“William Cullen Bryant Day” by Zoe Keithley

 

7:54 am, October 15, 1997.
Thursday. William Cullen Bryant day.

I pick my way across the parking lot to pull on the only handle I can find. A weather-
beaten Our Children Our Future emblem swings outward. On the blast of over-
heated air I smell boiled hot dogs. Most students will eat out of the vending
machines today. My name is Isa Fitzgerald.

I step inside to a metal detector. The guard takes in my trench coat, sensible shoes
and briefcase, waves me on.

“Good morning!” I chirp, carefully cheerful in the foreign culture of the high school—
that’s what they call it in edu-speak, a “culture.” The students are a “population”
with an “ethnic profile”; the school has “demographics,” a “poverty index”,  a “drop-
out rate” and a “table of negative academic achievement”.

A river of bodies boils by, up stairwells, down hallways and into classrooms on three
floors. The open smell of autumn on hair, jackets and book bags evaporates in the
heat of the building. Dress code requires white on top, black on the bottom;
earrings on males and certain colors of shoelaces are forbidden. A fat boy in a
yellowed shirt raises a hand at the stairs.

“Hi, Miz Fiz-gerul.”

This boy, in fifth period English, is one who sleeps, nose burrowed into his arm,
until the teacher, Mr. Jannis, raps him with a rolled-up newspaper or the bell rings. I
take in the heavy face, hands loose and lost. His classmates tent their heads with
their arms when I give a demonstration lesson in writing, as if I were sighting them
in cross-hairs desk to desk; and the teacher for whom I am present, disappears into
a file drawer or class attendance book or the SunTimes.

“See you fifth period,” I say. “We’re going to have fun.” I hoist a cassette player.

In this far South Side public high school, I am seen as The Enemy, sent by the
Chicago Board of Ed to spy, then clap people into leg irons. If academic scores
don’t go up this second year of school reform, staff could lose their jobs. There
have been principals’ heads on the parapets of City Hall since June, and teachers
rattling tin cups in the streets.

I am not sent by the Board of Ed. I am as much under scrutiny as anyone, since I
am held responsible for raising test scores by March. I am the EOP (Educational
Outreach Program) of Elliott College, a formerly religious and now non-sectarian
institution on the West Side, and now in a shotgun marriage with Bryant. Less than
fifteen percent of Bryant’s students meet state norms. This fact puts the high
school on academic probation; and the Board requires it to have an educational
partner or be reconstituted (read: Everybody gets fired).

I am white, forty-three, with a Master’s in Writing I got to stay afloat after my
husband died. Now, due to my success with low-scoring freshmen, and Elliott’s
hunger for a piece of City Hall’s School Reform pie, I am a foot soldier in the war
against sixty years of crumbling, dismal, decrepit, and defunct public education in
Chicago.

Up the stairs. Young bodies blind as the blades of a revolving door knock me one
way then another as they tower, elbow, bellow, dog whistle, leap-frog and torrent
past. I notice the starburst of blood now three weeks old on the first landing. Two
more flights. A clutch of kids barnacle the door jamb of Ms. Trevor’s first period
English class. Most will not go in until they absolutely have to. The bell chews along
my nerves. Excuse me, excuse me. I shoulder my way to the threshold.

It’s 8:01 and in one corner of the room I see three limber brothers eye the girls,
snap fingers and croon dirty lyrics; they flash white teeth at the University lady.
Seated near the windows are four sports experts. “Man, Pippin jes’ los’ it, tha’s
awl,” a boy throws himself back in his chair. “No, man,” his friend hikes forward,
cuts a chunk out of the air. “It Jorden, man. He an ol’ man, man. He need give
Scotty some room. Give the man a chance for oncet.” A girl submerged under
corkscrew curls, eye make-up and headphones stares at me from a desk in the
doorless coat closet. No teacher is present. I find a chair.

8:06. I look these embryonic adults over, wonder how they feel going to school in a
failing building (Even the building is failing, yuk, yuk), wonder how they feel seeing
the month-old blood spot on the landing, person-size hunks of plaster torn from
the walls or ceilings, and cockroach trails along the framing boards.

Last week was my first time in this room. That day it took Ms. Trevor, the teacher,
nearly twenty minutes to complete roll. Then I read aloud to the class from the
opening of Black Boy and held two loner students up front. The rest of the class
acted as if I were silent oldies projected onto the chalkboard–and smack dab in the
middle of their personal business to boot. The teacher bawled and threatened, then
gave up trying to improve things and buried her nose in desk drawers and the
supply closet until the bell sounded.  If I were looking for a reform trophy for the
principal, I could tuck Ms. Trevor right under my arm; but I’m the last one
interested in costing anybody her job. I’m just here to try to show teachers new
possibilities, new ways to do things; and my oblique connection with the Board of
Ed is a liability. Today I’m bringing music, every teenager’s basic food. There will be
no wandering attention today.

