Kids in Kindergarten by Corinna Chong
2021 CBC Short Story Prize winner
Corinna Chong has won the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize for Kids in Kindergarten.
You can read Kids in Kindergarten below.
This story contains details of miscarriage and pregnancy loss that some readers may find disturbing
She said the ones whose mothers didn't really want them were always the best behaved.
"They'll do anything to please you," she said, stirring her virgin Caesar with a spear of pickled asparagus.
I looked at the carcass of a fly that lay at the edge of the bar top. All that was left was a shrivelled peppercorn with wings sticking out of it.
"There's this one kid — Lonnie. Has a little blond rat tail. He asks me every single day if I want some of his candy bar, just because one time I told the class I was craving chocolate and he offered half of his Kit Kat, which I took. I'd gone on about how kind and generous he was and his eyes were just like stars."
"He has a candy bar every day?" I said.
"I know." Rebecca rolled her eyes. "Some parents. I tell ya, this kid's not getting any sugar until he's at least two." She patted her belly as if to alert the fetus to her vow.
Rebecca had only recently begun showing, even though she was now six months along. Her bump was a perfect ball of dough, over which a cotton dress was stretched. Last time I had seen her, she'd worried aloud about when her belly button was going to pop out. "Don't you think it looks gross when you can see it poking out under someone's shirt like a huge zit?" she'd said.
"So is he bright then? Lonnie?" I asked her.
"Mm," she said, swallowing a gulp of her drink. "Not in the least. Can't even count to five. But I feel like his emotional intelligence is higher than most adults."
"Adversity builds character," I said.
"Exactly. I mean, you can't really blame the mother. She's got two older boys also, twins. Clearly Lonnie was an accident."
An accident. I bobbed my head in agreement, listening to her anecdotes about the various kids in her class — kids on behavioural meds, kids with puppet phobias, kids who licked their lips raw, kids with designer knapsacks. Really, I was thinking about how I'd spent more than a decade of my youth desperately avoiding an "accident." When I lost my virginity to my boyfriend at 16, he'd broken down into tears after coming inside me because we hadn't used a condom. "How could I be so fucking stupid?" he'd said, both of us watching his dripping penis slowly deflate. Even though I'd taken the bus to the clinic that same evening for a morning-after pill, for weeks I was convinced that it was over, I'd been implanted, and now a tiny nugget was growing inside of me, sprouting arms and legs and fingernails and hair soft as feathers. I grew up as all girls did: believing that without some form of birth control, getting pregnant was inevitable penance for the sin of having sex. Then, once we'd grown up enough for a baby to be acceptable, we believed that it would happen when we commanded it, like pushing a button on a microwave.
Once we'd grown up enough for a baby to be acceptable, we believed that it would happen when we commanded it, like pushing a button on a microwave.
It had for Rebecca. We'd planned out being pregnant at the same time, discussed how she should go off the pill a few months before the day of my IVF, since it might take some time for her body to adjust. But she'd gotten pregnant immediately. She'd texted me a photo of her and Anthony holding up a positive pregnancy test with the caption, "Turns out we're super fertile!" Now, their first child, Harriet, was already three years old.
The server came by to take our orders. Rebecca did not seem to notice when I asked for a ginger ale instead of wine. She was examining the nails of her left hand, which were painted in an assortment of colours like chiclets.
"Anyway," she said once the server had left, "not to scare you about them or anything. They're going to love you. I just wanted you to be prepared."
"I'm excited for it," I said. "I love reading aloud." I took a sip of my drink. "This ginger ale tastes a bit funny," I muttered, though it didn't. I was trying to get Rebecca to ask. The last time she'd asked had been over a year ago. But then it occurred to me that if she did ask, I wouldn't know what to say.
"If I'm boring, you'll have to give me a signal," I quickly redirected.
"A signal," she repeated. "Like this?" She did the shocker, grinning.
"Yes," I said. "That'll work."
When I got home after dinner, Claudia was back. She'd taken the red eye from Shanghai and was indeed red-eyed, but I couldn't tell if it was from exhaustion or from crying. Maybe both.
"You didn't have to come," I said. I'd expected myself to break down when I saw her but I felt wrung out.
"Of course I came," she said, wrapping me up in her arms. "I just wish I could've gotten here sooner. It had to be the one time I miss my connection...."
"It's not your fault," I said, pulling away. I didn't know why, but I felt annoyed.
"Honey," she said, turning up her palms. "I'm so sorry. How do you feel? Is there any pain?"
"Not anymore," I said. "It was quick."
