’m often out of the loop, left to interpret secrets without motive.
The barn owner, a sturdy old man named Ed, has boarded Rick at his stable for the fifteen years since he’s been mine. Ed maintains the trails which seem to loop endlessly through his two hundred acres. He is the one who discovers Rick with an empty saddle pacing outside of the paddock fence, his reins broken and dragging in the dirt alongside him. Rick was hot from panic, Ed tells me after he has called 911 and has followed the ambulance to our local hospital. He tells me he had the stall girl hose him down despite the cool spring air. He’ll be okay, he assures me. In the hallway of the ER, I think I hear a familiar voice — another teacher, perhaps — someone I once worked with? The voice is explaining symptoms: heart racing, trouble breathing. I’m having my own trouble, but it’s only when I shift position on the gurney, so I settle into stillness. The idea of returning to my quiet job — five periods teaching literature and one on library duty — soothes me.
It is Ed who tells me he had to kill the crying squirrel he found hidden in the leaves. It is Ed who called Alex.
The ER doctor says a week at home with Alex making me tea and oatmeal should be enough.
On my way out of the ER, I see the teacher whose voice I recognized — Giselle someone. We wave to each other. She wears an expression of both pain and relief. I understand it to mean that her pain meds have kicked in too, but I could be wrong.
I keep the quiet image of the library in mind as I write five days of sub plans for my classes.
I really like to write, and if only I could write what I want to write, I’d be just fine. But in English we were doing this weird assignment called an ethnography, and I checked out. The teacher wanted us to write about our grandparents. She asked us to go all in. I couldn’t. I don’t have to say much about my family to say a lot. I can drop words like “displacement” and “expatriation” and “custody” to say enough. My English teacher had no business asking about my grandparents. Besides, I was much more interested in what was unfolding around school.
There was a buzz; the hallways felt electric. Lots of whispers. Lots of drama. A high school can come alive with that sort of charge. It was happening to us. Teachers stood close to one another, their heads bent in. Students nodded knowingly in guarded conversations. I continued to hear “Un-American” thrown around. Gripped by the talons of a hawk in flight, the word made its way around the school. Its reach went as far as the cafeteria, which made it safe to assume it was being spoken everywhere: in bathrooms, on school buses, in The Hookup Hallway and other spaces where speaking was discouraged. This lasted the full week the teacher was absent from the library.
During my absence I take the Oxytocin for three days and then manage to switch to Advil. The pain is no fun, but it’s bearable as long as my body is quiet. Alex drives me to see Rick, who tries to nudge my back. Fortunately, Alex steps in. We are both relieved to see that Rick is as whole as Ed said. Rick eats our carrot-treats eagerly. We leave a flower in the spot where Ed told us he buried the squirrel. We close our eyes and hope that the squirrel drifted off to sleep before he died. We hear a hawk screaming in the distance. I hold Alex’s hand as I ease back into the car.
During my absence I receive a certified letter from the principal. It reads, “Dear Ms. Haddad, Please be in my office for a meeting with me at 8:00 Monday morning. It is strongly advised that you bring a representative from your association with you. Please confirm that you have received this notification and that you can be present for this conversation.” I picture the principal in her signature red skirt, broad-shouldered, pecking at her computer keys. My head spins. I have never received a letter like this. The line about having a union rep with me means I’m in trouble. My spinning head tries to stop at an answer. The question is What did I do?
A racing heart and sleepless nights see me through the rest of the week. Alex and I joke that my increased circulation helps to heal my bruises, but we are both terrified that my job is at stake for a reason I can’t identify. I call Jay Connelly, a math-teacher friend of mine, to see if he knows anything, but he’s in new mad love and says to me, “I can barely think about anything or anyone else.” He apologizes, but he has no way of knowing what I’m talking about. I congratulate him and can barely think straight myself, so we hang up promising to catch up at length when I get back. If I still have a job.