8:12. The national anthem crackles over the intercom. I stand. These kids don’t;
they raise their voices to overcome the loudspeaker while a beautician applies polish
to her client’s nails, two boys play gin rummy and a girl flips through a video
catalogue. The intercom clicks off. I take my hand from my patriotic heart and sit
again.

8:14. The sports club moves on to baseball. One boy escapes out the door. Two
girls in billowing jackets shuffle in, followed by a kid stuffing his face with popcorn.
Someone blows a dog whistle in the hall as feet pound past and the floor trembles.
“You ahr sub?” a sleepy-eyed girl leaning on a capsizing arm asks. I shake my head
no. “You from the Board?” She can hardly hold her eyes open. “I’m a writing
teacher. I was here last week,” I tell her. She yawns. “Oh,” she sniffs and her arm
and head flop to the desk. I go back to my lesson plan.

8:18. Ms. Trevor, slip hanging a full inch and a half below her dress, bangs a paper
sack against the door frame as she crosses the room, shoes flapping, wig favoring
one ear. In her sixties, Ms. Trevor sets the burden of her textbooks and papers on
the floor by her desk. The singers heighten their falsetto, two catalogue readers
consult and fill out order blanks. Ms. Trevor is of no more moment than the
October breeze through the window. I check the clock, unhitch part three of my
lesson and let it float off into next week.

Bosoms sag under her navy dress with its large purple and green flowers; Ms.
Trevor rights herself, frowns. “There shouldn’t be no talkin’, young people. You-all
know the rules. If I am detained, you are to go over your homework. You-all owe
me your word lists from Monday. This the third day I be askin’ for them.””

“Oh,” one of the singers, a red t-shirt under his white uniform shirt, lifts the
eyebrows of his long face; his hands, delicate as a violinist’s, escape toward the
ceiling. “Oh,” he swivels from one face to another, voice as high as his hands, “Ms.
Trebor say we need be doing our hom-work. Where y’all hom-work at? C’mon now,
git it out, git it out.” He frowns around, moving his arm and hand like a scythe.
“Missus Treevor, she want the hom-wark,” another male, dark hair slickered back,
legs stretched out, Adidas flopped apart, calls. “Geeve up the hom-wark. Missus
Treevor, you can see she ees waitin’”

Boys shrug; girls raise slim shoulders along with their palms and, smiling widely,
shake their heads as if bewildered. Homework? Why would they have homework?
Another student strolls into the room. The clutch of singers picks up the thread of
lyric still suspended in the air. “Do me some mo-re; do me on the flo-or”; their
torsos slip around to the beat.

“All right,” Ms. Trevor straightens her belt and flips open a black spiral book. “I’m
taking names, starting with you, Darren, an’ then you, Victor.”

“Oooo, y’all,” Darren plucks at his red shirt, gives a little scream; “Look out now.
Ms. Trebor takin’ names. You know what that mean—.” He beats time with his feet.
“Mi-ster Jones, Mi-ster Jones.” The class takes it up, pounding on their desks,
tromping on the floor. Mi-ster Jones, Mi-ster Jones.

“Aw right, Darren,” Ms. Trevor bawls; “Aw right class, ah’m gettin’ the guard. Ah’m
calling the guard.” She spanks the floor toward the door, index finger aiming for the
buzzer on the intercom. The ruckus dribbles away.

Sniffing, coughing, shuffling of chairs.

“And she got her hair done today.” Darren’s voice warbles bright and high out of
the constraint of silence. “What kine hair you got, Ms. Trebor? Look like that long
fur offen them monkey arms.”

His boys howl and high-five. The rest of the class whoops, laughter honed for
humiliation, parting the sculptures of their lips, letting the brilliance of their tongues
leap onto the teacher’s desk where she sits with her grade book.

I am appalled. This is an older woman.

“Naw,” another boy wearing an earring some teacher later will tell him to remove
breaks in, slapping his knee, “that a dog I seen runned over front ‘a school
yesteday. Miz Tebor done ripped that fur right offen his back ‘fore he even got colt.”

Ha, ha, ha, they turn on her the jewels of their eyes, glittering with the will to
cut.

Laughter in the classroom ricochets off the stained ceiling, rebounds from the
scarred floor. Ms. Trevor seems impervious to the insults. I am assigned to four
teachers at Bryant, and only one so far has had complete control of her classroom.
At my West Side Tuesday school, no teacher black, white, yellow or green has
complete control of the classroom.

