I am the leading actress in a play whose words I have forgotten. It is showtime and the director is frantically pushing me onstage. He won’t believe me when I say that not only have I forgotten my lines but I’ve forgotten everything about the play. The playwright comes around to comfort me. It is Elizabeth, my ex-lover. She soothes me with false praise. She calls me Marie Antoinette and when I look down, I am dressed for that part. The audience is getting restless. The leading man is dressed like Fred Astaire with a top hat is at least a foot high. A comedy, a period piece. This much I can do deduce. The leading man whisks me onstage and the audience cheers. They know me or my character. Maybe I’m in a sequel. I say my first lines, somehow miraculously remembering them. “Hello Darling,” I say and everyone laughs. But I am terrified because I still can’t remember a thing.
I sit up in bed. A dream. The purple clock that Elizabeth left behind says 4 AM. It’s one of many machines she abandoned—the hair blower, the digital answering machine, the blender, the VCR, and the purple clock which has lost its minute hand. The clock turns only on the hour. It wakes me up in the morning to an approximation of the time. It prepares me for all the imprecise measurements and calculations of my day. I stare at it. Probably closer to 4:30. I’m afraid to go back to sleep. I am afraid I’ll dream about Elizabeth or others who are no longer in my life.
6:45 or thereabouts. Dozed off. The purple clock is shrieking, that function still intact. I bolt from the bed, dress quickly and shove a can of tuna fish and a can opener into my backpack for lunch. It’s raining outside, big drops imitating tears on my cheek. The Seth Thomas on the neighborhood church chimes 7:30. I’m late for work and run to the bus stop.
The clock on the wall of the classroom is one hour behind. In a month it will be daylight savings and then it will be right. 6:50, ten minutes till eight. Soon the bell will ring and the children will race into the classroom. The clock didn’t move in a steady progression of time; instead, the minute hand jumped three minutes ahead and then, like an athlete pacing herself, adjusted back one. The clock was uneven like the children I taught who could never remember that 11:00 really meant 12:00. Sometimes, they spurted ahead in growth trying to catch up with their right age only to fall again in wobbly setback.
I look out the window at the playground. Puddles are forming where the concrete dips and cracks. Most of the children are huddling under the overhang of the adjoining building. Some are skipping in the open under great flowered umbrellas. I see Jesse under the graffiti end of the playground. He is operating like there is no rain. He’s not even wearing a jacket and his tee shirt which says Do the Right Thing is getting soaked. He is jumping up and down on a bottle cap which occasionally gets kicked. Even from this distance, I can make out the dollar sign which has been shaved into the back of his head. Great haircut.
I prefer to look out at the playground on clear days. Then all the running, yelling, screaming children are back-lit by the early morning sun and turned into squirming black shapes. The playground becomes a painting from the modern school of art. Baseball diamonds and track lines form yellow and red stripes. Volleyball nets and basketball hoops form intersecting shadows. It’s a study in line and composition. Even the children’s frenetic movements slow to a philosophical rhythm.
This morning, I try to wake up with another gulp of sweet coffee. I remember my nightmare. What did it mean? I didn’t know who I was. I was being asked to perform unfamiliar roles. I was terrified in spite of the friendly crowd. Woman, teacher, daughter, friend, lover. Cases of mistaken identity. Teacher or warden? Lover or enemy? Friend or foe?
The bell rings. Another school day has begun. Jesse walks in sneezing. Yolanda shakes out her big, black umbrella near the desk, and Rico screams that she is getting him wet. Larry asks if we are going to drown and Malachi wants to know who runs the world. Everyone seems tired or droopy from the rain or like they haven’t yet recovered from yesterday’s mischief. As the morning progresses, I am lulled into believing we might get through without a major incident. Then Jesse dries off and wakes up.
10:42, almost a quarter to twelve, lunchtime. Jesse, Rico, and Larry liberate the back of the room for an impromptu body building contest. Yolanda and Jamala stand on the sidelines and cheer: whose bicep is larger, Jesse’s or Larry’s? From my stool in the front, the back of the room becomes the one point on the horizon, all lines of perspective leading to it. The open book I’ve been holding sags. The clock jumps ahead three minutes then adjusts to 10:44. The back of the room gets farther away. Like an explorer, I scan the horizon not for land but for children who are no longer judging biceps. It is difficult to explain the crossing of oceans to children who rarely even got to the beach. Field trip #1 - sinking toes into wet sand, comparing different footprints, making castles that get washed away.