I email Peter Stanton, our union rep, to ask him to be with me for this meeting, and he gets back to me almost knowingly and says he’ll be there. Dread rests its head on my pillow next to mine.
Monday morning second period the teacher was there for library duty. She looked battered. Wow, I thought. Does the principal literally beat up her teachers? I laughed at the image—our principal in that stupid red skirt taking a swing — but then I looked at the teacher, and my heart ached. She was holding her ribs and blowing her nose. And then something really weird happened. The Pledge came on the loudspeaker, and all eyes on her, she stood up. She turned to the flag and said every word: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Every word. I looked around the library and could only describe the mood among us as smug — chins in the air, chests expanded. When The Pledge was done, the teacher darted to the back of the library where the restrooms are and came out a few minutes later loaded up with tissues.
My students know I’m lying when I tell them that the tissues are for allergies. They don’t bring it up, though, and it seems dangerous for me to be honest. So we lose the opportunity to discuss the First Amendment, how a school district might blatantly ignore it and implement a Board of Education policy which requires teachers to pledge themselves to a flag. How a school district might portray someone who rebuts this idea as un-American. How a school district can claim that reciting The Pledge is part of the job. How a school district might demand a review of all texts and materials the teacher uses because someone has made the suggestion that she’s anti- American. How that teacher now must fear for her job, which hasn’t been lost yet but could be at any moment should the school district find any evidence of anti-American sentiment in her teaching. How an administrator will now visit her classes every day for a while, which is why Ms. Zucker is here today. How the teacher never had a chance to say that she named her horse for this country of second chances. How the principal believes she is giving her a second chance, but how the truth about her horse and her devotion to the country which raised her is secondary to what students have perceived, and so, Ms. Haddad, as far as your reputation goes, the damage is done. We can only hope that moving forward, Ms. Haddad, your behavior will uphold Board of Education policy in an exemplary fashion.
It was late April and everything had shifted to spring: fashion, attitudes, the overall mood.
But while everyone around her seemed to be encouraged by the warmer temps, the teacher sported a look of mostly fatigue, maybe with a touch of belligerence. Her face was often puffy, and her focus on her work took on an intensity I hadn’t ever seen. Before her absence, I’d catch her smiling over her students’ papers. After she came back, her smile evaporated into the library’s chilled air.
One morning, an old John Denver song my grandmother often sang to me when I was little wormed its way into my brain: “I am the eagle; I live in high country, in rocky cathedrals that reach to the sky. I am the hawk and there’s blood on my feathers, but time is still turning; they soon will be dry. And all those who see me and all who believe in me share in the freedom I feel when I fly.” I thought about my grandparents, how our story might have been interesting for my English teacher to know. My grandmother has always said I’m improvident. She might be right.
That same morning I was making my way through the D’s in the lit. shelves, finding texts I’d passed over before. In one of Annie Dillard’s essays in An American Childhood, I came across the word “perfunctorily.” I looked it up. It was the perfect word to describe how this teacher recited The Pledge each day. Perfunctorily. The meaning of The Pledge, along with whatever deeply personal reason she once had for not saying it, had been lost to her forever.
Summer was nearing, and we juniors felt pressure to start the college application process — to write our essays, to narrow our lists. I imagined myself committing to community college. I liked saying “committing” — as if I were a recruited athlete who needed to make a big decision, a recruited athlete about to commit to a Division-1 team. What got me about the community college my grandmother took me to see was the library. The carrels were new and inviting — soft blue tones and dark wood, like ours. I could see myself there, reading, watching, listening. I even noticed an American flag, hanging just beyond the main desk. I wondered about a daily pledge in college: Would there be one? If so, I could only see myself sitting it out.
Karen Zlotnick was born and raised in New York and currently lives in Westchester County with her husband and their Newfoundland dog. She teaches high school English, and when she’s not in the classroom, she writes fiction. “Secondary” is one of a collection of linked short stories she’s working on, all set in a fictional school district in New York’s Hudson Valley.