Back in Auburndale Elementary, Ms. Ponte was my first-grade homeroom teacher. She was so elderly she had probably crossed the Red Sea with Moses. The problem with her was she was falling apart right before my eyes. If you’ve ever seen The Fly, the movie where a scientist’s body parts peel off one by one, you know what was happening to poor Ms. Ponte.
It all started the day she taught our class how to play Simon Says.
“Simon Says, rub your head.”
We rubbed our heads.
“Simon Says, jump up and down.”
We jumped up and down.
“Simon says, p—”
Suddenly, her teeth started to spill out of her mouth.
At first, I thought they were Tic-Tacs or something. We all leaned closer to the floor where they had fallen and got a better look: crown, neck, and bloody root. We shot horrified glances at each other. Ms. Ponte, on the other hand, nodded quietly to herself — she knew this was the start of something.
A few days later her hair began floating off of her head. It reminded me of dandelion seeds whirling in the air. With any slight movement of her head, storm cloud gray hair fell in wisps. Once, when we glued together our papier-mâché version of La Sagrada Familia, we found a clump of hair mixed in with the adhesive. It was pretty gross.
One day Ms. Ponte’s eyeball just popped out of its socket.
It simply dislodged itself, dangling by the optic nerve all slimy on her cheek. When I saw the eyeball, I jerked open the lid of my desk and threw up inside. “You okay, Jimmy?” my classmates asked. “Not really,” I replied, the smell of half-digested lunchroom pizza creeping around the classroom.
Following the incident, Ms. Ponte wore an eye-patch.
One day during the morning session, as she pressed an index finger against the blackboard to support a stick of chalk, her nail snapped clean off the nail bed. She tried using another finger, but it cracked, curving outward toward the knuckles.
Ms. Ponte, however, would not give up so easily. If she couldn’t write on the board, then she’d use another method to communicate with her students. She shuffled over to the projector, flicked it on, and placed a transparent sheet on the glass surface. She lifted a wobbly arm to adjust the focus.
The arm detached itself and thumped to the floor.
Our eyes boggled; we sat without knowing what to do. Finally, Katherine Corzo stood up. “You dropped something,” she said, handing the arm back to Ms. Ponte.
In the days that followed, her body peeled away like a piece of wood being whittled upon. And her voice, once velvety smooth, was now sandpaper rough.
We could make out blue veins that coursed like acequias over her remaining arm and legs. We could hear bones creaking like old hinges on even older doors. We could see her lips, pale and chafed as if erased by a pencil eraser. Days later, we couldn’t make out her iris anymore. It was crazy, but it was like the iris faded away into the sclera. Afterwards she was like a bumper-kart knocking into the door, the desks, the walls.
By the time her right foot came loose, we were the most well-behaved class in Auburndale. Whereas before we’d launch paper airplanes or spitballs and get assigned detention, we now sat quietly, our hands clasped together respectfully over the surface of our desks.
The other teachers peered at us. “I can’t believe it,” they said. “She’s accomplished the single greatest feat of classroom management ever seen by our school system.”
The day Ms. Ponte’s ears fell off, my mom, who volunteered at Auburndale from time to time, decided to file a complaint. I snuck away during recess, wedging myself into a corner of the hallway to eavesdrop.
“I agree Ms. Ponte’s… grown soggy,” our principal said.
“Soggy?” mom retorted. She argued Ms. Ponte had grown so old beyond repair, the school board should vote to replace her immediately.
“I’m sorry,” said our principal. “But that would constitute discrimination. Plus, shouldn’t we sympathize with the elderly?”
Mom, however, had reason not to sympathize. You see, Ms. Ponte once recommended me to the Exceptional Student Education program. Back then I couldn’t tell the difference between apples and pears, so I had to endure the Wechsler Intelligence Scale and other tests for verbal ability. Luckily, the final report stated I “Did not meet eligibility criteria for placement in an ESE program.” I got to stay in Ms. Ponte’s class. My mom, though, hated her ever since.
After recess we walked back into the classroom and found Ms. Ponte huddled underneath her desk. She was a bundled mass of sallow flesh and brittle bones. We nudged the amorphous jumble with the tips of our shoes, but Ms. Ponte was gone.
After school that day, my classmates flocked to the monkey bars, our favorite hangout. “Are we gonna fall apart, too?” I asked them.
They peered around, not knowing what to say. We were shaken up. “That’ll never happen to us,” Katiuska said confidently.
“Yeah, we’ll never get old,” Miguel added.
“Never ever,” Katherine seconded.
I wanted to believe them, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the misshapen honeycomb underneath the desk.
Years later, I decided to seize every day before I fell apart — I partied, travelled everywhere, smoked like a chimney, siphoned drink after drink, gorged myself on the finest foods, scaled mountains, jumped out of planes.
I finish my story.
My student, a sophomore in high school, sits peacefully and listens. He sees the wilted lettuce of my skin, watches my arm slide off, my hair wisp away, my irises dip into the white of the eyes. He asks, “Will the same thing happen to me, Mr. Diaz?”
“Yes, and if ever in doubt,” I say moments before my jaw crumbles, “just remember the noble and inimitable Ms. Ponte.”
Manny Delgadillo was born and raised in Miami, FL. He received his BA and MA in Literature from Florida International University. He is currently a writing consultant at the Center for Excellence in Writing, where he works closely with graduate students.