Sunday Stories: “Community Betterment”


Community Betterment
by Janelle Bassett

I shout “Take it out, Layla!” at a child I’m paid to mind. “Put the bottle cap in your pouch, not in your mouth. Go rinse your mouth at the water fountain. Swish and spit before you take a swallow.”

Layla hops to the fountain with her feet together because she is dressed like a kangaroo. She is dressed like a kangaroo because no other animals have built-in trash cans. Maybe turtles, if they suck in to make room. Maybe some unknown species of deep sea creature. There may very well be dumpster-shaped beings chugging along the ocean floor like bumper cars, but we haven’t yet seen them, so we haven’t yet made costumes in their likeness and sold them in bulk on Amazon. I look at my four-year-old students hopping around the park, collecting litter. To think that I only purchased these costumes on Tuesday. On Tuesday these costumes sat flat, folded and individually wrapped in Flagstaff, Arizona. Now they are nestled up against tiny digestive systems, carrying all manner of discards. 

I watch Layla spit water onto the ground and then bend over and pick something up from the place where she spat. It’s tiny, it drips, it could be the wheel of a Hot Wheel car. I watch to see if she’ll put the new trash in her mouth. She does not, but she doesn’t pouch it either. Layla keeps the wet wheel in her palm as she hops to see what’s been tossed behind the climbing wall. 

My boss—the director of the preschool—sent out an email saying she wanted each class to participate in Community Betterment week. The Under Twos are giving up disposable diapers until Monday, and the resulting rashes have taught them about sacrificing for the greater good. The Twos are composting their snack remains, and the Threes have mailed their dried-out markers back to Crayola to be recycled. They mailed them in a box they’d colored with markers, no doubt throwing in the last few, who spent their final juice to decorate their own temporary coffin. My class of Fours, being the school elders, are the most capable of true betterment. They are also less likely to fall down when hopping with their feet together, since they’ve had more time to become acquainted with their motor skills. So we are the kangaroos who are tackling the litter problem at the park across the street. 

“Andy!” I call out “I see a wrapper near the fence line.” I point. “I think it’s from a beef jerky stick. Go see.”

Andy runs, then stops running, then hops toward the fence. 

“Hopping is optional, Andy!” I tell him. We like to offer up our rules as mere suggestions. That’s why parents fight and cheat for spots in our school. 

“I wonder who will have the fullest pouch?” I say this aloud to everyone, but direct it most pointedly toward the three children using their time to stuff wood chips into their socks. They will not have the fullest pouches, but I mean to suggest that they should want to. 

I picture my own son at this age, as I so often do, in case I can find clues about who he is at his core now that he won’t talk to me. What would he do in this situation? Would four-year-old Del fill his pouch or his socks? Would he listen to administered suggestions, or try to climb that tree even though the lowest branch is too high for a starting foothold? I decide he’d be right here, touching me somehow. He’d hold onto the back of my kneecap or to my hand, or even my purse strap. These kids are far more independent and capable. I let Del hold on too long. Maybe that’s the reason for his teenage blankness—he’s punishing me for how long I let him need me.

Or, maybe, these children would hold onto their parents too, if they were here at this park helping them pull fireworks remnants out of the bushes. 

I’d like to sit down. My legs are sore from the YouTube workout video I forced myself to do after I’d eaten more than half a block of caramelised onion flavored cheese, which I’d eaten after Del threw his phone at the cat and refused to show remorse or even acknowledge that I was speaking to him. 

I want to rest on the bench near the row of wooden xylophones, but I need to stay upright and engaged. I need to be able to grab a kid by the sleeve if they dart into the street. I lean against a tree. Annabeth and Corden run up with their hands full of cigarette butts. 

“We found drugs.”

“Give those to me.”

“You do drugs?”

“They aren’t drugs. They are cigarettes that have been in someone’s mouth.” I take the butts from their hands, stuff them in the pocket of my jeans, and douse their palms with hand sanitizer.

Annabeth rolls her eyes back in her head as she sniffs the alcohol on her hands. I tell them to get back to work, that when I look out at the grass I want to see pure green without specks of red, yellow, orange or other colors that shout WANT BUY EAT. 

As they walk toward a wadded burger wrapper, Annabeth tells Corden, “Cigars are drugs, for sure. They’re brown and they make you crazy. Let’s find a cigar.” 

Maybe I should tell Annabeth’s parents how she has responded to this activity, so that when she’s a teenager they can look back on this day as meaningful, predictive data.

It’s hard to know whether my job is to influence and mold my students or to simply hold time with them, meet their needs, keep them going and growing toward an age where they can take on further instruction from better people. Actually… I feel the same way about parenting. Maybe Del isn’t turning out right because I have been pulling him along instead of helping him get further. 