“Now y’all stop.” A slender girl with big eyes and marcelled hair throws an arm into
the air; her long red fingernails are like petals of a jungle flower and brilliant against
the dun of the walls. “Y’all gone hurt Miz Trebor’s fillins. An’ here she come today in
her pretty dress from Am-Vets, an nobody say nothin’ nice to her.” She leans
forward in her chair, gold loops gleaming at her ears, a crease down the front of her
jeans, her freshly ironed blouse, its top button undone, glowing against her skin.

“You look real nice today Miz Trebor. Tha’s my fav’rit dress you got on. Ah don’
care how many times you wear it, Ah always be glad to see it.” Around her, the
wave of mockery rises like a wall of water. “An’ yo’ slip look real pretty too.”

She shrieks the last line out doubling over in her chair, then falls sideways into the
arms of the boy next to her; and the wave crashes over the room, filling it up with
the dirty oil-slick of the joke, with the howling voices, boys high-fiving and falling
out, girls sliding onto their tailbones as if they were drunk, weak with the fun of it,
while the partly submerged debris of their lives bobs and collides and submerges
again.

Color climbs the drapery of Ms. Trevor’s jawline. “Put them chairs right,” she points
and barks. “An’ stop that singin’. Tha’s no kine words for young folks to be sayin’.
It got no place in mah classroom. Y’all know mah rules.”

“Oooo. Do me he-re, baby. Don’t you have no fe-ar,” boys and girls turn  the
volume up, lean against one another like barroom buddies.

Ms. Trevor is at my elbow.

“Ah spec’ you can go ‘head wif yo’ lesson.” She waves a hand crumpled by arthritis
toward the chalkboard. “Thiz lady from Elliot College,” she tells the class. “She here
las’ week, those you here. She gon’ teach today.” Mrs. Trevor retreats to her desk.

I feel the shore pull away. I look over at her. I won’t be helping you, her body says.
I’m gone until the bell rings. It’s all yours, University lady.

“Carramba, thees  ees boring,” the girl in the closet pronounces from under her
headphones as I walk to the front of the room  to face the class. Student eyes
already glazed look through me, through the chalkboard, through the wall, across
the corridor, through the opposing classroom’s far wall to the street, across to
some far-off fountain that spouts that magical potion of the future they need to
slake their thirst; and which draws them to itself without mercy.

Showtime.

From my briefcase I take two tapes. Talk volume increases again. Nevertheless, the
cassette player gets looks. I hold up the plug. “I need a technician,” I say. A boy in
front of me—ironed shirt and pants, new gyms—raises his hand.  His friend with a
ring through his eyebrow yells, “Hey, you no tecnico, bobo. You don’t even able to
get yore car door to open.” Easy laughter eddies about the room. I am elated; my
trick has worked and I don’t have to stick my rear into the face of this fractious
giant.

“You’ll need paper and pen.” I make light bounce off my voice.

The giant slides onto the end of its spine, buries its head in its arms. “Today you
are going to be music vendors,” I sparkle away. The giant groans as if this were the
sixteenth time this week it has had to be a music vendor. “You’re going to do what
they do in the music business.” I have no idea what goes on in the music business;
but hey, some of what I’m asking them to do must go on sometime in the music
business. “I am going to play two songs. You develop a fact sheet on each; next
week you pick one song to write a sales pitch for, using your fact sheet.”

I surmise Ms. Trevor, into her paper sack, has missed my brilliant ploy of getting
expository and persuasive writing from the same pre-writing activity. Her
inattention is a disappointment though, since this lesson is for her benefit.

“You’ll need to note what instruments you hear, style of song, the story or
meaning in the lyrics, the target audience you envision, and so on.”

The giant stirs onto an elbow, follows the voice vibration, searches until it finds the
middle-aged teacher at the front of the room in her black slacks, out-of-a-bottle
brown hair, crows feet, J. C. Penney earrings, her eyes behind the drug store
glasses too big and too bright, her mouth repeating they’ll need to take notes. The
giant shifts onto the other elbow, pulls a page of crumpled paper from a backpack,
catches an end-over-end ballpoint mid-air.

“What song you gon’ play?” This from the fold of musical young-bloods at the back
of the room.

“You haf sumthin” mi ol’ lady wou’ hate?” ring-through-the-eyebrow rises up and
snaps his fingers like a flamenco dancer. His buddies laugh, snap their fingers too.

