On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Ana is quiet.
Her cool competency in class is uncommon among sixteen-year-olds. She is the only student who has not missed an assignment this year; to turn in late or incomplete work is indefensible to her. Nor will mediocrity be tolerated by her parents, who are intensely concerned about her education. Her dignity seems somehow out of place in an American classroom. But perhaps such poise and self-possession have never been the prerogative of any era or nation, only the marks of individuals scattered all too thinly throughout society and history. She sits up straight at her desk. Her speech is thoughtful. She smiles and laughs during group work and when interacting with her friends, but she remains attentive during instruction.
Right now, Friday afternoon, May 10, the class is quiet, and Ana is reading.
It is testing season in the schools in this Southwestern county. I have not assigned any written work this week, as the students’ days are overshadowed by state-level assessments that occupy grim ninety-minute blocks in the middle of each morning and afternoon.
Here in Language Arts, fifth period, our objective is to read. Just read. From books, not phones. Any book; I don’t care. Every day this week the students are expected to bring a book to class or to take one from the shelf in the back of the room, where they can find story collections and biographies, illustrated books on art and history, some poetry, and a few graphic novels.
The bookshelf is strategically situated next to the coffee station, where the twelve-dollar Mr. Coffee machine is always cooking, alongside the hot-water pot for tea. There are caffeine addicts in every class. When the bell rings, they are the first to arrive. They take their personal oversize mugs from the cabinet and spike a pint of coffee with several tablespoons of sugar. Their hands shake throughout the hour, and that’s OK; so do mine, for the same reason. Many days, when I am sufficiently wired, I’ll tell irrelevant stories, and Nathan — who sits in the front row, dressed in all seasons in a black peacoat with large brass buttons — will cock his head at me, smile, and ask, “You OK, Jones?”
“No,” I’ll tell him, right on cue. “I’m not OK.”
It’s our private joke. We’re the only two who laugh.
But today Nathan is quiet.
Normally he is curious to the point of distraction, his cross-examinations of me incessant. He is master of the non sequitur (though he could not define or spell the term). He poses off-topic questions tailored to engage the other students, and his comments, though innocuous and mild, hold up the work train, blocking the tracks like stray cattle. He’s an agent provocateur with an innocent grin, a judicious preemptor of further analysis of the boring essay that I’ve assigned.
One day in December, when we were evaluating pro and con arguments regarding the role of athletics in high school, Nathan asked, “Jones, what’s the nicest thing anyone has ever done for you?”
His feint promised to buy the class some precious minutes away from the godforsaken worksheets on their desks. What is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for you? It was the most provocative question I’d ever encountered in a classroom.
My mother traded any hopes of an independent, self-determined life to raise four children while working as a secretary. That was nice of her.
No school counselor or teacher ever tried to encourage me toward this or that vocation or line of work. That was nice, too.
But Nathan’s question caught me unprepared, and I didn’t share any of this. I didn’t have the humility to pause and give his question the serious consideration it deserved. Some misbegotten teacherly instinct toward “classroom management” intervened, and I said, “Nice try,” then returned to the lesson. Such missed opportunities litter the school year.
Nathan is often hungry, and he knows where I keep the emergency tangerines and oatmeal cookies. He may or may not be getting enough to eat at home; some students do not. One day in March I found a pack of cookies in the cabinet, along with a note from him: “Thanks for letting me eat your food all the time. Here are some new snacks.”
Now Nathan is quietly reading.
I’m often visited by doubts about the value of books and reading. On those days my sustaining belief in education, and in myself, drains away like fuel from a punctured tank. The interval between bells expands, my irritability rises, and I am no good to anyone.
There is a constant vacillation in me between some ethereal notion known as “making a difference” and a more persistent and overwhelming sense of futility. Every morning a negotiation must take place between these two and a settlement be reached before I leave for work.
Once in a while I walk to school, three miles through the dark streets at 5 AM, looking at the stars and keeping an eye out for loose dogs. Midway along the walk I pause on the high ground for a view of the town and the school, the moon low in the clear, high-desert sky. There is nothing so awfully lonely as the moon in those early-morning hours when no one is about.
A good teacher, they say, holds students to a high standard. Be lenient, they say, and kids will walk all over you. I try to follow this advice but can’t. In September I lay out a fortified line of expectations, determined to defend it at all costs, but by November that front has buckled like the Maginot Line in France during World War II, and the Germans are blowing tubas along the Champs-Élysées.
