Bad Math and Spelling – Desiree Ducharme

The substitute teacher made another attempt at my name. I’m not paying attention and I miss it. He’s wearing a vest. There is a stain on his vest. After roll call, he singles me out. “Miss DuckArmy, I called your name twice.” Maybe there was mustard on his breakfast sandwich. “When? Also, who? This is me here. It’s pronounced Doo-Sharm. I didn’t hear you call me.” My face is burning. “Sorry,” I added too late. It was unintentional, my snark, but substitutes have order to maintain. I receive a sad face for the day. It’s the same color as the maybe-mustard stain. It was 8:15am. He stains the space next to my name in Tuesday’s square. I am allowed to return to my seat. I vibrate with injustice until recess.
I find Bizzy by the monkey bars. “I got a frown, for all day!” Hoping she would share my outrage. “Already? What did you do?” She knew me. “I didn’t do anything. He didn’t call my name during attendance and then when I said something, I got hauled to the front and a mustard stain on my Tuesday!”
“You can tell mom. She’s in the library.” I could tell she didn’t believe me. Honestly, I wouldn’t believe me either.
I report to the fifth grade for reading after recess. In this room, I am a pet. DeeDee the Reading Robot. The vocabulary regurgitating monkey. The amazing miniature girl who reads everything. In this room, I did not fail. I entertained. I excelled. I was not mustard stained. This class is reading Julie of the Wolves, but I am only there for the SARs. In whispers, I summarize the last three chapters for the boy who didn’t read it. He asks what is wrong with me as he pays me with scratch-n-sniff stickers and a new eraser. I tell him they have top people working on it. I finish the green level SARs and begin the purple. Purple was end level. It was not yet October and I had exhausted the system. I knew I would. The only reason I had not done so already was because I was only allowed one hour in the fifth grade per week. I counted the remaining SARs in the box. 12. I would finish in two weeks. What would happen when I finished? The aide walks me back to class.
The daily spelling bee was already in progress. Mr. Maybe-Mustard informs the class that I will be missing lunch recess due to my tardiness. I am the warning to others who may question Substitute Authority. He asks Miss DuckArmy, whoever that is, to join her classmates. Stand and recite. I am the first to sit down. I don’t even attempt to spell my word ‘because.’ I want to sit down. B-E-C-A-U-S-E it didn’t matter. Shh-a-me. My jelly shoes make a satisfying click-clicking as I swing them under my too big chair. Becuz I could. These jellies were once blue. Soon they would be too worn to wear. I had my eye on a red pair. They sparkled like Dorothy’s. Maybe-Mustard tells me to stop as I’m disrupting the class.
I think about how I should be spending my time, as instructed. Sit and be silent. I think about Miyax and the wolves on the tundra. Gathering moss, laying still, blending in so as not to be noticed. I should be writing all the spelling words 15 times each. Copy, use, repeat. My workbook has a bent cover. It makes a satisfying tap-tapping as I write on the left-hand page. I right all the words once along the left margin. I order the words by size. I fill in just the letter e. My name has four Es, two are silent, one has an accessory. There are only two words without an e. My notebook tap-tapping under swirling graphite. Once-blue jellies click-clacking as I think about flying monkeys with ease. Mr. Maybe-Mustard sends me to the outside chair because I’m having trouble controlling my body. Later he asks my mom what is wrong with me. She lets him know they are running tests.
Mr. Maybe-Mustard has a new stain on Thursday. He has known me three days. He explains why I cannot spell. It is b-e-c-a-u-s-e I can’t remember the wright letters in the rite way. Order the letters, not that way, this one. You are doing it wrong. Makes you look stupid, even if you’re smart. He demonstrates by making a list of the letters in ‘arithmetic.’ He tells a story about a rat in a house eating ice cream. He tells me it is a way to remember the letters. I tell him rats don’t eat ice cream. He tells me to make up a different ending, one that makes sense to me. I do. A rat in the house might eat all the cheese. Mr. Maybe tells me this is bad math. I think about biting and what it would feel like to bite a wolf, or Mr. Maybe, or my arm. I bite my new eraser in half as the bell rings.
My mom asks what I’m eating as we walk to the car. I show her the eraser. She slaps it from my hand and sighs. I tell her about the ice cream eating rat and ask why we don’t have a dog. I tell her I’m concerned about the excess of ‘e’ in my name. On Friday, I miss six of fifteen words on my spelling test. Becuse I’m bad at arithmeatc.

Desiree Ducharme is a writer making a living as an Inventory Manager at Powell’s City of Books. More of her work can be found at her website,

Leave a Reply