I was in a semi-fancy luggage store the other day in the hopes that something nice had gone on sale. The nice Korean man who owns the store was chatting with me, and I mentioned that I was a teacher. What grade? High school, I told him. Oh, he nodded, eyes wide. Wow. I smiled. Where do you teach? In Brooklyn, I said. Bed Stuy. Do you know Bed Stuy? His eyes widened again. Wow, he repeated. Very rough area, no? I never know what to say to this question. Sure, I said. But they’re kids, like anywhere else. They’re tough there, no? he asked, imagining the movies. No, I said. Not really. They’re all soft on the inside. They just want to succeed, like anyone else.
In my five years of teaching, this has always been true. Even the scariest, nuttiest, hardest cases – I could always see the bunny rabbit inside, looking for love. It was just a matter of finding a way in – I was sure everyone could be whispered to. I was sure everyone had a rabbit inside that responded to ordinary love and safety.
That is, until today.
Kellye Washington is a sullen freshman. Kellye Washington is the most mystifying student I have ever encountered, more even than Donnell Spence, who was mean as a snake, more even than that stoned, sexist genius Ashante, whose grandma finally put him on a bus back to Virginia when she’d had enough. The very hardest students I’ve had were boys. All the craziest girls seemed knowable, even when they were difficult.
Kellye haunts into a room like she’s about to be ambushed, shoulders hunched, big eyes searching the corners. She’s tall, but she never stands up straight. Her default mode is hostile distrust, and she’s usually scowling or expressionless. The other day, she wore a bright yellow t-shirt to school, and it looked great on her, and I complimented her in the hallway as I strode past: “That’s such a good color on you!” She looked at me as though I’d demanded money from her in Urdu. Her power lies in stony refusal.
She joined my poetry class today. I gave her the work we’d been doing so she could catch up, and explained what to do.
“Why?” she asked coldly.
“What do you mean?” I replied, a pool of calm.
“Why are we doing this?”
I launched into a speech about being prepared for college, where they were going to write literary essays, and our graduation requirements, blah, blah, blah. She interrupted me.
“We not writin’ our own poetry in this class?”
“No. We’re analyzing poetry.” It’s direct preparation for our graduation exam in English: a comparative literary essay that would pass muster in a freshman English course in college. I am literally teaching to the standards. Most of my students, unfortunately, have never encountered literary analysis beyond “book reports.”
“I’m changin’ out a this class,” she announced, leaning back in her chair as though the room had suddenly become unbreathable.
“What class did you have before you switched into this one?”
“I don’t know. Some class.” All this was delivered in a monotone as she kept her eyes trained to the sides of her face. When she talks to teachers, there’s no invitation, no hint whatsoever of her actual feelings about a thing beyond a flinty inconvenience.
“So…” I said, sensing an opportunity. “Do you want to go to the principal to talk to him about switching back to that class?”
“No,” she said, pulling out her knitting.
Whatever, I thought, go ahead and knit. I got 18 other kids in this room clamoring for my attention.
Later, she waves her hand.
“Can I go to the office?
“Why do you need to go to the office?”
“I don’t need to go, I want to go.”
“Because.” Oh, Lord, here we go again.
“But…20 minutes ago I offered you the opportunity to go to the office. I’m just…confused. Why do you want to go now?” Her answer made no sense. I don’t even remember what it was. “Here’s a pass,” I said, giving up the fight. “Go ahead.”
What was her deal? She didn’t seem crafty, like Maria, who acts like she’s got ants in her pants and begs to go to the office, the bathroom, anywhere, just so she can roam the halls and stir up gossip. Kellye didn’t give me some elaborate excuse. There was no deference to my power as the teacher; she wasn’t even trying to subvert it. It was like she already had, and she was just letting me know. She was going to do what she wanted, in her own time.
Twenty minutes later, she was still sitting there. Now she was drawing her name in big block letters on a sheet of loose leaf.
“Uh…I thought you were going to the office?” I asked.
“I am going,” she said, not looking up, not hurrying her steady hand. I was momentarily stumped.
“Um. No you’re not, you’re, uh…drawing. Right now you’re drawing, you’re not in the office.”
“I am going,” she repeated, her tone and volume unchanged, as though she were my great-uncle, in the garage working on a model airplane, and I was wondering when we were going to play catch.
She’s not switching out. I talked to the principal.
It’s gonna be a long semester.