By James Mulhern
As usual, it took a while to get the students settled. Whenever I told them to put their cell phones, iPods, and any other electronic devices away, I felt as if the classroom was about to take off. I was the flight attendant and they were my passengers.
“Put all book bags underneath your desks and open your textbooks to page 370.”
I started to read Thoreau’s essay aloud. The kids were talking over me. A few hadn’t opened their books yet. Eventually though, the class settled down, became less frenetic, and some students were listening. Mostly, they didn’t understand the turgid prose, so I had to stop every few sentences and paraphrase. When I got to the sentence, “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right,” Leo Turpin, one of the chronic nappers and a kid who was always farting, raised his hand. The other students thought he was cool and called him “Turp.”
“So this guy is saying that we don’t have to do what other people tell us?” He leaned back in his chair, smirking.
“In a way, Leo. Thoreau is talking about an individual’s conscience as being the most important aspect of who we are. You remember Emerson? ‘Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind’ and his other quote, ‘What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?’ ” Leo looked clueless, as did most of the others.
Brandi, a heavyset black girl who was always writing about her diabetes, raised her hand. “Isn’t he the guy who invented electricity?”
“You’re talking about Edison. He invented the light bulb. Good point though.” I didn’t think it was a good point, but I lied because at least she was listening and a semblance of discussion had begun.
Darren from the back shouted, “What page?”
Sandy, a quiet Pakistani girl next to him, pointed to the paragraph in his book. Sandy types are blessings.
Beneatha by the back window said, “I gotta use the bathroom.”
“Not now,” I said firmly.
“Miss. . . ” She looked around, confused. I heard her say to Reggie under her breath, “What’s her name?” I have been her teacher for two months.
“Ms. Bonamici, if you don’t let me go, my pussy’s gonna burst.” This was followed by laughter from the others.
“That wouldn’t be a good situation. You better go now then,” I said. “And don’t be such a smartass with that mouth of yours.”
Amelia and Brandi were whispering. Then Amelia raised her hand.
“I like this guy,” she said. At first I thought she was going to tell us about another boyfriend who broke her heart, but I was jubilant to realize she was talking about Thoreau. “It’s cool what he says about government and how we don’t need one.”
Brandi added, “Yeah, why should we have to follow laws if we don’t agree with them? We should only have to listen to our own conscious. No one has a right to tell us how to think.”
“It’s conscience, you moron,” Mary Grace, a pimple-faced obese white girl from Georgia shouted from the back of the room. She was always reading books. Lately, she was consumed with the Bible. She told me she was going to read every last word by the end of the school year.
“Thank you for the clarification, Mary Grace.”
She snickered and opened Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. I didn’t care that she rarely paid attention to what we were reading in class. She was far ahead of the other students.
“Amelia and Brandi both have a point.” I continued. “Thoreau thinks our conscience is very important. An individual, according to him, should have the freedom to disobey a law that his conscience tells him is unjust. He’s saying that it is really important for us to speak up if we have decided that something isn’t right. What would happen, though, if we all decided to ignore the laws that we disagreed with? And what would happen if we didn’t have any laws at all?”
Brandi said, “Everyone should just do what they want. No one can tell me what is right or wrong. We shouldn’t have to follow anyone else’s dumb rules. That’s messed up.”
“This school is like a prison,” Amelia said, and the other members of the class were suddenly very interested.
Someone said, “Yeah. Fuck this place.”
“Hey! Watch your language,” I answered.
“Then bits of black dust begin to spew out of the air conditioning vent next to the American flag.
“What’s that?” Trisha, a student prone to hysteria, screamed.
“Miss! There’s black shit all over my desk,” Mike said.
“Lily you got some in your hair!” Vega jumped up and pointed.
Lily pushed a hand through her hair, looked at it, and yelled, “Oh my God!”
The fire alarm went off. I managed to guide the class along the corridor and down the east stairwell to the designated area of lawn behind the school. After accounting for all my students who met me under a fichus tree, I walked over to Ms. Lane, a pretty young teacher from El Paso who was into yoga and health food. She and Mr. Sanders, a tiny man with a long dyed black beard and bald head, were leaning against a chain-link fence by a section of dead grass. Both of them were English colleagues.
“Stupid bastards,” Mr. Sanders said. “They are working on the roof and someone forget to turn off the ventilation system. All of us breathing in that tar. That stuff is so carcinogenic.”