By now, Jesse has Larry’s head in a half-nelson and is forcing him to the ground. Yolanda and Jamal are jumping up and down. Can it last six more minutes without Larry suffering a concussion I will be forced to report? Is it time for an “intervention,” middle-class jargon which means breaking up fights before they invoke liability? The clock seems to mock me by standing motionless.
Jesse begins banging Larry’s head against the floor. That’s my cue, a real disturbance on the horizon. I drop the book on the ground. Its colorful pictures belong to the age of Gutenberg not the digital age or the age of drug wars. I travel into the picture, along the corridors of the perspective lines I have drawn. I reach the one point as Jesse is grinding Larry’s nose into the ground.
“Knock it of!” I scream.
They choose not to hear. The girls shriek louder. Early on the girls have learned to use their voices as weapons. The clock jumps ahead and clicks back. No one hears it but me. Four more minutes and the bell will ring and children will pour out of the classroom like steam escaping from a boiling kettle.
“This moment! Back to your seats!”
My choked voice gets through and I feel guilty about waiting longer than I should have. It makes it that much harder to regain control.
Back in today rows, Jesse is in a triumphant mood.
He asks Yolanda, “Are you a virgin?”
“Yes!” Yolanda asserts, but then Jamala whispers the meaning of the word in her ear.
Yolanda looks confused. Should she be a virgin or not?
“No!” she proclaims, a little girl already caught like most women between being attractive and being virtuous.
Jesse flexes his bicep. “You’re not?”
“No way,” she says.
His laugh sounds menacing.
“Who do I have to be to get you kids to listen?” I ask. “A mutant ninja turtle? Bart Simpson?”
No one laughs. The clock jumps to 11 which means high noon. Everyone is waiting. The clock retreat and then comes back, pausing. I suck in my breath. The bell rings. Happy children tear from the rows of desks, fallen chairs left in their wake. The principal, in his yearly evaluation of my performance, noted the absence of any orderly dismissal system. I slump down at my desk, grateful for the moment when noise is siphoned from the room, the screeching kettle removed from the stove.
I get up and stare out the window. Rain is still collecting in puddles. Even the group of Chinese girls with their intricate webs of jump rope have retreated under the overhang. I can still see their flying feet hooking the rope and bringing it to the ground.
I look at the globe on my desk, poised shakily on its stand. First rule: All instructional materials not bolted down or locked away will be destroyed. Jesse has punched a dent into it. I note vacation spots in the battered Southern hemisphere. June, July, August, the three best things about teaching so they joke. But since Elizabeth has left, I probably wouldn’t have anyone to vacation with this summer. Just as well. She didn’t like me in sunglasses. Said she couldn’t see my eyes. Another case of mistaken identity. Elizabeth saw me as an object she needed to love. Soon that object changed. Before there were sunny days and the promise of white sands on tropical beaches. Today, it’s raining. At the far end of the playground, there is a mural of a boy reading a book. Graffiti declaring gang affiliations cover the mural boy as far as an adult could reach. Soon, the white graffiti truck with the men in the white jumpsuits will whitewash the entire mural. Maybe that’s the problem with things—too white.
Yolanda knocks on the door. She likes to come back into the classroom after everyone is gone. I look at her— a skinny, tired-looking black girl. Dark circles already under her eyes. Yolanda is always hanging onto me, always getting too close, talking too fast and too loud like I’m about to leave her. She clings to me like a raft in a storm. I see that storm brewing when I look down at her face. Yolanda wants things that are part of my job description—nurturing, support, encouragement, care-taking. She wants what I feel most incapable of giving to myself, much less to her. Yolanda takes my silence as her cue to talk.
“I’m sick today,” she says.
“Oh?” I say but look out the window.
The rain is coming down in sheets now.
“So, if I’m sick, I might have to go to the bathroom this afternoon, okay?”
“Yesterday were the first time it happened and my Auntie gave me these,” she thrusts a paper bag with a sanitary napkin towards me. “My Auntie says to tell you if I need to go to the bathroom.”
