By Gretchen Wing
The gun in Isaiah’s hand looks fake. He smiles, ranged dramatically across the floor in front of the whiteboard, weight on his forward leg like Tybalt in the swordfight scene. His naked weapon is out. We all think he’s playing.
“Oh my Lord!” shrieks Breanna, but flushed and grinning the way she shrieks everything to Isaiah, poor thing, flopping on his experienced-older-boy hook. He’s all pose; I’ve seen him with his bulgy girlfriend in the halls. Hardly a “playa,” but he plays the role, especially among these lowly Sophomores. Sagging his pants to the hip-bones, enough to say bad boy, but not mid-thigh to invite ridicule from the Black kids.
Rachelle, Isaiah’s other prop, tells me, “Mrs. Rosen, he’s gotta gun.” Her voice is approving: this looks like a good channel to watch.
Sam says, “Dude!” But Sam is in the front row, next to the desk Isaiah usually wanders into thirty seconds after the bell, and Sam of all people knows what a real gun looks like. They’re all over his journal, crafted with more artistry and detail than anything written inside it.
“Isaiah, sit down. Give that to me.” Bored parent voice. I can’t say that works best with Isaiah because nothing works, but it’s what comes out of me; I guess it’s my default, making me feel better to think he’s not getting to me. I’m amused to find, this year, that he isn’t, despite my having confiscated his cell phone four times and intercepted three notes full of stupid innuendo. So now it’s a gun I have to confiscate. Sorry, little man, it’s going to take more than that to shake me. You’re the one who’s going to get shaken up this time; you’ve finally gone too far.
Leilani cries, “Mrs. Rosen!” She recognizes the weapon too–these kids have seen so much. Not realizing I’ve got the situation in hand, Leilani leans out of her desk to cling to Keri. They are among the few friends I allow to sit together; they make a nice buffer behind Isaiah, cutting him out of any potential stampedes he might wish to start.
Isaiah wags the gun like a finger.
“Ah-ah,” he grins. “I don’t think so. I think you should sit down.”
The rest of the class now turns at his tone. This they recognize from television, from the piranha hallways: ooh. Someone’s gettin into it. That gun is real. They’re right. It is.
Every teacher imagines this scene at some point. Useless exercise–imagination is no helpful rough draft of the moment. I’ll have to improvise. Keep the kid talking.
But good Lord, Isaiah? Whose Most Memorable Moment was receiving a Playstation for Christmas? Not that he ever wrote the essay to describe it. What in the world possessed him? He’s never been anything more than obnoxious and sneaky, trying to get Sam in trouble for talking, wearing that smelly cap of his backwards so I can’t make out the Anheuser Busch logo. Doesn’t he know he’s not the hostage takeover type?
Chad says, “Oh shit.”
Someone bleats softly.
Only Kevin, in the back, sleeps on as he does every morning under his baseball cap, waiting for my gentle-rough hand on his shoulder. It is seven thirty-one.
“Isaiah,” I insist, still standing, not even surprised to find my voice still in control. Isaiah doesn’t want to hurt anybody. He wants to be rescued, and I’m good at that.
“You called my house.” Isaiah is talking to me, but he’s addressing millions of viewers too. This is well rehearsed, Atticus Finch in the courtroom scene. I have not seen this much effort from Isaiah in a year and a half of English. He drops the pose and moves in closer, following his real gun.
Mee-la starts to cry, of course.
Todd and Damien have risen from their desks in the back like little warriors.
“Yes, just like I told you I was going to if you didn’t turn in anything, Isaiah.” Let him enjoy his moment, splashing in the shallow waters of public rebellion.
“You got me in trouble.” He’s wearing that monkey t-shirt again: Spank me. Two weeks ago I made him turn it inside-out.
“No, you got–”
“Shut up!” He’s leaning over my desk now. Beneath his glittering glare, completely new to that bland face, I sit. Best not to antagonize. Fine. I’ll just quote his comment in the write-up I send up to the principal later.
