No Rabbits Up in Here

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. Continue reading

New Air (part four: the end)

The last day of the semester is always a let-down.  I usually imagine some satisfying coda to the semester, and it always ends up being anticlimactic.  Some kids are absent; some kids STILL don’t turn in the missing essay(s), and you realize you might have to give them an F.  Everyone is antsy, anticipating the brief vacation.

Final speeches were due on the last day.  Continue reading

I’m Gonna Write a Different Speech (part three)

It wasn’t the first time a conflict had erupted with boys from the projects across the street, but it doesn’t happen often.  Usually, the threat is worse than the event.  Usually, some combination of peace-keeping peers and school staff snuff it out.  But this, three floors below, looked like chaos.  R.D., a willowy, charismatic boy, is notorious for doing things like flashing signs and shouting, “Crips for life!” to the Bloods across the street when they stroll back and forth making threats.  He thinks in terms of armies: us against them.  For years, we’ve been fighting to keep his head in school while the street beckons; it looked like we were about to lose the battle. Continue reading

Free-Floating Rage (part two)

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. Continue reading

Stand Up and Speak (part one)

“Wait, so like, this can be really personal?”

“That’s kind of the whole point,” I replied.

“Then I’m changing my topic,” Minnie declared.

“Do it.”  She bent toward her paper, and the page became a tangle of her loopy, wild cursive. Continue reading

Update: The Girl With Five Names

No sign of Lucia.  Sigh.

Defying Physics, or: The Return of the Butt Rockers

I did something I shouldn’t have.  I was on Facebook, idly reading the news feed, and someone I went to junior high with had commented on a photo.  I peered at the thumbnail and recognized it instantly: assembled before a spindly tree at San Marcos Junior High, it was the “butt rockers,” a moderately influential clique of flannel-wearing, Metallica-worshipping, self-styled eighth grade rebels.  They allegedly spent their weekends smoking pot and crystal meth and dropping acid.  I had no idea if this was actually true, because they never invited me.

Despite their cringe-inducing moniker and recreational drug use, I longed to be accepted into their ranks.  They were the first people I encountered who seemed truly cool in a James Dean sort of way.  Before the butt rockers, “cool” was the mantle of the popular assholes at my elementary school.  But those people weren’t cool; they followed their leaders like a flock of sheep and wore cutesy outfits.  The butt rockers were…weird.  I admired their courage.  I was not willing to admit that many of the butt rockers were also assholes, at least to me.

Continue reading