Darnell leaned against the covered radiator that doubled as a classroom bookshelf, half-listening to the lesson. Next to him a large window opened onto a field heaped with clusters of trees, unbound by buildings or other false horizons. On clear days one could see the nearly ten miles down into the valley, past open fields marbled with narrow bands of trees.
He looked out the window with a fixed gaze, fascinated by the snow that was falling in impossible amounts. It had only started a few hours before, descending from a sky that reminded him of the heavy fog that sometimes overtook the school, stealing the color out of the bricks and trees and even the student’s clothing. The fog was common in autumn, and the quietness of the air, heavy with water, always made Darnell think of being trapped on the ocean’s bottom. He hated the fog, hated the snow, hated the open fields and molting leaves and sky that stretched, unchallenged, in every direction.
There were no buildings to puncture the storm, no steel and glass monoliths to provide perspective, no city streets abandoned to pedestrians and children with makeshift sleds. In Philadelphia a state of emergency would have already been declared, he and his friends sent home where they would gather around their televisions and watch the forecasters obsess. Yet Mr. Neil, his teacher, droned on as if there was nothing extraordinary about two feet of snow in as many hours. The other students seemed to be concentrating on the lesson or, at the very least, bored of it, and only occasionally glanced out the window.
“Mr. Jones,” said the teacher crisply. Darnell’s attention was snapped back into the room, “Could I trouble you to focus here?” Darnell had yet to speak in any of his classes unless forced, and even then spoke in low mumbles. “But – Mr. Neil,” he protested, momentarily forgetting his shyness, “I never seen this much snow before. Shouldn’t we be like evacuating or somthin’? It – it…look like…” Darnell’s sentence dried in his mouth as he noticed dozens of eyes turning to him.
Mr. Neil smiled sympathetically. “You mean, ‘I have never seen this much snow before.’ Also be careful of your elocution, Mr. Jones.” Mr. Neil was a wiry man of 40 with thin hair he parted neatly down the middle. A heavy mustache turned down at the corners of his mouth, giving him a severe bearing. Wireframe glasses decorated his nose and helped mask the intensity of blue eyes. He possessed the earnestness of those educators who live entirely for their profession, a calling that made him sometimes humorless and often uncompromising.
Mr. Neil took a seat on the edge of his desk, a sign he was about to say something informal. The storm outside seemed to capture even his attention for a moment, and the class waited in silence. “To your question, Mr. Jones: This is New England, and storms like this are rare before Thanksgiving, but not unprecedented.” Mr. Neil always spoke in full, declarative sentences, as if he had rehearsed even the most mundane conversations many times. He looked around the class, where a few students nodded their heads. “Don’t worry, Mr. Jones. This storm will let up soon enough, although the snow will be with us from now until April.” Mr. Neil stood back up, signaling an end to the indulgence of his tangent. “Now, let’s continue. The theme of self-discovery in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I believe Miss Denison was going to tackle that. Miss Denison?”
Darnell’s attention, sharpened after the public humiliation, was nevertheless unable to stay focused for more than a few minutes. His eyes soon found themselves outside, moving among the blowing drifts and a landscape overwhelmed by whiteness. In the window he could see the reflected profiles of the other students, nearly as pale as the snow. Darnell focused for a moment on his own dark face, caught like a punctuation point. He pulled down on the sleeves of his sport coat to hide his hands’ blackness neatly inside.