“The first is Jim Croce doing “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” I scan their faces for
recognition of the lyric about their part of Chicago. Nary a ripple. In my West Side
high school, Croce and folk singer Bob Gibson beat out Satchmo and got a
grudging ”moderately cool” from students who felt they could market Croce and
Gibson to swingers in their thirties.

Hearing my selections, these boys release air like tires flattening, lay their heads on
the desks.

“Ain’t you got nothin good we heard of?” It’s the kid who helped me.

In my briefcase I have a two-song promo of the popular young singer Usher. I
glance at Ms. Trevor with her Bible Belt body. The song is heavily sexual. I got the
artist from a sixth grader in my Wednesday school, went to Coconuts, listened to
the tape on the way in. When I heard the repetition of “I’ll f —you right, I will,” I
thought, forget it.  However, the flip side is instrumental.

“Well yes, I do have something else.” I let a swagger into my voice.

“Ah bet it Jingle Bell,” a kid with a shaved head rises out of his seat, soaks up the
laugh. On his lower lip is a purple scar shaped like a wedge of cheese.

“It’s not Jingle Bells. And it’s not the national anthem.” I let my satisfaction glance
off their faces, open for the moment.

The room becomes still.

“What it then?” the shaved head kid frowns and fingers his scar.

I let the pause lay there; let them feel the weight of it; feel for the life stirring in it.
“Usher,” I say, finally, and rake in the looks of disbelief, of reappraisal.

Darren leans back until his chair is on two legs, shakes his head, jabs his thumbs
toward the floor. “Naw man, she ain’t got no Usher .”

I feel a surge of power, fish for the cassette, hold it up. On the front is a handsome
bare-chested young man with glistening hair pulled into a pony-tail, arms crossed
over bulging muscles and intense eyes looking out from the plastic box.

“Lemme see.” The boy who helped me unfolds his body.

He comes on too fast. Instinctively I hide the tape behind my back, then feel guilty,
argue with myself that I am too suspicious. “Jeremy,” his dangling student i.d. says,
is the boy who helped me out with the plug just a moment ago.

I hesitate, hand him the tape.

His eyes buck, eat the name, the image; his mouth gapes. He holds it high, rattles
the case.

“She got Usher sho’ enuf,” he tells his friends who begin jumping for it. Lemme see
it man. Gib it ober, Jer’me. Gib it here.

My stomach drops. What if he doesn’t give it back, goes off with that sexual
material to the sea of headphones in the lunchroom, tells everyone he got it from
that teacher lady from the university?

“Give me the tape, Jeremy.” I hold out my hand.

Jeremy stands like the Statue of Liberty, the cassette high over his head, his
suddenly invigorated friends, the turbulent waters.

“Give me the tape,” I repeat the command, keep my voice even, though my heart is
pounding—walking the high wire without a net. I’ve met Jeremys before, white,
black, brown—all will, nothing but will, the lords of the land.

Jeremy waggles the tape at my nose. “Play this one.”

There are shouts of agreement, and a funny shift in the room that says they, the
students, are possibly remotely prepared to consider something akin to perhaps
even liking the University lady, especially if she gives them music the school and
their parents don’t approve of. But they are also a pot on a high flame, the excited
water jumping at the rim.

“First we’ll hear Jim Croce. Then we’ll hear Bob Gibson. Then we’ll hear Usher.” I
make my voice firm, step toward Jeremy.

He ducks the tape behind his back. “How we know you gon’ play it?”

“Because I said so. If we start now, we’ll have time to hear it before the bell rings; if
we waste any more time, it’ll be too late and you’ll have to wait until next week.” It
is a masterstroke. Jeremy surrenders the tape.

I press the play button. Silence, hissing; then the stepping up, stepping down of
the piano banging out the intro to “Leroy Brown. ” There are grimaces, blinking
eyes, hands over ears. Someone waves in a circle: Turn it down.

I am stunned, dumbfounded. Who can’t like Croce doing their Chicago, speaking
their lingo? I think back to Usher playing in my car, and realize I was hearing
Motown reborn—soft, mellow, and now explicitly sexual. That’s what they’re hungry
for, not the jumping jack songs of the sixties. How could I have been so stupid?

Then, as if she ascended out of the floor, Ms. Trevor is there, dancing a slow dance
in front of the cassette player. Donna Reed hair cocked to one side, a shy smile on
her lips, arms pumping to the beat, her slip sways below her dress. In old-lady
steps, she turns, raises her arms over her head. Tiny grey hairs sprout under her
capped sleeves. Ms. Trevor steps to a melody of tenderness, of the past; she
dances on a dance floor we cannot see to music we cannot hear.

