Martha Fratelli’s Kindergarten

Marlene Olin


Photo Credit: Samantha Carlson (CC-by)

Lights buzz and feet shuffle. A ruler taps the table. “It’s your turn, Rolph! Good boy!” Her voice is ladder high, as screechy as a barn owl. “Sit Rolph. Good boy!” When she claps her hands, her eyebrows jump. Lines zigzag her forehead. “Now stand up! Good boy! Shall we bring the newspaper to Miss Martha? Excellent!”

Sally stacks red blue purple blocks in the corner while Noah finger paints the desk. Lyla watches the fork travel to her mouth. Mikie flaps his arms, spins.

But the big hand’s on the twelve and the little one’s on eleven, I want to tell her. It’s hard to get our work done when it’s almost time for lunch. Blocks fall. A fork zooms through the air.

Meanwhile Miss Martha writes at her desk, her mouth sounding the words, her fingers moving like a spider. ABA therapy with the nonverbal group remains a challenge…

Tick tick tick tick. While Noah gobbles the drawing paper, Lyla being Lyla follows. Not only does she shove the paper in her mouth, but an eraser and a fistful of Crayola crayons, too. Her eyes bulge, her cheeks bloom.

The problem with pica continues, Miss Martha writes. There is a pronounced decrease in self-regulation during late morning exercises.

When the clock strikes noon, it’s time for me to run in circles. I wag my butt and cock my ears. Line me up by the trough, people. It’s feeding time!


Minutes later we are in the cafeteria. As usual, Miss Martha reminds us of our manners. She walks up and down the rows adjusting napkins, tilting sip-ups, shouting chew chew chew everybody one two three four five.

Mikie throws his casein-free soy yogurt on the floor. He eats like a bird,” says Miss Susan. “Christ, I don’t know how that kid stays alive.” Lyla bites her peanut butter and gluten-free sandwich, barfs, then shoves the whole gooey cud back inside her mouth.


A big calendar and twenty-three pieces of Scotch Permanent Double-Sided tape hang on the door. Today is Friday. Friday is the day we are herded into the school van, seat-belted, driven approximately forty-five minutes more or less depending on traffic conditions to The Happy Farm in Homestead, Florida. Friday is our favorite day of the week.


I find seven pieces of hard gray chewing gum under the seat in the large yellow bus. They crunch crack in my mouth.


When the road changes from smooth to bump bump bump, I know I’m there. My Harcourt Brace World Atlas copyright 1999 has pictures of approximately fifty-eight national parks, 388 if you include national monuments and historical sights. The Happy Farm looks like one of them. The air smells like Christmas. Trees wave their arms. The dirt beneath me is puddled in shadows. When the wind blows, the puddles jump.

“Hi Hi Hi Hi Hi!” says Luke. Luke is a very tall human. He wears overalls and a large straw hat. Work boots with tire tracks move with his feet. Attached to his hand is a rake or a shovel or sometimes a hoe like it’s all one piece. Hand rake. Hand shovel. Hand hoe. Like my favorite transformer Optimus Prime, Luke changes. One moment he is a farm tool. The next minute he becomes THE HUMAN IN CHARGE.


Where was Miss Susan? the people will ask. Can you sign can you point can you push the squares on your machine and tell us where for the love of God was Miss Susan?


I look to the tree. Miss Susan is sitting under the picnic bench. She has taken her phone out of her purse and pushes numbers. “Are we going to the movies tonight or what?” “Feel like pizza or burgers?” “Do we really have to invite your mother?”

As usual we scamper to the places we’re not allowed. First the koi pond. Two fat tangerine fish wave and bubble. Sally catslits her eyes, growls.

“Where did you run off to now?” shouts Luke. He is far away. If I look through pretend binoculars, Luke is only an inch big.

The next place we head to is the sinkhole. Curlicues of wire roll like tumbleweeds. Even though a sign says “STAY OUT! DANGER!” Noah has already side-turned his body and is squirming his way in.