“Really?” Lane gasped. “Cancer runs in my family. Like I need any more risk factors.” She put her hand over her mouth; her forehead lifted, creating three deep furrows.
“Look at her,” Sanders said, pointing to Jackson, our principal, who was yelling up at two roofers descending a ladder by the auditorium. “I’m sure she’s giving them hell. Probably worried about another lawsuit. Forget about the health of the faculty and students.” He shook his head and pulled on his thick beard. I imagined a bird flying out of it.
“She’s not so bad,” Lane said. “It’s not her fault that they fucked up. Can’t blame her for everything. She’s got a lot on her plate.” Lane looked smug, like she knew something we didn’t.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I was talking to her secretary, Elsa. She said Jackson has a mother at home with dementia and a brother who doesn’t do anything but hang out all day. He’s unemployed. Never even finished high school. She said Jackson’s been getting a lot of calls from neighbors who find her mother wandering around the neighborhood. Her brother is usually stoned in his room. A total loser.”
Brandi and Amelia ran over to us.
“Is the school on fire?” Brandi asked, out of breath.
“No, but we’ll probably all get cancer,” Sanders mumbled, then laughed.
I explained to the students about the tar and told them not to worry. “I’m sure they’ll clean it all up,” I lied.
Carver and Cecelia, the maintenance people, joined Jackson and the roofers. Jackson gave the two of them some directives. They nodded their heads, asked a couple questions, and then headed into the building. Jackson took her radio from her belt and said something. A few minutes later, Ms. Vickman and two other security guards made the rounds among the crowd of faculty and students. We were told that we’d be allowed to enter the building in about twenty minutes, once the maintenance crew had a chance to clean up. The students were disappointed that the school didn’t go up in a blaze.
“They don’t care about us,” Amelia said. “We could get cancer and die.”
Again I explained to the kids that their chances of getting cancer from this one incident were slim.
“Uh-uh,” Brandi said. “This ain’t right. It’s like that guy Walden said.”
“You mean Thoreau,” I said.
“Yeah him. This is a type of injustice. We should break a law or something.” She was smiling and wide-eyed.
“Yeah. We should stage some kinda civil obedience,” Amelia added. “Make a big statement.”
“Disobedience. You dumbass,” Brandi said.
I decided to teach a less political text the next day so I chose what I thought was a benign piece by Langston Hughes called “Salvation,” a bittersweet essay in which Hughes recounts his childhood attendance at a church revival and the “special meeting for children ‘to bring the young lambs to the fold’ ” at the end of the service. Most of my students came from religious backgrounds so I thought they would be able to relate. In the essay, Hughes relays his anxiety and frustration as he “kept waiting to see Jesus,” how he believed that Jesus would literally come into the church and walk down the aisle. That night he cried over his deception, when after waiting an interminable amount of time during which his “aunt came and knelt at [his] knees and cried, while prayers and songs swirled all around [him] in the little church,” he finally approached the altar, pretending to “see” Jesus come, joining the fold of “little lambs” (his tired peers) who had already been “saved.”
The reading of this essay created an animated discussion about beliefs. Kayla, one of my favorites, announced, “I have a question about the Bible. Are we supposed to believe that Jonah was swallowed by a whale and lived inside that thing for three days? Cause I think that’s crazy! I don’t believe that junk is true, Ms. Bonamici. Is it true?” And she looked at me with an adamant cause-I-just-really-gotta-know expression on her face, as though I would end her confusion right then and there.
I answered, as teachers are supposed to respond, respectful of the students, many of whom come from Biblical literalist religious traditions, that people read the Bible in different ways: some believe that it is the literal word of God, and others believe that the stories are meant to be understood symbolically. In America, I add, we believe in tolerance, and respect the diversity of religious beliefs. I don’t say, what I really think–that a literalist interpretation of the Bible is ignorant, dangerous, and offensive; and that I get angry when I contemplate all the misery and evil that Christianity has caused in the long history of humanity. That I don’t believe in God, Jesus, heaven, and hell, and I think it’s all bullshit.
As if sensing my dour and too-serious thoughts, Vega, who is seated at the back of the room, burst into laughter at something she was remembering. She jumped up and down in her seat, and exclaimed, “Jesus came into my church this weekend.”