Her students gape, roll their eyes, but hesitate, confused by this shocking unasked
for display of her humanity. They read it as a betrayal and subversion of the
unspoken game of school: They are to hate and torment Ms. Trevor until June to
show their contempt for anything that is not their own; she is to berate and
unjustly police them Fall to Summer and so crystallize their self-righteousness and
will to resist.

“Mama mia!” the boy with slickered hair sets down his People Magazine.

“Git up an’ dance wid her,” Jeremy elbows his buddy.

“Aw, man, she too fas’ fer som-body my age.”

I am aghast, humbled, thinking perhaps Ms. Trevor has done this for me, to
support my lesson. Now I have a visceral need to throw my body between Ms.
Trevor and her class while Croce pounds on.

“Mm-muh! Now thas’ sexy. Ain’t tha’ sexy?” Darren asks around, shaking his
fingers hard and fast and eyeing Ms. Trevor’s age-flattened hips under her skirt.
“Wou’nt y’all call that hot?”

But the class lets it go. Ms. Trevor, eyes still half-closed, soft smile still on her lips,
completes a circle and sways back to her desk.

“Take notes. What instruments do you hear? What story?” I’m in there without
missing a beat.

The giant blinks, jots a word, a line. A few shoulders roll, a few fingers pop. The
room quiets. Glee uncurls in my solar plexus. By God, I’ve got them. I stroll,
smiling, peering over shoulders, feeling smug and powerful.

The weak light of a Chicago overcast struggles through the grime on the windows.
Gum wrappers, cellophane bags, balls of crumpled loose-leaf sit on the floor like
modern art. There is the clank and rattle of the dumpster outside, the buzz of the
overheads, the scratch and tap and of pens and pencils, the melody breaking off as
if cut with a scissors.

I whirl to see a wide grin floating near the cassette player as a life-sized puppet on
a stick, a striped shirt under a white shirt, leaps away from the player, then dances
toward it with his male cronies around him, their leader, Jeremy, their grins breaking
like light on water. As if in a dream where details glance off your mind, I see the odd
thing in his eyes, the discrepancies among the grin, the dancing movement, and the
wary way he looks at me, one hand high over his head like a dancer, the other
down, partly concealed by his body. I see him bring the second hand up from
behind his thigh, and with a movement fluid and flame-like, punch the door open,
pull Croce from the player and drop in a different cassette. The little door shuts
with a snap and Jeremy’s index finger punches downward to release sounds of
metal against metal, like trains on the loose. Jeremy dances away, long legs
bending, head thrown back, eyes glittering as if waiting for a burst of something.
Then the singer—if you could call him a singer—breaks through the music—if you
could call it music—shouting the one word you never use in a classroom.

The ‘f’ word.

Over and over, the performer bellows it through the saucer-sized sound system of
the player, pumps it into the classroom like sewage under pressure.

The kids go on a rampage, yelling and clapping, high-fiving and knocking chairs
over. Like a wild sea they rise and fall, slapping into one another, hilarious, shouting
the word, letting it knock them around, weak with the joy of it. All the Sunday
afternoons in church; all the yammer, yammer, yammer of adults to which they
have not responded so they wouldn’t get hit; all the furious, frustrated wordless
waiting for time, for nature, for God to make something good happen to them—
they let it all into that one word, jettison it for the pure ecstasy of the release, the
beautiful word bringing down all those barriers the grown-ups at home, in school, in
churches, in stores, on the street, on television raise against them.

All I can think is where did he get a tape, and how did he drop it in so fast? And
that I am responsible. I left the player unguarded, trusting them without a thought,
rube that I  am, easy mark, aging fool of a flower child who assumed there was a
verbal contract. I stride past the riot of open mouths to the player, eject the tape
and drop it into my pocket; then I raise my chin and give Jeremy my most
triumphant look, though I am walking humiliation.

The students’ relish of my discomfort is deep. I feel their wavering— whether or not
to make something more out of this with this here University lady come in our
classroom readin’ her books, stick her nose in our business, tell us we stupid. She
stupid. What she think she gon’ do now, she so smart? I hear their minds go at it
like knives mincing chives.

Jeremy teeters at his place, the corners of his mouth high, as if pulled by a cord.
The smile has no depth. He bounces on the balls of his feet; the long fuzz on his
head looks as if it is breathing. Jeremy loves the spotlight.

“Guess I got yo’ tape now.” He twirls it between his long fingers. His boys laugh.

I turn from him, force myself into a slow swagger, back and forth in front of the
chalkboard.  A standoff with a student is death; you never do it.

“I’ve got your tape.” I pat the pocket of my jacket.

