Friday, August 13, 2004

A True Story

January brought a spate of twelve-year-olds
hiding out in the classroom closet,
like cloudy days or ice storms, the climate
in the sixth grade forecasted:
take shelter among the coathooks and graffiti.

I stood in the doorway like a sentinel in a strait,
overseeing the turbulent current of the hallway,
knots of students - mundane monsoons
or cyclones spiraling, rising -
my students peeling off, curling into our classroom
in twos and threes, greeting me, or not,
taking science books out, or not,
releasing the last heat of lunchtime.

So Louis, when you blew in,
I left my stance in the doorway for the closet,
I was ready to talk you out
or leave you space in the narrow embrace
of the wooden doors.

Miss Scott -
thirty years a teacher,
rumored Black Panther back in the day -
spiker of teacher's lounge punch,
artist behind our hallway's shrine to Aaliyah -
Miss Scott,
who took an unwanted roomful of 13-year-olds
still in the sixth grade
can't really read
wearing blood-colored beads

and did what with them exactly?

Just as you stepped out of the closet in an act of trust or shame -
Miss Scott thundered into my classroom
and I heard the punch land

though I did not see where
I heard the punch land...

When the moment melted
and the other students went on turning in their own drifting motion
all the words spoken in the minute since she hit you
fell onto my ears like rain against a windowpane, arrested
then gathering speed...

You picked on her girls.
You're a thug.

Louis, it was a battle to keep you in school
long enough to taste, if not success,
then progress, two days in a row of science
A battle lost in lunchtime fights
and afternoons on the block.
Your walk was a swagger, you dropped
your pants standing on a desk in my class -
off to the principal again -
but even he felt a soft spot for you, Louis,
fourth-time sixth-grader
whose mother came in once, bloodshot
and so high even a new teacher from a small town could tell -
like hope locked in the emptiness of Pandora's box,
something in you reflected just enough light to make teachers hope.

Here is where I wish I could tell the story that starts
with me telling that woman exactly what I thought:

How dare you? How dare you, how dare you?

Here is where I wish I could tell the story that ends with a breakthrough,
when you read the book on pond life
that you stole from the library as a gift to me,
the story that ends with a little trust,
a chance at seventh grade.

The bell rang.
Miss Scott shouldered off
like a mass of humid air lifting.
I taught 5th period.

Louis, you must have thought I did nothing -
you could not have seen me shut the door to my AP's office,
the only time we ever met like that.
She agreed it was serious.

Miss Scott has been teaching
in this very same school
more years than you have been alive on this earth...

we don't want her to lose her license,

do we?

I was the butterfly whose wings
could unleash a crushing storm.

I would back down again, I fear,
sacrifice you to school politics,
to my ability to teach 5 classes a day, all year
across the hall from Miss Scott,
from her allies,
who could turn their students against me,
walk off with my supplies,
hide my keys,
let me know where I stood for taking a stand --
I would back down again, I fear,

but I wonder about you, Louis,
transfered a month later - for once
they gave me time to wish you luck.
I know the tug of the old current is strong,
the clean slate quickly marked upon,
but I hope for you,
when I shelve that old copy of Pond Life,
because deep down, you were paying attention,
deep down, you wanted something from your teachers
that we wanted to give.


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