“There you are!” says Luke. He scoots us toward the yard near the barn. Then he lines us up like ducks. “Be patient, ” says Luke.

The five of us huddle and wait. Waiting is hard. We rock back and forth like a swinging gate. Mikie flaps. Noah hums. Finally, Luke opens the fence and wrangles us inside. Noah heads straight for the goats, his hand stroking his beardless chin, scratching the wattles. Mikie flaps. In a flash, Sally climbs the fence and scurries towards the picnic bench. Hercules the gray black tabby is rubbing its back on Miss Susan’s leg. Sally rolls in the dirt, licks her hands.

By now Miss Susan’s taken out her nail polish. Thanks to her earphones, she can talk, chomp gum, and saw her nails all at the same time. Next to her foot, Sally stretches her neck and purrs. She has twigs in her hair. Burrs velcro her clothes.

“Or maybe Chinese?” says Miss Susan. “I really feel like Chinese.”

Luke shakes his head. Then he walks up to Sally and scoops her up by the scruff. “Here you go.” His tool-less hand brushes off her shirt, her blouse, her socks while he sings her a little song. Luke talks in song. His voice goes up down up down. It’s easy to remember every single word.

“Even kitty cats stay tidy. Kitty cats pride themselves on being tidy. Don’t you know that?”

Miss Susan blows on her nails, pushes more numbers, and looks at her watch all at the same time. Snot is rolling down my snout onto my shirt. Miss Martha will not be happy. I will not get a gold star on the CLEAN CLOTHES CLEAN FACE CLEAN HANDS chart. That is a bad thing. I point and pull at Miss Susan’s sleeve. I have no tissues. When I graduate kindergarten, I will keep tissues and a currycomb in my backpack. Miss Martha says everyone gets a backpack in first grade.

“Down, Rolph. Sit,” yells Miss Susan.

Then she honks orders at Luke. “Would you mind watching the kids while I go to the restroom?”

Luke tucks in his tail, listens.

“The door, Luke, don’t forget the door.”

The lock on the door of The Happy Farm bathroom doesn’t work very well. The five of us whizz on the grass. I’ve seen Luke whizz in a bush. Miss Susan doesn’t use the toilet for whizzing. It’s more like she’s rearranging her face. Luke takes a chair and pushes it under the door knob, gives it a little kick to keep it in place.

She disappears for twenty minutes. I time it on my Casio G-Shock watch. “Unlock the door, will you Luke?” Then she flies out like a butterfly from its cocoon, all lipsticked and perfumed. Sally is still rolling in the dirt, Mikie is flapping from the top fence rail. Lyla and Noah are eating hay from the horse bin.

“Can you spare a bottle of water, Luke? It must be ninety degrees out in the shade.”

For the last part of our fieldtrip, Miss Susan always works on her tan. First she kicks off her sandals. She unbuttons her front all the way to the lacy part, hikes up her dress and swings her naked legs up on the bench.

Luke’s eyes go saucerwide. Drops of sweat bubble between her breasts. Luke licks his lips like he’s thirsty.

“Fetch me my sunglasses, will you Luke? I think I left them in the john.”

She talks to Luke like she talks to us. Loud, like we’re deaf. Slowly, like we’re stupid. But we understand everything. Like sheep, we see all around without turning our heads. We smell like bloodhounds, climb like goats. Catlike, we hear the crinkle of leaves.

Luke knows everything, too. He scratches me behind the ear just where I like it and says Rolph, you ain’t no fool. The words may be locked inside but you’re no fool.


On the bus ride back to school I lick the sticky spots on the seat.


The last hour of every day is Vocalization and Voice. Miss Martha asks us questions. “Mikie, can you tell me what animals you saw today?” He looks up, flaps. She pulls Sally to her desk, touches the tip of her nose. “Look at me, Sally. Good girl.” Then her hands twist, turn, point. “Can you sign cat, Sally? Let me see you sign cat.