"And have you been to the doctor yet?"
"No," I said. "I'm going tomorrow to drop off the sample."
Claudia pressed a hand to her mouth. "I'm going with you," she said.
"No, it's fine," I said. "I have to go to Rebecca's school straight afterwards anyway. I'm doing the guest reading for her class at 2:30."
"You're still doing that?"
"Yeah. Why not?"
"I'm sure Rebecca would understand if you had to cancel. Or postpone."
"It's fine," I said.
Claudia bit her nail. I went to the kitchen and put the kettle on to boil.
"Where is it?" she said eventually.
"The — sample."
"In the fridge."
"You put it in the fridge?"
"That's where you're supposed to put it," I said. "You have to keep it fresh."
Claudia shut her eyes. "Okay, I just — I don't want to see it. Is that horrible?"
"No," I said. Yes, I thought. "I'll put it in a bag or something."
"I'm sorry," she said.
I didn't say that I hadn't wanted to see it either. I didn't say that I'd expected it to look like a baby, like it did in the ultrasound, with a bulbous head and little frog arms waving, but that it came out instead as a purplish-red sac, like a chicken liver. I'd held it in a wad of tissues because I couldn't bear to touch it and dropped it inside a mason jar. A faded label for spiced peaches was still stuck to the side.
I felt like I was different now; something inside my body had shifted, and now every organ and muscle and bone had clicked into a new position.
After I concealed the jar in a crumpled paper bag, Claudia and I snuggled up on the couch together with our tea and she stroked my hair. I didn't know how to tell her that it wasn't soothing; it felt like being raked taut and snapped like old gum. I felt like I was different now; something inside my body had shifted, and now every organ and muscle and bone had clicked into a new position. Even my eyeballs, which seemed now to focus on new shapes — the insides of things rather than the outsides, the blank spaces in between.
"This is good," Claudia whispered. "This time, we'll get some answers."
I knew which one was Lonnie as soon as I walked in. The rat tail was a giveaway, but also his strange, wide eyes, which made him look older than the other kids even though he must have been half the size. He was colouring a printout of a jack o'lantern, carefully filling the eye holes with a pink marker. He had a small round nose and a slight mouth, and he held himself in a similarly diminutive way, all of which made him look like a field mouse sniffing about in a world that was far too big for him.
Rebecca seemed to take on a different persona in her role as teacher. Her nature wasn't ordinarily maternal or particularly warm, even with her own daughter. But here, in her classroom, Rebecca was Maria von Trapp, announcing story time with a song she sang to the tune of "If You're Happy and You Know It."
"If you're ready for a story clap your hands!" Clap, clap. Her voice was glass, her smile painted a candy pink.
The kids sprang from their seats, skipping over to the circular rainbow rug in the corner of the classroom and cannonballing into what were obviously their habitual spots. Some of the girls sang along to the song. A boy with a mop of black hair groaned and threw his head back, clapping his hand on his forehead, one eye gauging my reaction, which I was sure to conceal. Lonnie rose from his seat, lifting his eyes from his paper as though waking from a dream, and walked over with measured steps, sliding his hands into the pockets of his grey sweatpants. He kept them tucked in as he dropped into a cross-legged position near the outer edge of the rug, behind a gaggle of girls who were arranging themselves to braid each other's hair.
"I'm so happy to be here," I said to the kids, hating how flat my voice sounded in contrast to Rebecca's chirpy teacher tone. "I'm going to read one of my favourite books of all time, The Magic Finger."
"How special," said Rebecca. "So boys and girls, let's put on our best listening ears for our friend." She tugged her ear lobes and the children mimicked her.
I only got about halfway through the book before the kids began fidgeting. One of them splayed out onto his belly like a seal and started rocking himself side to side on his hands. Another had taken off her shoes and was flicking little lint balls that she'd picked from the rug into them. Rebecca seemed embarrassed, and tried a few times to gesture at the disrupters to stop, but I didn't actually care. I wasn't reading to them; I was reading to Lonnie. He'd been still the entire time, listening, watching me with those round eyes. Watching me, not even the pictures that I displayed face-out, spanning the room. He had a far-off look on his face, his eyes practically shimmering, and I knew he was imagining himself as the character in the story — what it would be like to have his own magic finger, with the power to punish those who were cruel and selfish, those who didn't deserve their perfect, cushy lives.
"All right, boys and girls," Rebecca interrupted as I was about to turn the page. "I think it might be time for a little break." She broke into song once again. "Recess, everybody out! Recess, 'cause it's time to run and shout!"