Jeremy shrugs. “S’ fine with me. Ah’ll keep this one uh yours, tho’ Ah cain’t git
nuthin’ fer it on the street.”

His boys laugh. His girls glitter.

“Good,” I nod deeply. “Then I’ll have yours. Good.” Back and forth.

He shrugs again.

I feel sweat in my armpits.

Jeremy folds himself back into his seat, tucking my tape into his shirtfront pocket,
whistling off tune. Tittering sloshes around the room.  Outside, someone leans on a
car horn.

I see Ms.Trevor push herself up from her desk, her mouth opening.

“You give that tape back to Miz Fizroy, Jeremey.”

“Who Miz Fizroy?” a baby-faced boy yells and snaps his head to look around the
room.

“Who Miz Fizroy?” he asks his classmates.

“She Miz Fizroy,” the kid next to him grins broadly and points at me; “only she Miz
Fiz-gerul.”

“Haw, haw,” the girl in the coat closet calls out through her chewing gum; “Miz
Trebor don’ even know tha’ woman name. And she our teacher.”

“Tha’ woman not our teacher,” a girl with blue-black hair straight as rain drawls,
picking at her cuticle with a nail that curves downward and is painted green. “Miz
Trebor our teacher, only she don’ know nothin’.”

For a moment I don’t care that the students, from all I’ve seen last week and
today, are justified in their war with Ms. Trevor. I don’t care that if Ms. Trevor takes
over, the class will be excruciating in its dullness, its beside-the-pointness, small to
a fault. I don’t care that these students will have nervous systems jumping out of
their skins as they watch the hands of the clock crawl from minute to minute until
all fifty have eaten them alive. What I hope is that right now Ms. Trevor will stand all
the way up and take back the class. But Ms. Trevor sits down instead and my hope
flaps away, leaving me alone with this live bomb. I cast my eyes at the clock; there’s
still fifteen minutes to go.

“Of course,” I say, all casualness, “we could make a trade, if you promise not to play
that tape in here.”

But Jeremy’s not having any. ” He stands rooted, his back to me; I stroll, study the
bulletin board. The class loves it.

“Geeve at the same time,” a boy with unraveling cuffs and an infant mustache offers
from over a dog-eared comic book; “like in the moovies.”

Jeremy looks over his shoulder at me.  He wants his ‘f’s back.

“Get your tape up, Jeremy,” I tell him and move forward. Jeremy turns. I hold out
the tape. You can hear a pin drop.

We are within two feet of one another. If he should manage to get his tape and not
give mine back, I will be Her Majesty Queen Fool. I feel all the eyes,  but I keep mine
on Jeremy’s fingers, hold my tape level. Jeremy does the same. My face aches; I
realize it’s my smile, wonder if it looks like the letter slot in Jeremy’s face. Jeremy’s
fingers come, come. I shunt the box forward. His fingertips dock on its end; I feel
the coolness of Croce under my own fingers. Then each of us releases the other’s,
turns away, and the tension in the room evaporates. Jeremy pimp-walks to his
chair, pants fashionably low, the crotch nearly to his knees. Students shift, turn to
one another.

“Wha’ she gon’ do now?” a boy asks.

Never say die. I drop Croce into the cassette player.

Oh, the South Side of Chicago is the baddest part of—

“Ask yourself what instruments you hear. Take notes. You’re going to need them.”

I coach, the giant scratches on its paper, or scratches under its arm or picks its
nose, or lays its head down on the desktop. The bass thumps up and down, the
piano rattles along like a tray full of china, Croce croons out the words sweet and
tart and chunky. I relax a bit, stroll, bend over a squatty girl in a Sox sweatshirt,
look down the list of instruments she has going and absently notice dead air. Dead
air. I spin around. The sound of metal clashing; the sound of the word you never
use in school and Jeremy’s grin floats above the player.

The room is up for grabs.

A tidal wall of anger slams against my eyeballs. I feel massive pressure on my vocal
cords. My tongue swells with inarticulate speech, swear words, obscenities,
profanity, racial slurs. I clamp my jaws, my body begins to shake. Before I can
reach the player, Jeremy punches the stop/eject, drops the tape into his pants
pocket, careens on his heel, plops like a straw man into his chair. The laughter is an
open hydrant. They point at the University lady. Who stupid now? Ha, ha. Who
stupid now?

All I can feel is rage, and how much I hate these teenagers.

I jerk the plug from the wall, the machinery of my mind smoking as if it’s caught on
a rag.  From far far away I hear Ms. Trevor’s voice, like a radio playing in another
room: Now young people; now young people.

