The new girl approaches my classroom, skittish, walking sideways.
“Hey!” I bellow, grinning. “Where were you?” Her answer is inaudible. I try again.
“You missed my class! I didn’t see you yesterday! Or the day before!” Lucia shakes her head and explains that the principal kept changing her schedule. I wave her in, feeling expansive.
After my brief instructions, the rest of the class pulls out the rough drafts of their essays and gets to work. Lucia sits there, looking very much like she wants to disappear. I wander to her desk, trying not to make a beeline.
“You read the story, right?” She nods. “Okay, I want you to come up with a thesis: what is this story about? What’s its theme?” I launch into my run-down on the format for a literary essay.
I could be speaking Urdu; she has no idea what I’m talking about. She gives the distinct impression that she is willing herself into a mist, trying to evaporate before my eyes.
I drop into a crouch at the edge of her table, looking up at her.
“You know what?” I say. “Forget it. I’m gonna have you do something totally different.” Now she’s actually looking at me. “On that piece of paper,” I say, pointing to where she has dutifully written her name and the date, “write me a letter. Tell me who you are. I barely know you. I don’t know anything about you. Introduce yourself, on paper. Okay?”
Behind her, sneaky Nilda is waiting for me to finish so she can return to gassing up Lucia’s head with rumors, fresh gossip, and her fantasy-based association with the Latin Kings. Lucia is new and doesn’t know to take this with a grain of salt (or a whole salt mine). Nilda is hungry for a fresh audience.
“Also,” I say gently, “I want you to sit over there by the window at Romeo’s table. ‘Cause if you sit right here, you know you’re gonna be distracted,” I say, looking pointedly at Nilda, who smiles guiltily. “I know how charming Nilda is, she’s hard to ignore, right?” Lucia giggles.
Lucia works steadily the rest of the period, bent over her little notebook.
(Nilda, on the other hand, squirrely and agitated, begs to “go do her work in the office,” and I’m like, Not a chance, my dear. She loves to wander the halls, ready with excuses for anyone who asks why she’s not in class. By the end of the period, she has written four sentences and drawn a giant Latin Kings logo on loose leaf, and I’m tired of fighting.)
As everyone filters out of the room, Lucia walks up. She’s holding her notebook, showing me three paragraphs of tiny handwriting.
“I’ve never written about that before,” she says breathlessly, “I’ve never told anyone that stuff.” I don’t know whether I should read it right there; I’m afraid to break the spell. She shoves it into my hands.
My name is Lucia Maria Altagracia Ramirez DeLeon , and I’m 15 years old.
“You have five names,” I murmur, whispering each one. I skim the rest: she is the oldest of five siblings, she has big dreams, she’s scared of things, her father gives her trouble. Her voice, as a writer, is determined and clear.
“I’m from PR. We have long names.” She’s looking me in the eye now, like she’s re-possessed herself. “I’m leaving tomorrow, to go to PR,” she tells me, “and I won’t be back till January seventh. I need the homework.” I’ve never heard Puerto Rico referred to as PR; the Dominican Republic is the only island I know to call by its initials.
I’m already cooking up a homework packet in my head as I write her a pass, telling her I’ll drop it by her next class. I spend the next hour assembling it during my prep period: I give her the assignment to continue writing a memoir, as many pages as she wants. (The class she’s in is on short stories, not memoir, but whatever.) I make a copy of a chapter from Judith Ortiz Cofer’s memoir for inspiration. I assign a short paper on “Wishing it Away,” a searing, heartbreaking short story about a girl who gets pregnant and tries to abandon the baby; it is everyone’s favorite, hands down, each semester. I toss in a copy of Junot Diaz’s Drown, a collection by “one of my favorite writers in the whole entire world,” I tell her in a note. “Just read it. You don’t have to write a paper on it. As you read, jot down your thoughts or questions on these Post-its, and when you get back, we’ll have a conversation about what you think of it.” I stuff the instructions, a worksheet, the texts, a dozen sheets of loose leaf, a pad of Post-it notes, and a pen into a manila envelope and write “Lucia (winter homework packet)” in magic marker on the front, decorating it with little stars. I can’t help the flourish.
I tiptoe into her second-period printmaking class and hand it off, and she seems awed but pleased. It’s like sharing a secret. I ache with how badly I want her to do the work. I want to see what she writes. I picture her three years later, graduating. In this moment, I am brimming with hope.
Let’s be clear: there’s no guarantee that Lucia will do the work. There’s no guarantee she’ll even understand my instructions. There’s no guarantee that she’ll earn credit for this course, so late in the game. If there is one thing I’ve come to count on in the world of my students, it’s that most of their lives are in constant flux. There’s no guarantee, really, that I’ll see her again.