When it’s my turn, her roadkill breath blasts me like a furnace. I want to coil on the carpet, snore. “Did you have a good time at The Happy Farm, Rolph?” The clock ticks. The fan whooshes. Mikie flaps.

“Can you say dog, Rolph? I know you like doggies. Doggies are your favorite.”

I take My Springboard Communication Device out from under my desk and swipe my finger over the picture of a house. On cue, the robot voice says Roof! Roof!

But Miss Martha doesn’t have a sense of humor.

“Can… you… say… dog, Rolph?” as if saying it slower and louder will help. So I press the house once more.

While Miss Susan is lining us up for our bathroom break, Miss Martha writes her notes, her lips mumbling. No improvement this week in expressive language communication. I’m afraid that the time and expense of our visits to The Happy Farm cannot be justified. Over-stimulation does not translate into successful…”


In the hallway, I lift my leg and pee.


The next week will be our last week we are told. One more field trip is considered ADEQUATE CLOSURE. That means if we flop on our backs like fish, if we open our mouths and bray, if we stampede the grounds like a herd of buffalo, no one at the school will be blamed. Miss Martha Fratelli will have washed her hands of us. Her plate will be clean.


We X the boxes on the calendar until its Friday. Luke is waiting for us when the big yellow bus pulls up. When he helps us down the stairs, he looks basset hound sad. Extra treats today, he says. But desperation clouds our thinking. Sally runs up to the black tabby, arches her back, hisses. Noah head butts the goat. Lyla follows Luke and me like a shadow. I flash my canines and snarl.

We are all too busy to notice. As usual, Miss Susan is locked in the bathroom with the chair jammed against the door. Leaves crinkle. Puddles jump. And Mikie is nowhere to be seen.

“Did you see the bird boy?” asks Luke.

We follow his scent. The stalls in the barn are empty. The pond is still. The sinkhole quiet.

“Over there,” says Luke. Far off a white wooden house sits on four concrete squares. As we move closer, it looks less like a cabin and more like a shed.

“That’s where I live,” says Luke.

The screen door is closed. The windows shut. We lay stretched on our stomachs and look underneath. There are cobwebs and beer bottles. Dead mice and old newspapers. But no Mikie.

A breeze blows through the trees, tinkles a wind chime, and tickles my snout. It’s windy, kite-flying windy. I look up and there’s Mikie. He’s holding onto a TV antenna, ready to take flight. The tiles are slanted like a sinking ship. He spreads his wings straight out for balance.

“Roof! Roof!” I shout.

Luke looks at me. The words bubble out like a cartoon. I shout them again before they’re swallowed. “Roof! Roof!”

Then Luke hears him, too. A tile falls. Mikie flaps.

“No! No!” yells Luke.

There’s a ladder in the barn and a rope on the fence and an old mattress lying in a pile of trash near Luke’s pickup truck. Pictures race through my mind. What-ifs. Then in the slowest fastest possible way Mikie runs to edge and soars.

“Roof! Roof!” I shout. “Roof! Roof!”

Within seconds, the sky darkens. The clouds have flattened and covered the sun. Miss Susan now stands next to us, breathing hard. Six nails are red the others pink. Strings of hair cobweb her face.   Then she looks at the puddle on the ground that is Mikie. Her earphones hang like a stethoscope and when she leans over him, when she presses her hands against his chest, when she places her mouth over his lips, we can feel our own hearts thump thump thumping while we wait.

A hummingbird’s heart beats over a thousand times a minute, I try to tell her. Its wings flap up to eighty times a second. They can swoop they can hover they can stand in the air, I want to say.

But only roof! roof! comes out.

pencilBorn in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan, Marlene Olin recently completed her first novel. Her short stories have been featured in publications such as Emrys Journal, Upstreet Magazine, Biostories, Vine Leaves, WIPS, Arcadia, Poetica , Edge, Ragazine, The Jewish Literary Journal, Poydras Review and The Saturday Evening Post online. She will be published in Meat For Tea and The Broken Plate in the coming months. Email: emarkayo[at]

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