The colorful plastic beads that bind the ends of her pigtails shake vigorously. The way she describes her womanhood—“sick”—incites me. I feel my old anger about how words and attitudes are used to keep women down. This is the first time in weeks that I’ve felt anything resembling my quick anger. I want to dissuade her of the notion that being a woman means being sick, incapacitated, vulnerable. I want to stop feeling that way myself, to stop crying and start fighting. I want Yolanda to know she’s not sick, she’s a a woman.
“You’re not sick, you’re a woman,” I say.
She beams at me. Does she understand or is she just happy I’ve given her some attention? Best to reinforce any idea with these kids. How often have I talked myself blue in the face only to find out I could have been talking in a foreign language?
“Having your period may give you some stomach cramps or make you feel a little nauseous at first, but it doesn’t mean you are sick. It means you are a woman who can have babies.”
She moves closer to me, takes my hand, and squeezes it.
“Babies!” she exclaims.
I feel sick myself. I shouldn’t have mentioned more unwanted children. I should tell her that it would be ridiculous for her to have babies at all, that it will take a lifetime for her to work out the issues of her own abandonment, or her own independence.
“But that’s for much later—you’re still a baby yourself,” I say, and she edges even closer. “And, you’re also a woman. Thank you for telling me. That’s a wonderful thing.”
Yolanda’s body is touching mine. She doesn’t know if she’s ready to be a woman.
“Okay. Time for lunch,” I say with renewed crispness, and Yolanda reluctantly leaves.
I reach into my bag to get money for lunch. There is ten dollars missing from my wallet. I imagine Jesse and Larry making up long enough to pull off this little heist. I realize this is the second time they have probably robbed me. The first was a few weeks ago when I debated whether not I had spent the money or not. I remember the thought I pushed away at the time. “Could it have been the children?” Children! Much of the time, they seem more like miniature gamblers, con-men, thieves. I feel doubly enraged that I have been taken in not once but twice. I jump to the Freudian implications of plunging deep into my bag, opening my wallet, fingering my bills. I try to understand the theft as a redress of the imbalance between adult authority and childhood dependency. I try to convince myself that it might not be them at all and that I might be jumping to unfair conclusions. I do all my analyzing and still, I am furious.
11:52, 12:52. I confront Jesse about the missing money when he slinks back into the room after lunch.
“You can’t say I did it,” he says.
Jesse at thirteen already knows something about the criminal justice system. If he wasn’t caught in the act, if no one will bear witness, he gets away with it.
“You’re right,” I say. “I can’t prove it.”
“You racist,” he says.
“No, I don’t like lying and stealing from anyone, black, white or purple,” I say.
But that statement is dubious at best. It is said by white people when they are guilty about accusing a black person of a crime even if they are justified. There really is no way to deal with this situation, the intractable suspicion and distance.
“You have to be accountable for your actions, Jesse,” I say.
He looks at me blankly. Accountable is probably too hard a word but the idea isn’t.
“Whether you did this or not…”
“You can’t prove it.”
“In the future, remember, you can do anything you want if you are wiling to work hard. It’s your character here we are talking about. You, Jesse, the individual. Remember the posters on the wall? The ones that talk about the character traits for success? Honesty. Hard Work. Caring. Compassion. Working together.”
Jesse’s eyes have been lowered during this lesson. Find the teachable moment, those middle-class education books are always saying.
“Look at me,” I say. He does. “Now, let’s forget about the money…”
I say this because there is truly no way I can make the accusation stick.
“And let’s remember what we’ve learned from the incident….”
“I didn’t do it,” he says.
“And make sure it never happens again.”
And it won’t because from now on, my bag will be padlocked.
Jesse is shifting around on both feet and staring at the floor again.
“Okay. Let’s get back to work,” I say.
He breathes a sigh of relief. It seems like the situation has been defused.
12:15, 1:15 pm.
Jesse is in a bad mood after all. Things have been stirred up with the bag incident. I’ve learned to recognize his bad mood by his narrowed eyes and the turned-up corner of his mouth. Larry, who came in after the bell, goes to his seat in the back. I’ve placed him there to keep him and Jesse as far apart as possible but he thinks because it is in the back that I won’t notice when he comes in late. Jesse sits in the front so I can peer down on him from my stool.
Jesse pretends he has an automatic weapon which he points in my direction.
