By Martha Moyer
Claire Wilcox hugs her orange tote bag while the principal scans her resume. Her bag is heavy with tools like a fire extinguisher, a flashlight, and wire clippers. It’s hard for her to focus because today is the eighteenth anniversary of the fire she barely survived when she was four years old—the day the pilot light of the gas stove lit her puffy nightgown, and the flames cooked her skin.
“Why do you want to teach high school?” he asks.
“I want to enrich the minds of children with mathematics and…”
He waves her resume. “I don’t care about math. All I want is someone who can keep the kids in the room and start on Tuesday.”
He gives her a rushed tour on the way to her classroom. Once there, she is relieved that her room is near a fire exit. But no! The doors are chained shut.
She pulls her tote against her right ribs—the side of her body that has her worst burn scars.
“Why are the fire doors chained?”
“To keep the drug pushers out.”
She says nothing. She needs this job.
Her tote steadies her trembling hands as she stands in front of her first class. She can’t stop the crack in her voice while she takes attendance and assigns seats. All the ninth-graders have sharpened pencils and brand new notebooks and appear ready to learn. She clears her throat, but doesn’t say anything because she can’t stop picturing the chains on the fire doors.
A student raises his hand; she nods in his direction and wishes she had memorized their names.
“Miss Wilcox, how come you’re holding that big orange bag?” All the students laugh.
She can’t tell them that 60% of her body is covered with scars and that everything in her bag is to keep her safe and secure.
She grabs the fire alarm exit map off the wall. “You know, this week is for us to get to know each other, and for you to get your ID photos, your lockers, and practice the fire drill.”
She takes a deep breath. “This map is not the safest way out.”
Some of the students continue to laugh while others roll their eyes.
Her ears feel hot, and her voice gets louder. “This map takes us past the kitchen. Where do most fires start? Kitchens. That’s where!”
“Miss Wilcox, it’s just a drill. It’s no big deal.”
“It’s a huge deal!” She pounds her desk and yells. “In a real fire, at eye level, it’s at least 600 degrees so you have to crawl. In a real fire, the room fills with thick black smoke so you can’t see where you’re going. In a real fire, your throat and lungs burn like acid so you can’t scream for help.” She sits on her desk and rocks her tote back and forth as if it were a child. “In a real fire, you only have a few minutes to escape.”
Her students are speechless. She hopes she shocked them and taught them that a fire is serious.
A kid blurts out, “We’re on the first floor. We could jump.” Another kid yells, “Yeah, it’s only about six feet.” Another, “I bet we could all get out within minutes.” They all talk at once. “Yeah, let’s jump.” Some run to the windows. “If we hang from the windowsills it’s not that bad.” “Big kids go first. They can help the rest of us.” “It’s easy to get the screens off, I’ve done it before.” “Miss Wilcox goes last, she’s the teacher.”
She wishes she knew their names. She raises an arm, “Okay. Okay. All of you back to your seats.”
Once they settle down, she says, “This plan can work on one condition. After we are out, we must walk single file to the parking lot. Then stick together so I can take attendance. I’ll need to know you are all out of the building and safe.”
The alarm blares, and her kids scramble out of the windows faster than Claire dreamed possible.
When it’s her turn, she grips her tote then stops at the windowsill in terror.
“Jump, Miss Wilcox!”
She is paralized.
“Miss Wilcox! Hurry!”
She is trapped in her real fire. The day she felt the blistering pain of her burning flesh. The day she couldn’t see any escape. The day she couldn’t breathe or scream for help.
The kids wave their hands and yell, “Miss Wilcox! You have to jump. NOW!”
She has been in this prison of scars for twenty-two years. To escape now seems impossible.
“We’ll help you down!”
No one in her life has wanted to help her as much as her students do right now.
“Drop your bag and JUMP!”
In an obedient trance, she sets her orange tote on the floor, grabs the sill, swings a leg over, and leaps.
Immediately, her kids march in single file as they had promised. In the parking lot, they stay together. She chokes back tears while she calls each of their names. Names she now will never forget.
They walk single file back to their classroom. While they are going to their desks, she lifts her orange tote, and for the first time she feels the weight and hard clunk of it. For the first time, she doesn’t need to clutch it next to her scars. She boosts it onto her desk, and she lets it go.