Rebecca and I began putting on our shoes along with the kids and she explained that it was a longer story than the kids were used to. Over her white dress she put on a long red peacoat that she could no longer button all the way, so her belly stuck out from the folds like it was peeking from a curtained stage.
"Sorry," I said. "I'm clearly out of touch with kids."
"Oh please," she said, "You can't help it. We'll give them 15 to blow off steam and then we'll see how they are."
I wanted to leave. It was obvious that story time would not resume when recess was over. Instead, I stood with her, puffing steam with our breath, watching the kids leap and swing and skid in the gravel.
Rebecca clucked her tongue. "Oh, Ashton," she said, spying some confrontation off to the side of the playground. "The little shit. He's one of the ones I told you about. The one whose parents treat him like a little emperor."
It was the mop-haired kid, and he was standing at the edge of the basketball court with Lonnie. A huge puddle lay between them. Lonnie had his chin down, his eyes, stricken with suspicion, aimed up at Ashton's. With a careless swipe of his booted foot, Ashton sloshed some muddy water in Lonnie's direction. Lonnie's grey sweatpants turned black up to the knees, and he raised his arms, shocked, winded.
Rebecca ran over. "Ashton!" she said. She grabbed his arm and a half-eaten Kit Kat dropped from his hand and into the dirt. "That is not how we treat our friends, is it? I'm going to have to call your parents again." She turned to Lonnie. "Are you all right?"
Lonnie nodded, his arms still held up like wings.
"Okay, boys and girls!" Rebecca hollered. "Back inside!"
Lonnie's sweatpants had already wicked up the muddy water to the thighs by the time he reached the doors to the school. He went ahead while Rebecca held the doors, the kids filing in a few at a time. I followed Lonnie, who moved quickly into the classroom. He went directly to a cupboard behind Rebecca's desk and retrieved a pair of green slacks before disappearing into the bathroom. He emerged within moments, holding his balled-up pants in two hands. The green slacks hung loosely from his hips. Rebecca was still in the hall, swept up in a flurry of kids tossing off jackets and boots.
"Here," I said to Lonnie. I found an old grocery bag in my purse and took the ball from his hands. A wet pantleg flopped out as I dropped it into the bag and tied it up, passing it back to Lonnie.
By the time Rebecca got back into the classroom, Lonnie was sitting at his desk with his hands folded, his knees pressed tightly under the desk in the ill-fitting slacks.
"Sorry for cutting you short," Rebecca said to me. "Maybe we can try again sometime?"
She'd already forgotten about Lonnie. I knew that after I'd left, she and the kids would go on with their day as usual. They'd all forget except Lonnie, who would keep feeling the cold splash of the water hitting him over and over, the shapeless wet crawling up his legs.
Ashton was just coming in the door as I was going out. He tried to brush past me but I stood in the way.
He looked at me with incredulity. I stared back.
"Everything okay, Ashton?" Rebecca called.
I knelt down to his level and whispered in his ear. "You're a waste," I said. "A filthy waste."
I would never see Rebecca again. She would name her son Roger, after her dad. And mine — this one, for whom I'd made another womb in the bottom of my purse, nestled in my wool scarf — mine would have a name with the sound of a stone, a thing with no face, and without memory.
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Listen to Corinna Chong read Kids in Kindergarten
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About Corinna Chong
Corinna Chong received her MA in English and creative writing from the University of New Brunswick. Her first novel, Belinda's Rings, was published by NeWest Press in 2013, and her reviews and short fiction have been published in magazines across Canada, including The Malahat Review, Room, Grain and The Humber Literary Review. She teaches English and fine arts at Okanagan College in Kelowna, B.C.
The story's source of inspiration
"I had a daughter four years ago, and since going through the trials of conceiving, pregnancy and new motherhood, I've been interested in exploring these themes in my writing. I think that miscarriages, while incredibly common, remain a taboo subject. It wasn't until I was trying to conceive that I began to hear so many stories of women, some of whom I knew, who had suffered miscarriages without anyone knowing.
"I wanted to write a story that could navigate in an empathetic way the nuances of pregnancy loss and the struggle to talk about it. This story began with the first sentence: She said the ones whose mothers didn't really want them were always the best behaved. I thought about how this statement could be fairly innocuous or even funny without context, but might be gutting to someone desperate but unable to have children of her own. This was the genesis for a protagonist grieving a recent pregnancy loss in isolation against the backdrop of a kindergarten classroom filled with other people's children."
The winner of the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.