She ran to the front of the room, sat down, and began her story, fluttering her hand in front of her mouth, excited in her recollection, laughing, her white teeth shining. “There’s this homeless guy. He thinks he’s Jesus.”
The class exploded with laughter. Brandi, Amelia, and others said, “I know him!” They exchanged stories of this man, discussing how he’s made the rounds in their churches.
Vega continued, “He just walked in, said he was Jesus, and started rollin’ and rollin’ all over the floor. We were all singin’ and the pastor, he just ignored him. I wanted to laugh, but I knew my mother would kill me.” I, like Vega’s classmates, found the story amusing, so I prodded her. I wanted the details, trying to picture the reactions of the congregation more completely.
“No one did anything? They just ignored him?” I asked.
“Yeah.” She laughed. “We didn’t want to disrespect him. We just carried on!”
The other students shared their anecdotes, and then I brought the class back to order, back to our discussion of Hughes’s “Salvation.” Students drew comparisons between their individual religious experiences and those of Langston Hughes.
Turpin woke from his nap and said, “I don’t believe Jesus even existed. And how can someone pay for our sins by getting nailed to a cross? That shit don’t make sense.” He grinned, looking around the classroom for approval. “Turp” was the unspoken leader among his peers. Students were afraid to disagree with him.
Mike said, “Yeah. I don’t believe any of that stuff either. It’s a bunch of propaganda to keep the masses under control. I read that somewhere. The oxycodone of the masses.” He smiled, nodding his head.
“You mean opium of the people. What Karl Marx, a famous philosopher, actually said was ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’ ”
“You’re so smart, Ms. Bonamici. How do you remember all those quotes?” Amelia said.
“I read a lot, and all of you should, too. Reading makes you a free thinker. My grandmother always stressed the importance of being a free thinker.”
Sandy, who barely spoke in class, piped up, “Free thinking should not allow people to make fun of other’s beliefs.” She glanced at Leo and Mike, then slouched on her desk, looking sheepish.
“I have a right to say whatever I want, Sandy,” Turp said.
Mary Grace put down O’Connor’s novel, her face bright red. She took off her glasses; her eyes twitched, and her forehead was sweating. “You’re all a bunch of assholes, especially you Turd!”
Beneatha, who sat in the desk in front of her, quickly asked to go to the bathroom. When she passed my desk, she whispered, “That white girl’s crazy” and hurried out of the room.
“Fuck you, you fat ugly bitch!” Turp said and then laughed. Mike laughed, too. The girls in the room looked at Mary Grace with both pity and fear.
Mary Grace snapped her teeth and turned down her lip. She threw her psychology textbook at Turpin and almost hit him in the head. Luckily, he dodged and the book hit the wall. “You are all a bunch of pigs, especially you, Turd. And you’re no better than Turd, Ms. Bonamici. I know you think that because you’re a teacher you know everything, but you don’t!”
Then she charged Turpin and the rest of the students ran for the door. The girls screamed. Mary Grace began choking Turpin; his face blanched. I pressed the emergency alarm and dialed security at the same time. Mike pulled the two apart, managing to free Turpin from Mary Grace, who kneeled on the floor and began praying: “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you. Praise the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ is risen!” She stood up looking towards the ugly water-stained ceiling, hands raised, a crazed look on her face. “Hail Mary, full of grace. Our Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of they womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
As she was finishing, the security guy, Mr. Pierre, entered, a tall black guy with dreadlocks. Beneatha returned from the bathroom, standing behind him, as if for protection. “I told you she was crazy, Ms. She thinks that she’s Joan of Narc. I’m getting out of here. Types like her might have a gun. It’s always the Caucasian kids who go nuts and shoot everyone up.” The remaining students followed her, hurrying out of the room.
“Don’t worry, Ms. Bonamici. I’ll get them to return,” Mr. Pierre said. Mary Grace was surprisingly quiet and well behaved now, a strange smile on her face. She followed him out the door.
“Mr. Pierre. Could you take Leo Turpin to the office and make sure he’s okay? He looked fine, but Mary Grace really went after him.”
“Of course. I got your back.” He had a kind smile.
