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As I Always Say

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Ms. Frizzle has always enjoyed the third grade.

In the one-room schoolhouse there was always something about the children in the middle rows, that wonderful age where you’re young enough that everything is still possible, old enough to want to look inside the magic, puzzle it out. There’s a girl with long blonde plaits who reminds Ms. Frizzle of Dorothy Ann—or Dorothy Ann reminds her of the girl, it’s hard to say. Time runs strangely on the Bus, which isn’t always a bus but sometimes a wagon or a stagecoach, and once, memorably, a latrine. (Never a police box, though—Ms. Frizzle heard about that particular fiasco, and she’s not risking it. It is always better not to jinx oneself.)

Ms. Frizzle teaches not-Dorothy Ann about molecules and atoms, about protons and neutrons and the inside of things. She even tries to explain quarks—up, down, and strange, charm, bottom, and top—despite the fact that they have not yet been conceived of, Mr. Murray Gell-Mann and the particle zoo still a hundred years away. She has to shrink them very small to do it—too small, almost. The Bus that is a wagon doesn’t quite understand, and when they get there everything is sideways and swimming. Not-Dorothy Ann loves it anyway, bouncing next to Ms. Frizzle on the hard slatted seat, writing everything down on her slate. According to my research.

(She doesn’t say that, though—Ms. Frizzle only imagines she does. Because of a memory that comes before or after, it’s not entirely clear which. There are a lot of years stored up in Ms. Frizzle’s brain.)

She has to hurry, that time: not-Dorothy Ann dies of smallpox the summer she turns eight.

Ms. Frizzle has lost many children. It doesn’t bear thinking about, except for when it does.

 

Walkerville Elementary is a good school. It is a school where parents come to parent-teacher interviews on time and participate in bake sales. There is no breakfast program or used-clothing drive, because the children at Walkerville always have enough to wear and enough to eat.

Sometimes Ms. Frizzle gets tired.

Principal Ruhle raises his eyebrows at her dress—full-skirted with prime numbers around the hem; Ms. Frizzle has always been partial to fashions of the 1950s—but he raises his eyebrows even higher at her résumé.

“Maplecrest, eh? I hear that’s a pretty rough school.”

Ms. Frizzle smiles and shrugs. It was, but no rougher than the other places (October, 1962, under the desk exercises every week; the 1940s and an institution for the blind, hardly any parents visiting—neither, of course, is on this particular résumé). “I was looking for a change,” is all she says. When she crosses her legs, Euclid’s proof works itself out on the folds of fabric above her knee. Mr. Ruhle doesn’t notice.

Outside the window, two children chase a ball across the playground. Ms. Frizzle smiles.

 

She isn’t always alone.

“Don’t you think it’s a bit sexist?” asks the nanny. “Him out there and us minding the children?”

It’s the seventies. Ms. Frizzle has sacrificed her bra to the occasion, but little else is different; her dress is still full-skirted, an hourglass turning on its back. The class—fourth grade this time, half of them wearing bell-bottoms—is in London to look at Big Ben. Earlier this morning they were having trouble with the placement of the hour-hand.

“I like minding the children,” Ms. Frizzle says mildly. They are having tea in the Bus which is still not a police box. It has grown psychedelic flowers up its side, mostly likely on purpose; Ms. Frizzle sometimes imagines it hates the nanny’s parasol (practically perfect indeed).

“Yes,” says the nanny, “but why do you like it?”

Ms. Frizzle supposes that’s a fair question.

 

“Ms. Frizzle,” Arnold asks. “How old is Liz?”

It’s a Friday, lunchtime. Indoor recess because it’s raining—somewhere, not-Dorothy Ann is outside, folding her shawl against the cold. Ms. Frizzle debates taking the class to visit the Mayan ruins, or perhaps even the civilization itself. Still, that could get messy, all those child sacrifices.

“Jackson’s Chameleons live anywhere from five to ten years in captivity,” Ms. Frizzle says heartily, which isn’t an answer. She decides on a Sun Festival during the Preclassic period, bloodletting but no real violence. Her dress already has the temples on it, making the whole thing feel just this side of predetermined. Ms. Frizzle doesn’t mind.

(Liz isn’t always a lizard, is the problem. She was something else before, just like Ms. Frizzle has been something else, many somethings else, with different bodies and different faces. Liz has been a lizard the longest, though, just the same as Ms. Frizzle’s been a red-headed teacher. They don’t leave this galaxy much anymore, so it’s hard to make a fuss.)

Ms. Frizzle goes home in different ways. She doesn’t like to leave Walkerville, seems to spend most of her time there. Everything reminds of her of something else.

