Tag Archives: Artists and Agitators

On New Year’s Day, Everyone’s On a Diet

When I met William three years ago, he reminded me of Francis Tarwater, the protagonist of the Flannery O’Connor novel The Violent Bear It Away, which I was reading that fall.  Tarwater is raised in the woods by his great-uncle, a superstitious Christian who believes Tarwater will grow up to be a prophet.  When the old man dies, Tarwater must re-enter society after being sequestered in the woods for most of his life, and he’s terrified.  He trusts no one.

The first day William showed up to my class, he took a seat near the window and slouched down in his seat.  From here, he could see the Brevoort Houses, where he lived.  He had covered the front of his notebook with the word Brevoort and the name of a well-known Brevoort crime syndicate.  His feline face was stony.  In crossing the street to come to school,  he’d entered enemy territory.

We soon learned that William was merry and affable, that when he trusted you, he loved you.  Continue reading


Scenes at a Museum

Scene 1:

I never thought I’d be listening to Karen Finley talk about her “twat” in the context of a museum field trip, with 14-year-olds.

In the “Looking at Music 3.0” exhibit at MoMA this afternoon, Corey says, all jumpy, “Claire!  You gotta come listen to something!”

Continue reading

The Girl With Five Names

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. Continue reading

“It’s My Aura”

This kid Rudy was careening through the halls, avoiding his chorus class, which he loves.  The principal had elected me to police the halls that period because he was in a meeting.  The third time I saw him whip past, I was like, “Rudy.  You’re kidding me, right?”

“I can’t…” he starts up, grinning, laughing, pleading with his arms.  “It’s my aura.  It’s telling me where to go!”

His aura.

Later that afternoon, in another class, the same kid offers his thesis on the theme of “A Black Man Talks of Reaping,” a poem by Arna Bontemps.

“It’s about struggle,” he says, and I’m like, go on…

“The line where he says, ‘my children glean from fields,’ it’s, like…”

I can hear everyone’s eyes roll.  They all know the exact moment when Rudy shifts to bullshit mode.

“It’s, like…I picture a man in a field, and he’s workin’, and we’re lookin’ at him, and he’s workin’ hard…and he’s struggling.  Yeah,” he says, having hit upon the word “struggle” again. I scratch my chin thoughtfully and knit my eyebrows.

“I’m not convinced.  Tell me what about that line invokes struggle for you.”

“THANK YOU,” exhales DeMario.  “Nobody ever calls him on it and make him explain hisself.”

We’ll Walk

Our juniors got their PSAT scores last week.  They were atrocious – out of 800 on each section, our students had scores in the 300s.  Alvin, our college counselor, a 32-year veteran of the Board of Ed, broke the news to his fourth period class.  I lingered in the room we share, hand-drawing a gigantic display for a bulletin board.

At first, the task seemed to be communicating the gravity of the situation.  Clearly, they did not all understand what the numbers meant.  Ronald, a gregarious boy who covers for his insecurity with outrageous cockiness, raised his hand.

“So I got a, a 360 on the verbal, which is good, right?”  All smiles.

“That ain’t high,” snapped Naima. Continue reading


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. Continue reading

I Know Nothing

What would LeQwan eat for breakfast?  I was working on a scene in a story.  I have this problem all the time: what are the details, the minutiae of life outside this three-story public school?  For years, I’ve noticed that my students eat different food than I do, different food than I did when I was their age, but I don’t know why, I don’t know what.  The imagery of their lives when they leave the building eludes me.  How would I know those things if I don’t ask? Continue reading