I sat at my desk, trying to absorb what had just happened. The experience unnerved me, bothered me deeply. And it wasn’t so much the chaos. Mary Grace, as deranged as she had acted, uttered a truth about me. I did think I knew a lot about everything. In the stillness of the room, I sat at my desk, looking out at the swaying palm trees and clouded sky. Some droplets began to fall on the vegetation. Soon the students returned, ushered in by Mr. Pierre. I thanked him and told the class to spend the rest of the period reading quietly. I filled out the necessary paperwork to document what had happened, but I was distracted by what Mary Grace had said. I reflected on my arrogance.
After lunch, Mr. Sanders and I walked down the hallway from the English planning room to our classes. Someone had smashed the glass front of a vending machine. Bags of Lays potato chips, Doritos, Starbursts, Cheetos, Skittles, and other assorted healthy foods that we provide for our students—lay on the floor in a jumbled mess. Students, laughing and screaming, crouched, dived, slid, and shoved each other to get the goods.
“Hey!” I shouted. “Get away from there.”
When they saw Sanders and me, they bolted.
“Fuck you!” a girl in a red dress screamed.
Before we reached the machine, the looters had dispersed. To our amazement, everything was gone except for a ripped bag of skittles, the contents of which were spread across the floor.
“This school is out of control,” Sanders said, looking around. “Where the hell is security?”
Ms. Lane came out of her classroom. “I called the office, guys,” she said. “I was eating my lunch in the back of my room when I heard this loud crash. I was scared to death. I didn’t dare step outside.”
In a few moments, Ms. Jackson, our principal, and the two maintenance people showed up. Cecelia was a demure Latin woman with a broom always in hand, and Carver, a tall serious man with pale blue eyes and a jagged scar across his left cheek.
“Did any of you see who did this?” Ms. Jackson’s impeccably clean and shiny blond hair glittered like a helmet under the fluorescent light. She was wearing a stylish black business suit and pumps–probably Gucci, Prada, or some other expensive designer.
“Not exactly. Mr. Sanders and I were just returning from our break when we saw a crowd of kids making off with the candy. It was a free for all. Reminded me of Filene’s Basement at Christmas.” I laughed.
All business, Ms. Jackson found no humor in the situation. She squatted down and picked up a large piece of glass. To Cecelia and Carver she said, “If a student cuts himself, we could have ourselves a terrible lawsuit.” She waved the glass in the air. Cecelia ducked slightly, as though she thought Ms. Jackson might scratch her with it. “I want this vending machine moved and the whole area swept thoroughly.”
“You English teachers,” she said to the rest of us, “need to have more of a presence in the hallway. I’d appreciate your checking the hallways periodically. Peek out once or twice during class. We all should be extra vigilant.”
I looked around the dimly lit hall with its pea-green floors and beat-down blue lockers and thought, “Shit. Another pain-in-the-ass thing to do. When do we have time to teach?”
“Will that be a problem?”
“Yeah, it is a problem,” Sanders said. “Where’s security? Why aren’t they up here during lunch. It’s not the teachers’ responsibility to patrol this campus.” His jowls were shaking.
“The place is a bit out of control,” I said. “Something’s gotta be done.” I could feel my own anger rising.
“Look. I understand where you guys are coming from. But security can’t do it alone. I need the cooperation of my teachers.”
Ms. Lane said, “Isn’t anybody watching the cameras?” She pointed to the camera at the end of the hall.
“Well, sure. They’re supposed to be. On my way up here, I checked with Ms. Vickman in Security. Evidently, she screwed up. She didn’t have the damn thing on, or it’s broken, or God knows what’s wrong with the system. I promise you I’ll check into it. By the end of the week, I’ll have this fixed,” she said, patting the side of the vending machine, “and I’ll be watching the cameras myself.”
The period bell rang and students began to enter the corridor. Ms. Jackson pushed her way through a group of flashy Latin girls who muttered under their breath “bitch” and “fat ass,” but Jackson either didn’t hear, or chose to ignore them.
That afternoon, I stayed late to put grades into the computer, which is a rarity for me. I’m usually one of the first to leave. When I exited the building, the parking lot was nearly empty. In the far corner, behind the cafeteria dumpster, I spotted Jackson, who waved for me to come over. A few raindrops fell occasionally, nothing major. She was staring at the side of her silver Audi as I approached.
“Look at this.”
Someone had keyed her car from front to back on the driver’s side.
“Well that sucks,” I said, rubbing my hand over a portion of the scratch. Then I saw where the vandal etched “bitch”
“At least they spelled it right.” Jackson laughed.