“Da-da-da-da-da,” he is unloading a round at me.
“Knock it off,” I say but he doesn’t listen.
The automatic turns into a pistol and the shots become single bullets.
“You’ll get a point if you don’t stop,” I threaten.
Points are little marks on the board that Jesse is supposed to be afraid. of. They constitute the “Behavior Management” survival kit I was sent into this jungle with. It is a behavioral model in the tradition of Pavlov and his salivating dogs. If a student gets too many points, he or she will never win the prizes (usually candy) I give out at the end of the week. Eventually, the student-as-dog will come to appreciated accomplishment for its own merit but in the meantime, sugar will do.
Jesse has already figured out that he will never win. Some days, because he is only in the sixth grade, I convince him that he has a chance. Those days, his eyes are wide and his face has a cherub look. Today, I notice his squinting eyes, how compact and muscular his small body is. The pistol he’s miming now becomes a rifle. His hands spread over its length, one eye peers through the viewfinder. He’s pretty good. I’ve gotten a real sense of different weapons. He scans the front of the room with the rifle.
“Boom!” he delivers the gunshot intended to knock me off my stool.
Time to get up anyway.
“Point,” I say and try not to sound angry.
Best to do these scientific maneuvers in a dispassionate way.
I go to the side board and draw a fat, driven chalk line by his name. His face is blank and indifferent.
Yolanda, who also sits in the front of the room, does so by her own choice. She doesn’t want to miss anything. She still thinks school is going to save her. She looks up at me now with anxious eyes that seem to be apologizing for Jesse. I give her a little smile to show her that I am not really angry about anything. I won’t let Jesse derail my lesson plans. I start talking to the whole class. I’ve lost valuable time if I’m going for the afternoon jugular. This is the only way to settle them down after lunch. Clobber them over the head with a story or a worksheet right away. Let them know who’s boss. I glare down at Jesse as I sit back on my stool. He could ruin our whole afternoon.
I grab for the afternoon story. I am not going to let Jesse run things here. Miss Nelson is Missing is the book’s title.
“There was a schoolteacher who was getting nowhere with her students,” I begin in a sing-song voice.
I show them the illustration of a class of students who are jumping off the ceiling.
“Miss Nelson tried everything,” I read. “She talks to them in a sweet voice, she pleads with them, but still her students were throwing spitballs and paper airplanes. Still, they were talking out of turn and acting silly.”
I look down meaningfully at Jesse but his eyelids have started to droop.
“So, one day, Miss Nelson disappeared. She doesn't come to school and no one knows where she is. A mean old, ugly witch is sent in as a substitute.”
I show them the hateful substitute.
“She makes the students work really hard. She won’t let them talk. She gives them lots of homework.”
I imitate the witch’s harsh, low voice as she growls out her commands. I hate using these stereotypes of women but glancing over the room, I see that the afternoon jugular has worked. They are all staring fixedly at the book.
“Pretty soon, all the students are really sick of the ugly old witch. They wish Miss Nelson would return. They are sure they would behave if she did.” I smile at them, a little reminder of how nice I really am.
“Some students go to Miss Nelson’s house,” I continue, “but all they see is some woman in a black dress closing the door. And the next day, just when they think they can’t take it anymore, Miss Nelson returns. Just like that.”
I show them the last illustration of Miss Nelson standing next to her closet putting away the black dress.
“How do you think the students were after that?” I ask the probing question.
No one raises their hand. They don’t want to say the students were good, I think.
“Pretty neat story,” I say but think about about how psychotic poor Miss Nelson really is, split down the middle between good and evil.
The class is starting to stir. Jesse has taken out his drawing of a muscle man and starts coloring him black. Larry is stretching and loudly yawning in the back of the room. Only Yolanda is still staring at me. She raises her hand.
I acknowledge her, and she says, “My friend’s father raped her. He did it it a bunch of times before they made him go away.”
I am at a loss for words.
Did Miss Nelson coming back as a bad person remind her of this or is it something completely different?
“She said she was scared—that he took down her drawers and put his hands on her neck. He told her he’d kill her too.”
She waits for my response.
“I’m so sorry. That’s a horrible thing,” I finally say.
She nods. Her eyes old.
“She couldn’t tell her momma. Her momma was run over by a car last year, so she told a white lady and then they made him go away.”