I’m too easy on them. I don’t hold them accountable. I’ve seen the movies about educators who inspire their students to undreamed-of heights of achievement. That’s not me. When students struggle, I do not try to reveal to them the hidden springs of resilience and ingenuity that dwell undiscovered in their hearts. No, I give them a pass and ask them to do better tomorrow.
Once or twice, in the middle of a morning walk, standing alone in the cold dark with a view of the school, I’ve almost turned back. On those mornings the thought of submitting a resignation letter makes me deliriously happy. I’ve always wanted to get a job as a landscaper, digging and planting all day. How easy it would be to quit.
But I keep walking, evading strays, down through the arroyos where the freezing homeless stir at dawn, across the empty lot and into my classroom, where I overfill the coffee filter, turn on some music, sweep the floor, and wipe the chalkboards, all once again well with the world.
Jeremy is quietly reading.
He has a mimeographed booklet on muscle ailments, published by a long-shuttered medical college in 1983. His mother is a nurse, and he found this material among her old textbooks and brought it for reading day. He’s fascinated. “Hey, Jones,” he says brightly, “did you know that if you can’t lift a Bible with your arm straight out, like this, it might be a sign of bigger problems?”
I have no clue what he’s talking about. “That’s interesting,” I say. “Keep reading.”
Jeremy is quiet again. So is Mariah.
Last Wednesday the noon temperature broke sixty degrees, so we went outside with our notebooks and pencils to write a poem: Ten lines, ten observations, ten things, I told them. About anything. Just look and write. That’s it.
They did and returned to class buzzing on spring sunshine. They milled about in a chattering herd, heedless of my appeals to take their seats, all talking at once. In the midst of the chaos Mariah climbed onto her desk. Her five-foot stature elevated to eight, she stood with her hands pressed to her temples in a posture of catastrophic dismay. Facing me over the heads of her laughing, oblivious classmates, she said, as though she herself could not believe it, “The sunlight makes me so happy!”
Now Mariah is quietly reading.
Rain has fallen off and on since yesterday. Leaving the apartment this morning, I paused at the door. It doesn’t rain much in this place, and when it does, it often barrels through in the company of strong winds and hail. But the rain this morning fell with such startling gentleness that I had to call my wife to come and see it.
Now, in fifth period, the rain still falls. The overhead lights are off. The desks near the windows lie in a gray natural light that fades to shadows at the far side of the room. Some students sit alone at their desks; others sit in pairs, shoulder to shoulder, on the floor (which I must remember to mop; the room fills with muddy red footprints when it’s wet outside). The uncommon rain has cast a tranquil mood over the school. The classrooms around ours are quiet, too.
The students are glad for this rare peaceful hour. A pair of small speakers, turned low, plays a harpsichord concerto by Bach.
It’s been a busy week. Testing was interrupted by a lockdown on Tuesday. At the high school down the street a staff member stormed out of the building with a promise to get his guns and shoot up all the schools in town. We sheltered in place for two hours until we got the all clear. The incident generated little comment among the students — at least, none that I overheard.
It was the second lockdown of the year. The first involved a threat from within our school. That day we were stuck in English class for two and a half hours. The students — alert, thirsty, holding their pee — carried on in good spirits through an extended discussion of a story whose title I can’t remember. When a cop entered to look around, we quizzed him on the correct spelling of certain words. We didn’t go easy on him, but that cop was a pretty good speller, and we failed to stump him. Police and dogs swept the school, but no weapon was found.
I keep a three-pound sledgehammer in a desk drawer. “In a shooter situation,” I told the students early in the year, holding the sledge in the air, “if we can’t get down the stairs, here’s what we’ll do: You three push the bookcases and desks in front of the door, I smash the window with this, and then we climb out. Ladies first.”
“How do we get down? We’re on the second floor.”
“Right. We’ll stay up here. We run over to that ventilation unit over there — see it?” I pointed to the unit on the roof of the adjacent wing of the building. “And hide behind it.”
“What if he sees us?”
“He won’t see us. We’ll be real still.”
“That’s your plan?”
Valerie is quiet.