Wessa approaches my tree with news that she needs to pee. Her bottom is already wet. “Didn’t I suggest that everyone use the potty before we left the classroom?”

She nods, offering no defense. Wessa never explains herself, she is one of my favorites. I take her to our classroom assistant, a college student who gets credit for the experience, and ask her to walk Wessa back to school and help her change clothes. Wessa waves back at me and I wonder whether she intentionally wet herself to get out of picking up trash. Del would never have thought ahead like that, considered his options, peed with purpose.

I take another headcount, getting up to fifteen, taking Wessa’s absence into account. I give my co-teacher, Ruben, a thumbs up. All present and correct. He’s helping Ollie pick green Easter grass out of the real green grass. 

A car full of young people pull into the parking lot, high schoolers on their lunch break. Five kids get out of the car, and I can tell just by looking that they are all in love with each other in the wrong configurations. They slam doors while holding styrofoam food containers.

My students stop their work to stand still and act appalled. Many of them turn to look at me, to let me know they’ve seen the kind of offenders I’d so recently warned them about. 

The teens are oblivious, too full of all their many hungers to notice the band of preschoolers closing in on them. I know I should stop my students, call them off, but watching them move toward this blatant display of single-use plastic usage makes me feel like maybe I have led and instructed. At the very least I’ve warned them about the mess they stand to inherit.

Ruben and I exchange a look that means “Let’s just see what happens next.” 

The teenagers carry their food toward the pavilion that houses the picnic tables. I try to pick out which member of this pack Del would be wrongly in love with. The one with the hunchy shoulders? The one who has a dancey walk? What would he say to them, and may I listen in?

My students move toward the pavilion too. They do not rush the pavilion, it’s a slower advance—their legs are quite short. By the time they get to the edge of the concrete floor, the teens are sitting at the tables. The busyness of their mouths disgusts me, the way they are talking just as much as they are eating. Maybe I’m seeing them through my students’ eyes, cast as the bad-bad-consumers. 

The Fours have surrounded the perimeter of the pavilion, but not evenly. They’ve limited the surrounding to two sides. They are monitoring, not confining. 

One of the older kids finally notices the border of preschoolers. “Uh, can we help you?”

I am curious to hear which of them will speak up, and what they will say.

Andy raises his hand. I call over to him, “You may speak, Andy. Thanks for raising your hand.”

Andy steps forward to be the voice of the four-year-olds. “We want your trash.”

The shoulder-huncher sits up straight. “What trash?” 

“Your food containers. Also one of you has a soda bottle.” Andy points to the bottle. The other four year olds point too, it’s in their skillset.

“This isn’t trash. We’re still using it.”

Andy looks around at his classmates, taking some sort of consensus. “We’re going to stand here and wait for you to be done with it to make sure you don’t throw it in the grass.”

“We aren’t going to throw it in the grass. We will put it in that trash can.” She points but her peers don’t join.

I should intercede. We don’t own the park. 

“I’m sorry,” I say as I walk toward the pavilion. “It’s Community Betterment Week. My class has been learning about litter and unnecessary waste. Are those styrofoam containers from the school cafeteria? They should really consider…  ”

“Hey, aren’t you Del’s mom?”

Oh. “I…” I don’t think Del would want to be identified as the son of a crusading child-minder, an encourager of tiny rebellions, a styrofoam stalwart. Although, he might not want to be my known associate even if I were only sitting on the bench reading a mom-type novel. 

“No, I’m not.” 

The owner of the plastic bottle tucks her foot underneath her on the bench, making her taller and more ready to contradict. “Yes, you are. I see you dropping him off every day. You have a bumper sticker that says ‘Fat Chance.’”

My students look at me, the newest offender. Someone should really teach these kids to mind their own business. 

“Fine. Yes. I’m Del’s mom.” All of the young people (the fours and the teens) wait for me to explain why I lied about my son, why I’ve been masquerading as a person with wisdom to impart, when I’m clearly quite faulty. I want to say something clever but inexact like “just another inherited mess.” A response, if not an answer. 

Then I notice that some lowly park-goer left their red and yellow party streamers taped inside the pavilion, just waiting for the wind and rain to blow them into innocent trees or onto the ground, even though the ground didn’t ask for a party. 

I reach for the nearest streamer and pull it down. This feels good, this is an answer. I move around the whole pavilion, tugging down the thin paper that had once proved that someone cared and now, having been left, showed that no one cared at all. I can’t be too angry, though, because the streamers come down so easily. I barely have to try—the tape lets go of the wood, they are both on my side, telling me what they want.


Janelle Bassett‘s writing appears in The Offing, American Literary Review, The Rumpus, Smokelong Quarterly, VIDA Review, and Slice Magazine. She lives in St. Louis and is an Assistant Fiction Editor at Split Lip Magazine.

Image source: Tyler Nix/Unsplash

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