Naima came to school today.
She often doesn’t, and when she does, she kind of stalks the hallways with a don’t-start-with-me force field around herself, tall and stork-legged, pretty but unkempt, her hair stashed under a hood, a hat, a scarf.
She is one of the brilliant ones. She bears the telltale signs of an interrupted education, but her teachers talk about her with an ambivalent reverence: she’s a pain in the ass, but she’s so smart. “I love her,” they always say, and I said the same thing when I had her last spring. I loved how she’d just sit down in the middle of a discussion, late to class as always, and start asking searing questions that penetrated the heart of whatever we were talking about. She is never afraid to ask what she doesn’t know; she is brutally honest. If you ask her to do something she doesn’t want to do (could be anything, depending on the day), she might shut down completely, head on the desk, burrowed into her tiny hooded sweatshirt, immovable as granite. Or she’ll argue and yell in that deep, husky contralto of hers, projecting it everywhere, impossible to ignore. In those moments, it seems like she hates you.
When you spot her in the halls, it’s hard not to see her back-story hovering like a storm cloud, and you wonder how she made it to school at all. When she doesn’t have her fuck-you vibe on, I feel only tenderness, quiet respect. The rapier-sharp intelligence, the shattering honesty, the survivor’s cunning. She has heart.
In the office today, she knitted a scarf while she waited to take a test she’d missed. (We have a thriving knitting and crocheting class.)
“You know, crocheting’s easier,” Monique observed, a few seats down.
“I know. But I only learned how to do knittin’, and now I can’t stop,” Naima replied, concentrating on her stitch. “When I’m mad, it calms me down.”
I saw her from across the room, and I felt like a birdwatcher who’d just glimpsed that longed-for blue-winged teal. I’d wanted to ask for an interview last June, but she kept missing school, and when she was here, she was always having a meltdown. I dropped into the seat next to her.
“Naima,” I whispered conspiratorially.
“What?” Smiling at my corniness. Wondering what I wanted, since I’m not her teacher this semester.
“So…I write fiction? Like, short stories?” She looked surprised.
“Yeah. And sometimes, my stories are about teenagers in Bed Stuy, high school students? But in my stories, when they leave school…I, like, don’t know what they do, where they go, what they say. You know? ‘Cause how would I know, right?” She nodded, understanding. “So I’ve been interviewing students. They just talk about whatever, about life. Are you interested? Can I interview you?” I felt like I was asking for a date.
“You were s’posed to interview me over the summer,” Monique pointed out.
This is true. God, she’s another one. Monique: soulful and crazy-smart, a favorite of teachers except when she’s having a crisis (and then it’s like, Lord help us). Another one we’re besotted with, that we ache for, with a horrific back-story that’s always gumming up the works.
Naima seemed moved by my request.
“Yeah, I’ll do that,” she said with uncharacteristic gentleness. I set up a meeting with Monique for two days later. These are gonna be some stories.