No one speaks.
Then Sam says, “Dude, dude. Isaiah.” Quietly. My heart wrenches. Okay, effective performance. These kids are scared.
Chad choruses, “Isaiah. Don’t, man.”
Isaiah has his audience now in full; the smile is back. He’s always had a pretty smile, betraying none of the slyness behind it. Lots of practice in that smile. “You shouldn’t’ve done that, Mrs. Rosen. I told you not to call my house. You know what they did?”
Breanna and Rachelle are crying now. I can feel their hysterical snowball begin to pick up speed. So many of these kids live in the zone of emotional avalanche; one comment, one flunked quiz, and they’re off. It’s time to stop this, but the phone is too far over on my wall for me to grab from here.
“They grounded me. No computer. No phone privileges. And no drivers ed until I pull my grade up to a B. Hah!”
He’s right. That is a laugh. Isaiah failed me last year and now he’s back, still vigorously pursuing the same strategy of staring at randomly opened books and wearing the most offensive t-shirts he can get away with. I didn’t feel sorry for him last year either–nice mom, good middle class family, every advantage, and this is what he does with it. Well, failing will be the least of his worries after this. Seven thirty-two.
“Hey, siddown!” Isaiah snarls at the class. From the back, Todd and Damien have crept up to move along the wall toward us. The idea of these great football lumps sneaking up on anyone is ludicrous, but suddenly I want to cry: they yearn so hard to be heroes. So it’s self-serving, this nobility; so probably they muttered “Let’s roll,” to each other before extracting themselves from their puny desks. What does it matter? They’re on their way to save the day–or were. Now Isaiah’s gun calls “Red light!” Todd and Damien sink to the carpet where they are, Charlotte’s desk. She massages black-painted fingernails into Damien’s shoulders and his head disappears into her arms.
Okay, boys. I know the feeling. Not to do something is intolerable. It’s why dieting is so hard, right? Eating feels so much more active than not eating. Stupid analogy. Focus. Now what?
Sidney, Erica and Kristen join the crying now, interesting little whimpers only, not enough to smear the mascara. Showing support, the same way they clap and cheer at each other’s presentations, no matter how lame. Corralled in their web where I have seated her (another buffer), Jamie glares, arms crossed, eyes dry. At me, not Isaiah. I know that look: How can you think of doing this to me? You of all people should know I’m above this. She’ll write me all about it in her journal.
Right now I’m not sorry for Jamie either. We’re all above this and yet here we are, about to become a news item. Out of the corner of my eye, I look at the wall phone while Isaiah looks at the class. He’ll see me if I turn toward it.
“Hey, I got an idea. Let’s play school.” He’s charming again. Those are the ones that always bothered me the most, the ones like Hamlet’s uncle who “smile and smile and be a villain.” Keeping my face turned towards Isaiah, I inch my chair wheels to the left.
In the back, Kiry looks like he’s praying, rocking slightly, his long forelock draped over tightly-closed eyes.
Another six inches of slow motion across a pile of essays and I can reach the receiver behind me. That’s right, kiddo, you play school and so will I. Seven thirty-three.
Jennifer is absent. I forgot her. Sometimes I mark her absent when she’s present, which makes me feel worse. Pretty soon she’ll waltz in late without a pass, loudly explaining about her mom being too drunk to wake her up…
Oh my God. Jennifer will walk straight into that gun. That’s how these school incidents start–something sets the guy off. Stay away. Stay away, Jennifer. I can handle this.
Two more inches.
“I’ll be the teacher, okay? Since I got such good classroom management, right, Mrs. Rosen?” I freeze as Isaiah glances at me. Too deep into his role, he doesn’t notice how far I’ve strayed. “So, boys and girls, get out your journals. We’re gonna do a Reflection on… what?” The gun makes slow eye contact around the room.
“Son of a bitch,” someone whispers. Could it be Jeff? We never hear his voice. My heart begins to interfere with the stealth of my hand as it touches the receiver.