She taught Arnold’s son once, another school because enough time had gone by to raise suspicions, her unchanging face. Another town too, because Arnold of all the children moved away. He had adventures. In the end, he doesn’t seem particularly surprised to see her at the parent-teacher interview.

“We never could find the Sound Museum again,” he tells her, smiling. “My parents wanted to take me back there after the concert. We drove around for hours and— nothing.”

“How strange,” Ms. Frizzle says. Her earrings twinkle slightly; Arnold’s husband turns to look. Ms. Frizzle watches as he decides it was the fluorescent lights. “You must have missed the turnoff.”

“We must have,” Arnold agrees. He kisses her cheek when he leaves.

Ms. Frizzle looks at him now, eight years old and afraid of yet another field trip, and thinks of him then, the man he is and will become. Thinks of his son, who isn’t afraid of anything. Arnold reminds her of him, a little bit. That same red hair.

Or perhaps that’s backwards. Perhaps it is the other way around.

 

Ms. Frizzle buys a house in Walkerville.

She always does, mostly just to have an address on the pay checks, but also so she has somewhere to go on the weekends. It removes the temptation, the itch to just get in the Bus and go—Ms. Frizzle doesn’t do that anymore, not without any passengers. She does not care to think about where she would end up.

(That fieldtrip to the solar system, the asteroid that bounced her and Liz out to space—she would have gone further than Pluto, had there been enough fuel in the jetpack. Sometimes she thinks she never would have stopped, Liz’s claw on the switch and the open stars. The Bus would have taken the children home.)

After so many years, Ms. Frizzle has many houses in many places. Oddly they all seem to remind her of the one in Walkerville. She sits in her cabin down the road from the one-room schoolhouse, the smell of pine stitching itself into her clothing, and pictures the red brick walls. She knits in a boarding house and remembers the portholes.

Perhaps she wouldn’t end up anywhere, if she took the Bus and left. Perhaps she would simply find herself back in Walkerville.

 

She takes the class inside a chalk drawing one day.

“I learned this from an old friend,” she announces. Her intention is to show them the molecular structure of calcium sulfate, but the Bus takes her at her word, either too literally or not literally enough.

“I should have stayed home today,” Arnold moans as penguins skip by the windows. When the bus spins its wheels little puffs of dust come up, the picture going soft-edged around them as it smudges. Carlos makes a joke about penguins (“What do they eat for dinner? Icebergers!”) but no one’s listening.

“All right,” Ms. Frizzle says carefully. “Let’s try that again.”

She sends them back with Liz in the driver’s seat, lingers for a little while on her own. Eventually a man walks towards her from over the rolling green hills. His face has soot on it, but his boater hat is spotless.

“I told you not to stay away too long,” he says, and then he recognizes her. “Ah. Hello Valerie.”

Ms. Frizzle offers him her arm. They take a stroll around the abandoned horse track, mindful of the tread marks the bus left behind.

 

Keesha comes to class early one morning.

That isn’t the surprising part, though—the surprising part is that it’s fifteen years later and Keesha is no longer in the third grade. Ms. Frizzle forgets for a second, and then she remembers.

Her dress has nothing on it today.

“The Bus,” Keesha says. She’s sobbing. “It can go back in time.”

Ms. Frizzle has been waiting for this. She’s been after and before and around it, but mostly she skips over the sadder parts of the story. Ms. Frizzle remembers not-Dorothy Ann and her dress turning red, solid red like like a nineteenth century schoolteacher couldn’t afford, not on the frontier. She carried the body all the way to the Bus that was a wagon before she thought better of it.

(She doesn’t do that. She can’t.)

She knows someone who can, though. Who doesn’t mind so much about the fabric of time. Ms. Frizzle calls him as she hands Keesha a kleenex; the Bus knows how. Keesha doesn't really want to turn the clock back, Ms. Frizzle understands—she wants to step outside of it. There are reasons, human reasons Ms. Frizzle can't quite grasp, but she remembers the feeling (although she isn’t sure what string of memories to attach it to; perhaps Liz will know).

The nanny will disapprove. Ms. Frizzle has called her before, for children who need a different kind of help that won’t come from learning, Maplecrest and it’s free breakfast program. Children with bruises or speech impediments or learning disabilities, children who can’t have fun on her field trips because they’re too afraid—real afraid, not like Arnold is and was. We mind the children. Yes, exactly, Ms. Frizzle thinks.

But Keesha isn’t a child anymore.

“Keesha,” she says, “I’d like you to meet someone.”

Outside in the parking lot, there’s a police box waiting beside the Bus.