Eight-fifty-five. Tawia jams the hulking, ancient window closed and shuts out the gray brick cold. Heat levitates from the furnace, and Tawia, tall and jumpy, leans against it, sucking on a BlowPop, shrugging her hood off and gazing outside, the tattered copy of Game Over II: It’s All in the Game closed, for now, on her desk.
In the back, Faith is being good now. She has her mother’s exact face. Ever since parent-teacher conferences last week, Faith has been a different, much-quieter student, her saucy, self-righteous attitude barely detectable. She gets beseeching when she wants a bathroom pass, i.e., a pass to meet up with Chantrice and confer, or exchange iPods, or whatever, in the hallway, but she usually hurries back, covering her laughter, seeing my glowering eyes and mouthing, “Sorry.”
Dominique is hunched over a pulpy romance novel, silent. She didn’t use to speak at all. We didn’t know her first language was French for months; we just knew she was from Ghana. Now that she’s a street lit bookworm, she talks all the time, but not during Silent Sustained Reading.
Tawia is also from west Africa, but has stubbornly taken on the worst of American girl fuck-you-ness, no-attention-span squawking, iPods and junk food and vicious gossip and wanting to be a model. We suspect she has ADHD, but initiating testing for that kind of thing is tricky.
Next to Dominique, Denise the Whiner is silent, too, once she stops chirping to Dominique. She’s easy, goes quiet with one of my glaring, wordless looks.
Janae, sinewy and beautiful, with a high, regal forehead, slips in late again, gliding like the air itself. She’s there five minutes before I even notice, reading Crank, a novel in verse about, uh, I guess, crank. She says it’s good and wants to know if I have the sequel (Smack? Glass?).
Dora is engulfed in another Sharon Flake novel, her iPod blaring Usher louder than the crossing guard yelling her conversation three stories below. When I ask her to turn it down, I have to nudge her, and she looks at me, agog, as if shaken out of a trance.
Missing: Wakeisha, Nazira, the other Anna, Sharise, Ruby. I know they’re in the zone now, even Tawia is back to her book, and Faith is still being good, but it’s a delicate, delicate balance; one loud girl comes in late, makes a beeline for her friend, and our silence is finished.
Nine-ten. Nazira stalks in, all rolly eyes and shimmying hips, a sandwich dripping from her gloved hand, her face full of guileless, utter surprise to find herself in a room with all these people. Good morning, Artists & Agitators Academy! she thinks. Say hello to Gorgeous!
“Nazira,” I say with steel in my voice.
“Oh, sorry,” she says with a grin, as though we didn’t reenact this a hundred times a day. She heads to the back and hugs Faith, dropping shredded lettuce everywhere, good-humored, glad-handing.
“Pick a different seat,” I say in the same voice, not lifting my eyes from my book.
“I won’t talk, I promise,” she says, butter-voiced.
“Nope, pick another seat, Ma,” I say evenly, still reading.
Wakeisha strolls in, nine-fifteen, and I look to see if this is a collapsed-vortex day, with barely-whispered replies, her head on the desk and no eye contact, or a manic day, all grandstanding and flame-fanning, The Wakeisha Show.
When we heard she was coming back from the hospital, where she’d been since the group home sent her packing in November, you could feel the air suck out of the room. “Noooo,” Marshall moaned softly. “Hey, at least it’s not Shatara,” laughed Chase, our aide/hallway enforcer/basketball coach. We couldn’t decide which was worse: Wakeisha’s crazy or Shatara’s crazy. Wakeisha’s was deft and manipulative and unpredictable; Shatara’s was predictably constant, but harder to bear, like the tinny whine of a broken loudspeaker. And Shatara was a loud speaker, a freshly burst steam pipe, a volcano. (One morning, Garcia gently asked her if she could talk a little quieter, please, because he was trying to grade papers in the office, and she tsunamied him, all waving hands and gyrating neck and wild eyes, screaming, “WHY HE ALL UP IN MY MOUTH?!” “I don’t even know what that means,” Garcia had whispered to me, palms up.)
So Wakeisha wasn’t Shatara. (Shatara was transferred to another site when we found out she was repeating ninth grade; technically, we weren’t a transfer school, so technically, we couldn’t admit an over-age, under-credited student, even though we had plenty of slightly-less-crazy repeaters of ninth grade.)
“Why are you late?” I say to her softly. Ruby sneaks in behind her, throwing me a sheepish grin, half of a jellied bagel in her mouth.
“I had something I had to do,” Wakeisha says quickly and sits down, opening up the half-destroyed copy of Let That Be the Reason, pointing at it, nodding, and squeezing her face into a grimaced smile, like, See? I’m reading, just like I’m supposed to, see? See?
Today will be a manic day, and I brace for The Wakeisha Show to come, later, in her English class, in the hallways, in the cafeteria.