Looking back, I should have seen what was going to happen. I should have known that squirrely Melvin, a freshman, was too self-conscious to deal with the brutal honesty of Minnie’s speech.
When Minnie got up to speak, she clutched her paper with both hands and bore down on it, rushing through the words. In the loaded half-second after she finished, her words hung nakedly in the room. Melvin chuckled. He couldn’t take it. A few others giggled in discomfort, and Minnie, eyes brimming, flew out the door.
Everyone looked at Melvin.
“What? I didn’t do anything!” he squawked, guilty. He wasn’t going to take the heat. I sat there, impotent. I couldn’t run after Minnie and abandon the class. Clearly, I hadn’t made the room safe enough for her to speak from the heart, and I filled up with shame. The other students were horrified, and a sober silence settled over us.
“That’s messed up,” Denique said softly.
“It wasn’t me,” Melvin mumbled.
“I wasn’t even talking to you,” she snapped.
I didn’t think I’d be able to turn this into a teaching moment. I made a few attempts to get them talking, to address the violence we’d just seen, but no one was having it. We resigned ourselves to cleaning the room and putting up the chairs; class was almost over. At some point – the memory is foggy here, which often happens when I’m angry – Melvin began to protest his role in Minnie’s exit more forcefully. Maybe someone made a remark to him I didn’t hear.
“I didn’t do anything,” he said, smug, almost desperate. The sight of little Melvin working so hard to protect himself, to step outside his shame, should have evoked sympathy from me. He was so transparent. But I, too, was ashamed, and, like Melvin, I didn’t feel like I could control it, keep it inside. His weak protest felt like the last straw. At that moment, I became more furious in a classroom than I had in YEARS. I didn’t say anything to Melvin, but I stormed around the room, practically throwing chairs onto desks, snatching up bits of stray paper and flinging them into the trash. I rinsed tea mugs and slammed them on the counter, and miraculously, they didn’t break. One by one, my students turned to witness my anger.
“Claire, are you okay?”
I didn’t answer. I just kept slamming large objects onto hard surfaces. Finally, at 3:15, they filed out, escaping my fury. I must have looked ridiculous. There seemed to be a free-floating rage that day. I’d gotten wind of a few breakdowns earlier, girls yelling about some injustice or hurt and being escorted out of class by deans or social workers with soothing voices. It was the end of the semester, and everyone’s strings were taut and frayed.
About five minutes later, the third floor basically cleared, a student tore down the hall, saying, “They jumpin’ R.D. in back of the school!” His voice was urgent.
I sped to the other end of the hall, where some students and teachers were crowded around a window. I stood on tiptoe to see what was happening and could barely make out two moving masses of people in the street, angry words detonating louder and louder.
“Oh, my God,” someone gasped.
“Has anyone called the cops?” I asked. No one answered. I dialed 911 myself. “Is there a weapon?” I called out, to answer the operator’s question.
“I don’t know!” came the reply.
“I don’t know,” I repeated. “But listen, it won’t be long before someone pulls something. Just get here. There’s a brawl. Several of our students are fighting some other people, I think adult males…just send someone.”