I collect the player and, as if watching from outside, see myself march to the front
of the room, draw my body into a shaking column and then, past recall, ripple my
lip and hurl at the blur of adolescent faces and open mouths the venom pumping
through my nervous system.

“I came ready to work,” I spit flaming match heads. “I put three hours into this
lesson and spent my own money, but I guess you’re not interested.”

“You got that one right, sister,” someone calls out.

“I was trying to prepare you for the IGAP. Maybe you don’t care if your school goes
down the tubes.”

“Yes.” Darren, red shirt blazing, raises the power sign. “Bryant, down the tubes.”
Everyone whoops and claps.

“That’s fine. That’s your business,” I fume away. “But if this school goes down, you
go down with it. People who don’t know you will look at your scores. If they’re low,
where else can they put you but in the class for kids who seem slow? The slow
class gets the worn-out teachers, the rooms in the basement, the textbooks from
1972. If you apply to college and they see the name of your high school, someone’s
going to remember: “Oh, Bryant. On probation three times, then reconstituted.
Deep six this kid.”

Under the stained and peeling ceiling, the students listen, lean back on their elbows
or forward on the palms of their hands as if sunning at the beach, like children of
the rich who, when they are ready, will go to their grandfathers or uncles for the
sports car, then the really good job—one not too demanding and with their own
office in a skyscraper in the Loop. The job will pay lots of money for the designer
clothes, pricey condos, sexy partners and European vacations they will require. Until
that day, they have nothing better to do than watch this University lady whip
herself into a high froth over something that doesn’t have a thing in the world to
do with them.

“We’re trying to help you here,” I splutter on, “and you don’t have sense enough to
know it.”

They stare at me, wide-eyed and placid. Then someone snickers and my rage
erupts afresh.

“You know,” I inject enough fresh acid into my voice to eat holes in their ears,
“when you get out there, a pretty face and good-looking clothes aren’t going to be
enough. You’ll have to be able to do something.”

My words slide harmless as baby oil over their grinning faces.

I jam the cassette player into my briefcase. Where does their arrogance come from
anyway, I blister. These kids have nothing. What on earth is it they find to act so
high and mighty about?

The buzzer shreds the air.  Students clatter out of their chairs and swell toward the
door. I have no reluctance about stepping aside to let them pass.

It is zipping my briefcase the bolt of lightening strikes and I realize the fiction, the
hallucination this whole thing of schooling is: That it is a dream we teachers dream
and that we think it is real because we don’t know we’re dreaming; whereas what is
real is that we are the past and the poor. They–these students who sun on the
beach waiting to collect their inheritance—are the future; they are the rich. We don’t
know this. We know only our dream we live and that ends for us only when we do.

These students experience our dream as a play they are forced watch and find
interminable as they sit in the front row and drum their fingers and wait for us to
finish our lines. They fantasize instead the play they will be in and rehearse lines
they know they will have. They will never enter our play because they are
commanded to an entirely new play. Already, in their bodies and minds, ideas light
up, exert a pull, create a current; and their dream germinates among them and
they do not know it. This is nature. They know only that our story is foolish and
makes no sense.

This new awareness grips and holds me the way the alarm clock buzzer arrests
consciousness between waking and sleeping. Of course they would not listen or
hear. Why would I think I could bring anything of interest to those cast in a
different play with a script written in a different language, to actors trying out their
lines and waiting for me, for all of us to get off the stage?

White shirts and black pants jostle past me toward the door. I breathe in the
scents of hair dressing, nail polish, chewing gun, perspiration. I must serve these
actors. We all must serve them, whether we want to or not.  It is the law of nature
encoded in us and in them–in the growing of their bodies, in the galvanizing
without their consent that feels so totally right and happens as nature forges a new
generation.

Jeremy’s head floats into my peripheral vision. “You have to have more than a
pretty face,” he advises his audience in a high falsetto, wagging his head like a
woman. “You have to be able to doooo something.” He passes in front of me as if I
weren’t there. I feel the mercy of whatever has already washed me out of his mind.
“Doooo some-ting, mi insectos!” another voice bobs up. “Doooo something, mi
insectos!” the students chant, punching out the door, nearly blind to the next
classroom. It’s all the same to them, ever pressing up from the soil as they are.

I turn to escape down the hall; but there Ms. Trevor is, haunting my elbow, carrying
her purse and paper sack. “My daddy wouldn’t never ‘low such low manners in our
house,” she says, shakes her head and turns on me a face like the earth abused.
“My daddy beat me every day of my life,” she tells me factually, the way a child tells
a child, looking out at me from the punishing room of the crazed righteousness of
parental law. I don’t know how to reply, shocked at this unexpected intimacy, and
touched by it. “He beat me every day of my life,” Ms. Trevor repeats with pride and
bitterness until we reach the stairs.