Isaiah zeroes in like a real teacher. “Yeah, that’s right, buddy. Hey, thanks for volunteering.” He doesn’t remember Jeff’s name, of course; does anyone? “So, whaddya think we should write our Reflection on today?”
I’m sorry, Jeff. I wouldn’t let him do this to you. But the receiver’s in my hand now. Just keep his attention over there. Extra credit, Jeff.
“How about…Agree or Disagree: Teachers should call your house when you’re failing.” A flicked glance over to me, but I’m ready for it, leaning forward so my shoulder blocks his view of my hand. “How about that? Half page minimum. Don’t forget to use complete sentences.”
Oh, my God–Kyla. Where is she? So fragile since her sister’s rape last week, this will send her right over the edge; I should have checked on Kyla first thing… She’s absent too. Thank goodness. But what if she walks in? What if Kyla and Jennifer…? What if that door swings open and those dumb pretty faces smile their way smack onto center stage with Isaiah? Would he write them into his script? Or would he write them right out again? Will I just sit here? Seven thirty-four.
With thumb and forefinger locked around the plastic lifeline, I use my pinkie to feel my way across the number pad. I can barely hear the dial tone, so I know Isaiah can’t, but what the hell is that emergency code? It’s posted on the wall beside the phone, but I don’t dare turn around to look.
“Hey, dumb shit, you want me to shoot you right now? What the hell you doing?” Isaiah is leaning into the front row. Now’s my chance to turn, but his fury pins me–shoot who? Oh, my God.
“You said to get our journals out,” mumbles Jason, poor sweet, stupid, dumpy Jason, still a stranger to puberty, exactly the kid to get himself shot first in a scene like this; we can all see it coming.
“Jason, get your hands up!” Tasha, too cool and beautiful to breathe a word to save his life, has done just that. Jason sits up, arms raised, his face paling into a shocked and handsome maturity. He will never forget this.
“Jesus, what a retard,” Isaiah says, and sure enough, half the class is smiling with him. Not out of fear or appeasement; they like this guy, he speaks their language. They would be where he is now if only they had the nerve.
Thirty-one kids accounted for. I have thirty-five in this class. Who am I missing? Thirty-three including Kyla and Jennifer. Oh, girls–be sick today. Have a car accident. Stay away.
6657? Is that it? Or was that last year’s code? Did Mr. Ramirez change it again? What if I just call 911? I’d have to speak to them. Zero? Just the district switchboard. My shoulder aches from surreptitious reaching.
“Okay, time’s up, let’s go right to the group discussion, shall we? Sam, what do you think? Do teachers ever call your house?”
“Dude,” Sam whispers.
“What? Speak up, man. Use your presentation voice.”
Sam clears his throat. I press 6657, at least I hope so. Who am I forgetting? Who else might walk in? The receiver is too far away to hear if anyone is picking up.
I finally appreciate that cliché of one’s heart pounding loud enough to hear across the room. But Isaiah is absorbed by the power of his assignment; I appreciate that too. “C’mon, Tasha, waddya say? I bet you never have to deal with teachers, do you?”
“Isaiah, you are such an asshole,” Tasha tells him. Who knew what icy courage lay beneath that cool? The class gasps like a squeezed toy.
“Help,” I whisper over my shoulder toward the receiver, twenty inches away. Who will hear that? Is that someone at the door? Seven thirty-five.
“Mrs. Rosen!” He spins. “Tasha used bad language, call her house!” I lean my shoulder, but too late: he sees. “Hey! No way!”
Now I can smell the gun, an odor harsh and sweet. It stares me in the face.
“It’s all right, Isaiah, you’re not in trouble. They’re just sending down—“
“Fucking teachers!” In fury or frustration he swipes at his bangs with his gun arm, knocking his cap to the floor. I can’t help it, I flinch as the gun arcs across me. He won’t shoot, I know he won’t, but… “It’s all about the phone with you guys! Just pick up the phone and make stuff happen to some kid. Never think about what’s happening on the other end, no, you did your job, you can just sit back and think up more work for us to do.”