I received her IEP (Individualized Education Program, generally for students with special needs) in February. The report says Valerie is to be challenged in class because, although she has an SLD (Specific Learning Disability), her aptitude scores are very high. Teachers are cautioned not to lean over her, but to give her plenty of space. Don’t micromanage, and don’t badger, the report counsels: she hates that. Teachers should present clear instructions, then let her work it out.
Fair enough. I, too, intensely dislike being overseen. At the start of the school year I met Valerie’s mother, a Central American immigrant involved full-time in antipoverty programs in town. I told her that her daughter is a leader. I’m not sure what gave me that impression so early in the year, but my conviction has only deepened since then. It has something to do with the fierce concentration Valerie applies to every task, her insistence on clarity, her impatience with repetitiveness and indirectness, her low tolerance for busywork and chitchat. Her attitude toward school reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s observation about his Irish granny: “She met vague small talk with ruthless statements of ascertainable fact and well-worn maxims with a tart demand for evidence.” Students like Valerie — and there seem to be many among her generation — keep me honest, and prepared for every class.
Many students with IEPs and SLDs are not as successful. Last year, as a special-education teacher at a different school, I had a student named Ben who had been diagnosed with a severe emotional disturbance. At fourteen he looked ten, and he lived in a converted shed with his parents, a brother who had an intellectual disability, and an uncle.
The women in the Resource Room, where the children with profound disabilities were cared for (it’s usually women who work in Resource Rooms), referred to Ben as my “son.”
“Your son smells like cigarettes today,” Ms. Alcana would inform me. Or, “Your son is having a bad-underwear day.”
Whoever smoked at Ben’s home — the father or the mother or the uncle — preferred Pall Malls. Ms. Alcana recognized the brand, having smoked Pall Malls herself in her younger days. Though underpaid and undersupported, the women in the Resource Room did not miss much.
On one “bad-underwear day,” while Ms. Alcana washed Ben’s clothes, I got him showered during my free period. He lived without running water and had never learned the habits of proper hygiene, so I stood outside the shower stall and issued instructions:
“Is the water warm enough? OK, now get under it, Ben. You gotta step forward, so the water is hitting the top of your head! Now, you see the soap in the dish?” I took him step-by-step through the process of lathering up and scrubbing between his toes. Only the movements of Ben’s thin limbs, an underfed apparition, were visible through the frosted shower door. “Good man. Now let the water wash the soap off. All right, Ben. What’s the next step?”
“I gotta clean my butt crack and my privates.”
“Armpits! One thing at a time, Ben. You let me know when you’re ready, all right?”
“All right! I’m doing real good, ain’t I, Mr. J.?”
“Yes, Benjamin. Did you take smart pills today or what?”
Ben never failed to forget to rinse the shampoo out of his hair.
Once he was clean, I stepped out to let him dry himself in private. Ms. Alcana, right on time, handed me a nicely folded set of clean clothes from the donation bin. When Ben was dry and dressed, he and I stood at the mirror and reviewed how to brush our teeth and use a comb. These steps completed, he fairly skipped around the Resource Room, delighted to hear the women exclaim — as they always did — what a handsome boy he was. Then I walked him to class.
Because of his odd and unpredictable habits, Ben had few friends, so I let him eat lunch with me. If Ms. Alcana showed me a behavior chart for the day with smiley faces (or frowny faces, for that matter), I’d give him a Matchbox car as a reward. He was crazy about cars, as I was at his age, and he would crawl around the room in his clean clothes, much to my consternation, racing the little car around.
He pleaded with me never to tell his father about the cars, for fear that they would be taken away. But his father eventually discovered Ben’s stash. One day Ms. Alcana handed me a note she had received from Ben’s father. I know it by heart, having read it many times: “Hey, teacher. Why do you give him toys if you said he was doing fine? Anyway thanks for the cars. Mine now.” He was a real scumbag.
Ms. Alcana was joking when she called Ben my son, but they do become like your kids, in a way. Especially the ones who are anxious, or who learn more slowly than others, or who don’t have friends, or who have few dependable adults in their lives. I’ll see some kid sitting alone in the cafeteria or a corner of the classroom — one who is too clumsy or too quiet to fit in — and I’ll want to burn the world down.
Federal law mandates that schools identify students with disabilities. Schools must then provide those kids and their families with the resources to help them succeed. That’s not always how it works, of course. Many students go undiagnosed, or are treated as behavior problems, or get shuffled from school to school. Some simply vanish from the education system. Students with exceptionalities are overrepresented among those who fail to graduate. They are also overrepresented on this nation’s prison rolls.