“You can check the cameras in the parking lot, can’t you?” I wondered if this was Brandi and Amelia’s doing, a bit of civil disobedience. I was pissed at the monsters I might have created.
“Nope. The entire surveillance system is down. I have a service person coming tomorrow. It seems everything’s falling apart. Everything’s broken. Can’t even park in my designated spot because of the burst pipe in front of the school. God knows when they’ll be through with that project. I thought my car would be safe over here, off the beaten track.”
“Nothing’s safe anymore,” I said.
“You can say that again.” She leaned against the hood of the car and took a cigarette out of her purse. “You want one?”
“Nah. I don’t smoke.”
“One of my vices. Helps me with the stress.” She lit up, then exhaled slowly. “I know the kids hate me. Most of the faculty, too. But I’m just trying to do my job. Keep things running smoothly, maybe make a few improvements. Get us the money we need. You understand that, don’t you?”
Her cell phone rang and she took it out of her back pocket, then stepped away while holding up her index finger. She spoke softly into the phone. Her expression was strained and serious.
When she finished, she said, “My mother. She keeps asking for me. Has this new habit of wandering outside and getting lost. That was the aide who looks in on her a couple times a week. Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease. Do you have anyone in your family with it?”
“My Aunt Bianca did. But she’s dead now.”
“Sorry to hear.” She tamped her cigarette out against the side of the dumpster, then flicked it inside. “I wouldn’t wish that disease on anyone. Watching someone lose their mind is awful, Molly.” I was surprised by her use of my first name.
“It must be very difficult for you.”
“My mother isn’t who she used to be. She was a strong woman, very independent. I wish I had asked her more questions when she was well. I wish I had taken the time to talk to her. Really talk to her. There is so much I want to know.” She was staring at something in the distance. Then she nodded her head, not to me, but to something she was thinking. “I miss her. And life is so short.” She sighed and looked into my face. Her eyes were rheumy. “But we all have our problems. And your day wasn’t so great either. I suspended Mary Grace for two weeks and had Elsa set up an appointment with the social worker.”
“I’m glad. That girl needs help. Thank you.”
“Thank you for coming over here. I needed to vent.”
“Hey, we can all use a little of that.”
“I’m outta here,” she said, opening her car door. “You should go home, too.”
It had been a horrible day. On the way home, I began to think about all the brokenness that surrounded me—the tumult in my classroom, the ridiculous vending machine, the cameras that did not work, Jackson’s mother losing her way, my aging Aunt Helena and Nonna, even the way my own body was beginning to show signs of wear and tear. The thought of these things depressed me.
It began to rain hard now, as is often the case during South Florida afternoons. People hurried across the street, some with umbrellas, others holding bags over their heads. When I passed the church on the corner of 26th Street and 15th avenue, the rain was pelting, obscuring the road in front of me. I drove into the parking lot to wait it out and read the large quote on the entry sign. A few days earlier had been the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi. The irony of his words struck me: “We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.”
But could wounds ever be truly healed? And wasn’t it a law of physics that objects in our world eventually fall apart: entropy, the gradual decline into disorder. Our universe was expanding, galaxies floating further and further away, drifting into the infinity of space. That was alienation, not unity. On this day, so much of life seemed “fallen apart,” spiraling into an inevitable state of decline.
And what exactly was the way? Who would show us? Had Mary Grace been trying to show me? Did I really appear as haughty as she had proclaimed?
These were the questions I thought about as I sat in the steeple-shadowed parking lot. I put the wipers on high and rubbed the inside of the fogged up windshield. Lightning crackled in zigzags across the dark horizon. I waited.
Soon the time between the thundering lengthened, and the intense rain began to diminish. I prayed that before long I would be able to see the way home. When I was able to put my wipers on low, I turned the radio to a station that played classic rock. I eased out of the parking lot, reading the other side of the sign: “Will you follow the road to experience God’s salvation and have eternal life? Join us Sundays 9 am and 11 am.” I turned right onto 15th Street. As the light at the next intersection turned green, Tina Turner sang, “Big wheel keep on turnin’. Proud Mary keep on burnin’.” I swayed my shoulders to the rhythm and sang along: “Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river.” In the opposite lane, a U-Haul truck swerved to avoid a flood of water and hit me straight on.