What would LeQwan eat for breakfast? I was working on a scene in a story. I have this problem all the time: what are the details, the minutiae of life outside this three-story public school? For years, I’ve noticed that my students eat different food than I do, different food than I did when I was their age, but I don’t know why, I don’t know what. The imagery of their lives when they leave the building eludes me. How would I know those things if I don’t ask?
I interviewed Melvin recently, a sophomore in one of my classes. I had told him he would be helping me make my characters more authentic, and he seemed stirred by this.
The first thing he told me was how when he walks down the street, people always start with him.
“They just be comin’ up to me, like, Who you be?” he tells me. “I don’t know, I guess I just look a certain way. They want to confront me.” Melvin is tall for his age, good-looking. He’s one of those kids who drives teachers nuts: intelligent, quick, perceptive, but lazy as hell, pulling in D’s when he should be getting A’s. He’s charming, restless, touchy.
“What do you eat for breakfast?” I get around to asking.
“Huh?” he says, smiling, confused.
“What do you eat. Before you come to school.”
“Nothing,” he says.
He laughs. “I don’t know. Sometimes I go to the store on my way to school. I’ll get, like, chips, candy.”
“Do you eat the school lunch?” He looks at me like I’m crazy.
He tells me he doesn’t eat anything the rest of the day until after school, when he goes back to the corner store for a sandwich and chips. If this is typical, it’s no wonder my last class of the day is always hungry, tired, cranky, doubled over with headaches and stomach cramps.
My students are so generous to let me interview them; they’ll sit there for hours with my digital recorder running, telling stories, and I can never thank them enough. They don’t know the favor they’re doing me. Elise recently told me a typically vivid story of the time her cousin got them jumped because she couldn’t shut her big mouth, and while Elise and her friend were literally getting stomped on, the cousin cowered in a building nearby.
“And this was all over what, the way your cousin looked at one of the girls, and the girl took offense?”
“Yeah,” she said, laughing, shaking her head.
“What would happen if you were like, ‘Look, let’s just drop this, she’s sorry, okay?’ What would happen if you tried not to fight, to diffuse the situation?”
“That wouldn’t work. Everyone on your block would know you was a pussy. A punk.”
“And then what?”
“Then you couldn’t leave your house! It’d be, like, a horror movie.”
I didn’t ask why that didn’t happen to her cousin.
Every day, I’m an alien, I know nothing. Every day, they teach me what I need to provide, illuminate, emphasize; when to linger, when to plow ahead, when to listen.