She lowers her eyes but not before I realize something.
“Did this happen to you, Yolanda?” I ask gently, but I know it is probably not the right time or place to ask it.
“No! I tol’ you—to my friend.”
“Are you worried then that this may happen to you?”
She hesitates long enough for me to know I’m right.
“You’ll tell someone—your Auntie or a teacher if you’re scared, right?”
“Even if all you have is a funny feeling about someone, you should be ashamed to tell me or someone else at school, okay?”
She nods again and opens her book.
1:10. Ten minutes after 2. Twenty minutes before the dismissal bell. Twenty minutes before I can go back to my own life. Yolanda has been distant after this disclosure, a change from her usual. These kids. I try to find her with my smile, with a joke but her face looks like a stocking mask has been pulled over it and all her features flattened. I lay my hand on her shoulder but she shrinks from my touch. When the bell rings, she will melt down the hall, sliding against the lockers. Her pigtails have lost their bob. I think about filing a suspected child abuse form but know that unless a child seems overtly abused or neglected, the authorities will not investigate.
1:30. 2:30. The school day is over.
“Auntie and Daddy.” Those are the names Yolanda calls her foster parents. I remember how insistent they were that she change her last name to theirs, how eagerly she copied. “Daddy.” Yolanda says he is in the Army and that he buys her new clothes and takes her to Great America amusement park. I remember not liking his loose grin the day he accompanied her to school. I am scared to think about what he might do if I did file a suspected abuse form and he knew it was me.
1:40, 2:40. Something brushes against my fingers when I reach into my bag to get my car keys. I had forgotten to safeguard the bag again. I unfold a lump of paper which says, “A Poem by Yolanda Cooper.” It is printed just like Yolanda talks—the words all running together in one great rush of nervous energy. The poem is not original; there are a lot of “thous” and “thines” on the page. Yolanda thinks that if you copy something, it is yours. The poem is a pledge of eternal devotion to a lover who has left. Agonized descriptions compare separation to hell. I remember the letter I wrote Elizabeth the week after she left, my declarations of undying love, the exaggerations I used to express my pain. This poem makes me smile, comparing formal eighteenth century diction with modern lesbian angst. I wonder where Yolanda copied this from. Probably from some duty, red-leather bound book lying on a shelf in Auntie’s house. Some book meant to show you’ve got education. When did she put it in my backpack? I think about the excitement, the adrenaline rush she must have felt. I know how thrilling it is to break the rules because passion or the desire to communicate demands it. I wonder if Yolanda was asking me for help in the only way she could.
I go to my file cabinet and look up her address. She lives in the projects I pass on my way home. I think about her as I am driving and, despite not planning it beforehand, I turn off suddenly to check out her new foster home. The street into the projects is deserted. I feel like I’ve been dropped into a hole. Beer cans and trash clog the sewer grates. The trees are bare sticks upright in dry soil. A shopping cart is overturned on the sidewalk, and next to it is a twisted, rotting sleeping bag and one black shoe. Plastic bags from Safeway fly through the air. I check to see if the passenger door is locked.
I continue driving until I see the apartments.
“Post-modern influence in the use of low, concrete boxes—reminiscent Spanish courtyard design although the landscaping leaves much to be desired and too bad about that ghetto green paint!” the artist in me says, the same one who looks down at the playground looking for a work of modern art.
“Crack kills!” says red-splashed graffiti on one of the walls.
“Now there’s a color that works!” I say. “Look how the line quality and the color mirror the message.”
I know this detached person who makes these observations. She’s not a bad person; you might even call her caring at time. But she is, like everyone around her, in survival mode.
By now, I’ve circled the projects two times. I won’t get out of my car. I decide that tomorrow I will file the suspected child abuse form for Yolanda and just see what happens.
3:00 pm. The clock in my car is new and accurate. Time to go home.
Deborah La Garbanza is a retired California public school teacher. She lives in a cottage in Oakland and writes fiction and memoir. Her work has appeared in online and in-print publications including Mayday Magazine, Birdland Journal, Harrington Lesbian Literary Quarterly, Identity Envy Wanting to Be Who We’re Not and the upcoming issue of Sinister Wisdom. She often thinks about her former students and holds out the hope that they are happy.