The class has shrunk to this tutorial. “Isaiah,” I try, and this time my voice is shaking. “You’re okay, right? It’s not like your parents whipped—“
“Let go the phone!” he yells. The receiver lands on my outstretched foot, a little jolt of pain like a knock on the door of disaster.
And I suddenly know: the door. No. No one should come through that door. Not Jennifer or Kyla, not Mr. Ramirez or the National Guard. No one should come, because Isaiah’s broken his diet now and there’s nothing to stop the binge. My throbbing foot reminds me: pain comes in waves, and people who point guns can’t suddenly stop pointing them, all they can do is stay the course.
Terror is supposed to give you strength. I’m the teacher. Teachers sacrifice.
“Mr. Ramirez is coming,” I blurt. Maybe the kid only needs to appreciate how scared I am. Oh God. They always shoot their tormentors, don’t they, once they know they can? “I already talked to him, Isaiah, while you were turned the other way.”
“Nuh-unh,” Isaiah frowns, stilling the gun in a horrible inverse of his childish tone. “You did not, I would’ve heard.”
Tasha, he might shoot. Or Damien. The cool kids. But Isaiah’s cool. Losing his cool. “No, really,” I insist, forcing my voice down. Pretend we’re arguing over his topic sentences. Focus on his forehead where the bangs are matted down, refuse to return the stare of his gun. “He’s coming. He just wants to talk.”
“Talk, my ass.”
“Why’s that so hard to believe, Isaiah? I don’t want to get you in trouble; I never did. All I ever wanted was for you to pass. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t push you, right?” Ah, the wisdom of the ages. The rest of the class has melted into the peripheral blanks of my vision as I hold Isaiah in my highly trained sway. But his eyes glitter; it’s too late. The light bulb has to want to change. Talk talk talk—keep him talking—keep the door closed—disaster at bay…
“That’s bullshit. You guys love to torture me, ever since second grade, man. And I’m tired of it, okay?” His voice rises again, but it has to, he has to make his point so he can retreat with dignity, mission accomplished. I am nearly sorry for the kid, trapping himself like this; what alternatives does he know? What history has he learned from? And why can’t I remember who I’m missing?
“I know,” I say, and I hold my hopeless hand out for the gun.
The door opens.
“Bitch!” screams Isaiah.
I was wrong. Disaster needs no warning; it’s been here all along.
The gun swings at the door. Someone gasps from the hallway and grabs it shut again, but too late, Isaiah’s exploding. Of course he is–what’s left to do when your script rewrites itself? “Fucking teachers, no one’s gonna fucking talk to me!” Sooner or later the gun’s calling the shots, not the person who decided to grab it.
On the edge of my vision I see the class both rise and cower, like different parts of the same wave, but my eyes and ears are now full of Isaiah; even my heart can’t compete with his intensity, his size. He is screaming, all-American jaw line stretched and jabbering, tossing spit across the little air between us, foul words and desires ramming each other in a desperate race to escape before the moment has passed. He is loaded down with hate, this kid I thought too lightweight to carry so much as a backpack. He staggers as he dumps his persecuted rage. How could I fail to spot that awful burden? He’s too deep, he’s too far, how could I think of reaching him? “I-will-work-harder” works for literary immigrants, not for teachers of kids swallowed up by their role of self-righteous badass. We need to leave him alone, he screams, we need to die. The phone’s on the floor, I don’t know if anyone can hear this, it doesn’t matter; Isaiah is huge, and now this moment doesn’t seem like a moment anymore, is morphing into something more momentous, not to be managed, my thoughts are losing their punctuation and Isaiah is in my face literally and where is the gun? His friend the gun but I have no friend here the kids have always been my friends but only as far as building good relationships is important in the motivation to learn but I didn’t even see this anger in Isaiah so how can I save Kyla and Jennifer even if they don’t walk in and I can’t even finish taking roll and Isaiah really wants to kill me he’s just using this fury to warm up like a journal-write before tackling the essay which he finally will complete this time and now I see the gun and it sees me eye to eye.