One afternoon, alone in the classroom after school, I sat at my desk and read a report from the state Public Education Department, documenting graduation rates. The report included a list of names of students who had stopped attending school at some point between ninth and eleventh grade. Some were labeled “Moved out of state,” but beside most of the names was the phrase “Residence unknown.”
Over and over this phrase appeared, page after page. Hundreds and hundreds of boys and girls who had dropped out of school had also dropped out of sight. The report did not indicate what efforts had been made to locate them. There are dedicated people who do search, but their numbers are limited.
I left that school at the end of the year.
I think about Ben sometimes. Perhaps someday, somehow, he will escape to a place where he finds warm water to wash his face every morning and a pair of clean socks to start the day. A place where no one steals his Matchbox cars.
Lila is quiet.
She carries a basketball to every class, twirling it on a finger as she walks the corridors. She possesses a wealth of knowledge — gleaned from books and her grandparents — about Navajo traditions and stories, and she has learned to speak the language.
On the day we wrote poems outside, she wrote lines from the Navajo Night Chant:
In the house made of the dawn
In the house made of the evening twilight
In the house made of the dark cloud . . .
The chant ends with these lines (also part of the Blessingway ceremony):
Beauty radiates within me
There is beauty before me
There is beauty behind me
There is beauty below me
There is beauty above me
There is beauty all around me
There is beauty again
There is beauty again
There is beauty again
When I asked if I could keep it, she gave me a new copy, along with a translation in Navajo on the reverse.
The world is mired in noise, noise for the sake of noise, and the torrents of words that drown the hours are mostly devoid of nourishment, of life, of purpose. Lila was taught that words bear meanings and may not be thrown carelessly about; that they must be assigned their roles with thoughtfulness and care — or, better yet, stored quietly until the arrival of their proper season, and not a moment sooner. She lives with her grandparents, and I suspect they have nurtured this reverence in her.
Or perhaps her love for words is inborn. Or maybe her respect for language is derived from the land itself — the lonely clouds, the long gray-blue cut of the horizon, the empty mesas shedding immense silence. This land has engendered rich cultures for ten thousand years, and it has witnessed centuries of genocide, theft, conquest, and murder — and now the poisoning of the soil and water by coal and uranium mines. The past looms from every horizon. The past is visible on the streets, too. You can find it camped in the littered arroyos and hitchhiking along the highways.
At a time when words are dumped like chaff to saturate the airwaves, to gum up the organs of receptivity until truth is irrelevant, it is difficult to keep in mind how profane a misused word truly is. “Words create beauty, happiness, laughter, and calm,” writes Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso, “as well as destruction or death, so be careful how you use them.”
Thoughts of Lila bring to mind Francis of Assisi, who could not pass by a discarded scrap of parchment if it bore writing of any kind. If there was even so much as a single letter, he took the fragment and buried it out of the way with a small benediction. God used words when he spoke to his people, Francis explained, and for that reason language was sacred, down to the meanest syllable.
How busy with burials Francis would be today.
A born learner, Lila prefers the front row. Laughter comes easily to her. She jokes and smiles a lot. She has a temper, too, and in unguarded moments, when no one is looking, melancholy casts a shadow across her face.
She plans to attend medical school at a big state university in the East, where she will study to become a surgeon. Then she will bring her skills back to the Southwest. Her grandfather is afraid, however, that she will never return. It is a point of tension at home for her these days.
I cannot know the burdens of history and tradition that Lila carries. To be a young Navajo, I think, is to be subject to expectations that are unknown to most teenagers in this country. In addition to coping with the global crises we’ve handed the younger generation, Navajo students are often under pressure to preserve an identity. A tough web of loyalties keeps many of them bound to this place, where opportunities — in the materialistic, modern American sense — are not plentiful.
It rains a lot back east, I tell Lila. But she knows that. “I love the rain,” she says.
Isabel is quiet.
She has not missed a minute of school, for the simple reason that she doesn’t want to be at home, where the environment is toxic with alcoholism and neglect. I learned this from a storyboard she created for an assignment about family. She drew a picture of her mom passed out in the snow. Isabel never misses a class and never completes an assignment.