I swim the babble of the student cafeteria; feel soft drink cups, paper French fry
baskets and sandwich papers crunch underfoot. I find the teachers’ lunchroom
where I stare at the TV with its Wall Street ticker tape stuttering along the bottom
of the screen. My French fries resemble beached marine life. I have no appetite
anyway. Through the lunchroom’s closed door I hear the giant winnowing fan of
adolescence. Two more classes wait for me.

At 2:35 p.m. I head for the haven of my car.

When I get home, I will call my chairman and tell him I cannot go back to that class;
that he can fire me if he wants to.

He will say, “Why? What happened?”

I will tell the story.

He will say, “You’re exaggerating, Isa. You’re making too much of this. They won’t
even remember next week.”

I will tell him he’s wrong, that I have lost all credibility in that classroom.

“All you need is a good night’s sleep. Besides, it will look worse if you don’t go
back. Then they really will have beaten you.”

I will not tell him they have already beaten all of us, or that it is an illusion to think
there is anything to beat.

I’ll hear him open and close a desk drawer. Then I’ll hear him clear his throat and
ask in a low careful voice, “Is it a thing with minorities?”

I will scrutinize myself while his chair squeaks. Finally, I will say no, not more than
for anyone else, and probably less than with many. I will not add that this is bigger
and deeper than anything to do with race, that it has to do with something like
what Buddhists call the Turning of the Wheel.

There will be the relieved pause. “Then no problem going back,” his voice will boom
across the line.

I will not say there is every problem with going back because nobody sees the
Wheel or knows we are all caught on its spokes. Instead I’ll tell him I honestly don’t
know what to offer these students; that whatever it is they need, I don’t have it,
and that how to find it is a mystery to me. I’ll tell him I’m not sure I ever was a
teacher, anyway—just a would-be fiction writer trying to earn a living.

“There you go writing short stories again,” he’ll come back. “You’ve done a great
job here at Elliott College, and you can do a great job there. Aren’t you the one
always telling me how smart those kids are and how much promise they have? Have
you decided they don’t have promise?”

No, I’ll say.

“—that they aren’t smart?”

No. They’re smart, very smart.

I will not tell him I have sensed that mysterious authority that brims at the rim of
their young skin, sensed it for the last year in every classroom past fifth grade and
now recognize it for their dream forming of its own accord in and among them; and
that in rooms with a weak teacher, this authority of theirs breaks over the top with
no provocation other than the joy of its own will.  John Murray will circulate with his
index finger the number two pencils in his Michigan State beer mug, then straighten
the backbone in his voice. “Oh, roll up your sleeves, Isa. You’re topnotch. Tell them
what to do, see that they do it and get those scores up.”

I will run my fingertips over my cat’s ear, feel the exquisite curve of the tip, trace
with my eye its embroidery thread veins in the lighted tortoise shell and hear myself
saying “um-hum” and “I guess so” as John Murray’s voice keeps unrolling like the
evening news. I will agree we are legally bound to fulfill this contract, and that next
time the lesson should be simpler, something out of their textbooks. I won’t bother
to add almost nobody has textbooks, or they never bring them or have only dog-
eared ancient editions. I won’t bother to say that this class will stare at me over
empty desks or Sears catalogs or the sports page of the SunTimes, laugh and
chatter, shrug, mimic my voice and facial expression; and that every class I go to
waits for this same opportunity.

I won’t tell him the situation is hopeless unless someone wakes up to the reality
that students and teachers are in different dreams. I will not point out that
adolescents cannot be expected to understand this.  Neither will I ask where we will
find a teacher who grasps that there are two dreams running like separate rivers in
the same classroom and that the students’ dream, blind and just forming, must be
midwifed into a world that will leave that teacher behind.

I’ll agree to go back, to try it again—because I need the job and want to continue at
Elliott. I can’t explain that nothing is the same, that I am not the same person, that
now I know too much and too little to do this work. One thing will change though.
Hereafter, I will understand the teachers I work with; and I will not sneer at them
anymore.

 

 

Zoe Keithley‘s stories have appeared in the North American Review, American Fiction, F3, Emergence, Pigeon, Dogwood and other journals. Her fiction has won a fellowship in Prose from the Illinois Arts Council and finalist awards from Zoetrope, American Fiction,
Dogwood, Emergence
and Hyphen. A novel and short story collection are circulating. She
lives in Sacramento and is at work on a second novel, teaches private writing students locally and at a distance, and is learning to play and compose music on the banjo.

 

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