Eruption. Deaf. Flat. Nothing could be so loud. Nothing ever will be.
Isaiah’s Nikes are spotless, creamy white, their loose red laces stitching upwards like a dissolute baseball. That’s all I see, framed by the underside of my massive desk. I’m on the floor, then. Bleeding all over the dusty carpet. The classroom has been strangely sucked of sound. My shoulder fizzes with shock and warns me not to look at it.
The Nikes are yanked away now by other shoes: darker, poorer sneakers, even a pair of pink spiky heels. Isaiah’s down. They must have rushed him when he shot me, bless their stupid little hearts. No shrinking violets in Sophomore English. Or shrinking columbines.
Pain gathers at the edge of my brain; I can feel it hovering. But my mind charges past, like Isaiah’s must have charged this morning, onto a new, unswerving track, and I suddenly know it never mattered who walked in. It didn’t matter, not because they won’t be shot; it does not matter because I will miss them anyway, I will teach and teach and never stop the bullet of not noticing. I will fight the demons in these kids, demons of ignorance and mistreatment and never notice when the battle’s long over. I will sacrifice; I’ll be Obi-Wan Kenobi stepping into the beam of the light saber, just a pile of robes and a voice of wisdom living on to inspire the youth. I’ll give my weekends up to piles of essays, give my caffeinated early mornings to parent conferences, give my soul to school and in the end young Skywalker will walk away from me and wonder only, Damn, teachers need to get a life.
Why do I know this? Didn’t I win? I took roll, didn’t I? I took a bullet for my kids. I’m teacher of the year. But my own? My own kids? Them I missed completely.
Mitch and Eli. Family names from Roger’s side and mine, and reminiscent of no student I’ve ever had–that’s important. Their school photos adorn my filing cabinet, but my boys belong to a different picture, warm and intimate, one where you never have to count heads, never have to badger about homework or settle for the single-spaced pencil scrawl. A forward-looking picture where dreams are protected within a frame of money, love, and education. The Rosens send a holiday card of unposed symmetry, and nobody ever calls our house to tell us how our boys are disappointing.
How did I stay so calm? Where was the wild scream when I saw the gun, where was my desperate begging at the barrel? A short barrel, yes, laughably non-lethal like Isaiah himself, cool and smooth and happily bobbing on the surface of the world’s depths, but still, a gun–he could have killed me. He tried to–and here I am crumpled on the electric blade that’s my shoulder, and all I can see are Nikes, and what I was not seeing when this drama began, when this year, this career began: my boys, my boys. I mark you absent every morning when the bell rings me into my role of teaching and trying and failing to notice. What else must I be missing?
The costs.The costs of the job. Not the failures, those we see too glaringly day by day: the falling-short, the never-enough, the exhaustion, the well-I-tried. But the costs of success. The truth of what you lose when you sacrifice. That’s where we risk no more than a glance, because to stare would be to mourn the loss. Youth. Family time. Art. Beauty. Contemplation. Peace.
I had the strength today. I had the strength to serve and protect. But sacrifice? Now that I have looked you in the face, will I have the strength to read myself back into your terrible script?
I don’t think anyone can play both roles.
Oh, kids. I’m failing here. I’m forgetting my assignment. I’m in danger of dropping out. Someone needs to call my house.
Still bleeding. Fainting too, feels like… vision shrinks to my bloody hand resting on a silent telephone.
But they’re coming to check on me, these kids I haven’t noticed. They’re coming to help me because that’s what people do when they don’t know what else to do. Thank you, kids. Help me.
“Call my house,” I say. It comes out a whisper. I will have to work on that.
Copyright Wing 2012