She has few friends that I know of and rarely speaks to anyone but her sister, who is in twelfth grade and pregnant. A young man from the Life Skills class, plainly smitten with Isabel, stops by my room periodically during the week to look for her, but she shows little interest in her suitor. I have given up badgering her about class work and instead allow her to read on her own, provided she completes a report on each book she finishes. This she does faithfully, bringing me meticulous reports each week, along with daily updates at lunch. She drops by during my prep hour every day, too, to raid the food cache and show me a book dog-eared with progress. At these times, away from the others, she is smiling and chatty.
“I read twenty pages last night,” she says. “You got any more of those almond cookies? I’m a cookie monster.”
She reads well, but at a third-grade level. I realized this in the first days of the school year. When no one volunteered to read, Isabel took pity on me and raised her hand. She read a brief passage in a small, clear voice that will live on in my memory. Fluent in sounding out words she didn’t know, she gleaned tones from everyday verbs that I’d never dreamed they possessed, and conferred a strange new life on faded old nouns, as one might draw a hidden thread of some brilliant color from an old rug. Moved, I commended her on her wonderful reading voice. She smiled in surprise and never read aloud again.
Isabel has managed, as many students in this district do, to pass from grade to grade by relying on coping strategies and the negligence of teachers like me.
Now she is reading quietly. I don’t disturb her.
Roberta is quiet.
Four foot eleven with a long braid, a repertoire of gang signs, and doodles of pot leaves embellishing her notebooks, Roberta has just been accepted to a college-preparatory academy in a nearby city. She will start there in August. Her grandma is determined that Roberta will make it out of this town and into a better life, and Roberta loves her grandma, so she’s worked hard all year.
One day in January, when the students were dispirited, I brought up a painting on the classroom screen — a watercolor of Japanese plum blossoms — and asked them to analyze its composition. “I don’t want to hear anything,” I said, “except people talking about Japanese plum blossoms.”
“Did you hear about them Japanese plum blossoms?” Roberta asked her neighbor. “They are so fucked up!”
At the start of the year I found two large glass vases in a maintenance closet. I dusted them off, filled them partly with rocks, and stuck a few dry cholla stems and withered wildflowers and desiccated branches in them. I covered the rocks with pinecones I’d collected on weekend strolls with my wife or while walking to school in the morning, and I set the vases on the windowsill in my classroom.
It did not occur to me that putting ordinary bits of wood and stone in vases might be seen as odd, or even be noticed, until a student ventured a comment: “Them things are dead.”
“That’s correct,” I replied.
He may have expected some further explanation, but I didn’t have one.
Right now, beyond the American and state flags in the courtyard, the mesa is shrouded in gray clouds, and rain smokes in the gullies. If I knew why I put the dead branches in the vases, I would tell them, and they would understand, because they trust me. When I tell them, for instance, that Beatrice was the great love of Dante’s life, and also the poet’s symbol for celestial wisdom, they know it is true. When I tell them I care about them, they know this is true, too. It is an immense power I have, of which I daily prove myself unworthy.
But I will not mention the dead branches, or anything else. I will not intrude on the quiet peace that pervades the room along with the rain light.
At this moment they are lost in books, if only for a short time. They have scattered to the corners of the room, to wherever the pages have taken them. Should an administrator drop by, they will see twenty-two students seated at desks or on the not-very-clean tile floor, no more than a whisper’s distance from one another, and everything will appear to be in order.
“You have to destroy this world to save it,” I’ve told my students several times, and they always laugh. I believe their laughter stems partly from an all-too-clear cognizance of the miserable fix we’ve locked them into. Yet on many days — surprisingly many — they retain a faith in learning, and in one another, and sometimes in their teachers. The world will try to squander their goodwill, their innate kindness, and their outrageous gifts. The students know that. They also know who among us grown-ups is on their side, and who is not, and who is simply in over his head.
Today all my hallway reprimands and seat reassignments, all my nagging about phone use in class and the points I dock for tardiness — all these are forgiven. Out of the goodness of their hearts, they never hold these things against me. They know I try, at least, to be honest. At Christmas I swore an oath to stop cussing in class, and I have broken my vow too often to count. But they’ve forgiven me, every time.
I want to say to my students, Thank you for this peaceful hour. But I will not disturb them.
I want to say to them, I’m sorry. But not now.