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Classroom Confidential

 

Great writers on unforgettable moments they had in school. (For more CC pieces, check out our current issue.)

 


 

 

 

Invisible Desires

by Steve Almond

I’m afraid we’ll have to start with a disappointing statistic: In two decades of teaching, I have slept with exactly one student.

I taught her fifteen years ago, shortly after my arrival in Boston. The class was some mangled summer-school version of creative writing, and only six weeks long. I gave her a B minus instead of the straight C she deserved, and told myself it wasn’t because she was cute.

A few years later, she noticed a photo of me in a local magazine, and showed up at an event, where I served as the resident dork/DJ. She was wearing a dress that rendered small talk difficult.

Back at my apartment, we drank and smoked pot and made up for our lack of any intellectual or emotional connection by having sex with an inept fury we hoped might pass for passion. I felt a little slutty the next morning, though not enough to keep me from feeding her French toast and having sex again.

She seemed immensely pleased with herself. “I had such a crush on you in class,” she announced, on the drive home.

She’d been an indifferent student with a boyfriend who dropped her off at class. We’d never spoken more than a few words, in or out of class.

“Really?” I said.

 

I realize now how idiotic this sounds.

After all, I’ve had a crush of some sort on nearly every one of my teachers, the women and the men. Even if I didn’t want to sleep with them, I wanted something more than the professional attention it was their duty to dispense, some evidence that I was worthy and special and even, yes, desirable.

The invisible desires that flow between students and teachers are rarely talked about in polite society. If they surface at all, it’s within a prefigured tabloid narrative. The teacher in question is a monster. The student is a manipulated victim. Roll the perp walk.

The tabloid reporters out there will be thrilled to hear, then, that my habit as a teacher, upon entering a classroom for the first time, was to gauge the sex appeal of my roster. Most of the professors I knew back then—men or women, gay or straight—did the same thing. It’s not like we gathered in the staff lounge to plot seductions. We simply acknowledged, silently and to ourselves, which of our students we found attractive. We admired their youth, their easy beauty, their courage and precocity. Just as they admired our eloquence and authority, our apparent wisdom.

I feel inclined to mention here that I was single during my teaching years, and that I was in my late twenties and early thirties and that I have never been arrested. But that’s just my superego trying to cover for my id.

 

I’m not suggesting that the classroom is some inherently salacious swamp. A lecture course on the wonders of E. coli, taught by an octogenarian, is what it is.

But the sort of classes I taught—creative-writing workshops—had a much more intimate feel to them. My goal wasn’t to get students to memorize data, or solve equations. I was helping them explore the messy, libidinous terrain of their internal lives. I wanted this exploration in a suitable fictive disguise, but I wanted it nonetheless.

Obviously, my predilections as an author influenced how I taught. I am thinking here of a particular Tuesday seminar during which a pair of smartasses confronted me with copies of the Playboy magazine in which I’d just published a short story. They also presented me with a bottle of Jergens lotion. If I’m not mistaken, this was the same class that one student described, in her teacher evaluation, as “overly sexualized.”

I was given pause by this assessment. But I don’t think my teaching style was overly sexualized. It would be more accurate to say that I created an environment in which students felt free to write about the thoughts and feelings that mattered to them most deeply, many of which were sexual. That’s my story, anyway.

Take, for instance, the shy young woman who appeared in my workshop one fall. She did a lot of giggling, and her face flushed when the class discussed a sex scene. Then it came time for her to turn in her first story. Her hands were trembling as she passed it out.

The piece was a devastating account of a teenage girl who loses her virginity to an older man. It was obviously autobiographical. But there wasn’t a single snicker or leer in our assessment. On the contrary, we discussed the piece in awe, occasionally aiming a smitten glance at the author, who sat stunned pale by our praise. Is there no bigger turn-on—to a bunch of writers anyway—than ruthless honesty?

 

Perhaps now is a good time to mention office hours, which I have predictably referred to, over the years, as orifice hours.

I find office hours very sexy. They grant the lonely professor one-on-one time with his students. Often, there are awkward pauses. Hair and clothing are fiddled with, personal scents emitted, knick-knacks nervously inspected.

My experience has been that even the boldest students are far too intimidated to express overt desire in such close quarters. Instead, they have to resort to the sort of coded behavior favored by the lower phyla.

I can still remember one student conference in which a young woman showed up in a flimsy outfit and proceeded to inspect the books on my shelf, so as to display the tattoo on the small of her back, a small red B. She then discussed, by way of explaining why she was distracted in class, her boyfriend’s insufficiencies as a lover. Was she coming on to me? Of course, she was. And not at all.

It was this episode, in part, that spurred me to write the short story “Appropriate Sex,” about a creative-writing professor who is seduced by a voracious undergraduate during office hours. Here’s how the moment of truth proceeds in the story:

 

I suppose I bent to kiss her, just a glancing kiss, a swift brush of my mouth across hers, but Mandy needed more than that. She grasped my thigh and let out a stagy moan and shook loose the chopstick, so that her hair fell free. There was something in these gestures, a certain rehearsed quality, that made me sad. I felt suddenly, irretrievably sorry for both of us, for Mandy, who viewed her sexuality as a bright new use option only obscurely related to her heart, and for me, who was losing hair in clumps and couldn’t even give my wife a decent poking anymore.

 

As befits my fiction, every single aspect of this passage represents a wish fantasy. I wished that one of my lovely students had mustered the courage to hit on me in my single days. I wished for the courage to reciprocate. But I wished, most of all, that, had such a thing ever happened, I would have shown the integrity to stop myself.

In a sense, this was me trying to explain to myself why I could never have physical contact with a student. It didn’t have to do with personal ethics, or even job security. It had to do with the power imbalance built into the pedagogic model, and how easily that power can be abused—especially when your job is, in part, to liberate your students from their inhibitions.

I teach much less these days, and I’ve got a wife and kids to boot, so the barriers I put up are much more obvious. But we’re all human beings. We’re all drawn to people who share our passions. We all check each other out, and we all fantasize more than we’d care to admit. If this makes me sound like a sicko to the easily scandalized, so be it. I’m pretty sure I’ve got plenty of company.

 


 

What We Know

by J.D. Daniels

In kindergarten, we rode broomsticks and pretended we were in the Kentucky Derby. Chris threw a brick at me because Missy, the little girl he liked, had shoved me behind the classroom door and kissed me.

 

In first grade, Mrs. Gerwing saw that I was uncomfortable in my tie and jacket and slacks, that they were the best clothes I owned and that I felt strange wearing them, as if I were in church, or at a funeral: at a funeral that happened every day. She was a nice lady with glasses and curly hair, like my mother, and, like my mother, she knew that I was bad because I was bored. She sent me down the hall, where I could sit by myself and read and write and think.

 

In sixth grade, we were out of money and I rode the bus down to my new school in the Jackson Street projects, where I met Nerhossia and Katrisca and Alonzo and Demetrius, among others.

Señorita Geile had a hand-puppet named Teodoro who spoke to us in Spanish. Demetrius said to her, “Lady, you’d better get your hand out of that teddy bear’s behind.”

 

In seventh grade, I was pursued by a high-school girl. Other kids wrote  on my desk, on my backpack, on everything. KS meant kinky sex. I knew I was not permitted to complain. And soon enough there was very little reason to complain.

 

In ninth grade, I slept with a girl and learned what the fuss was about. When I think now of how bad it was, my petrified incompetence, her boredom and scorn, it’s hard to comprehend how I devoted years to pursuing the matter further. That was terrible, now let me have another, and another, I want them all.

That was the year they told us Señorita Geile had committed suicide.

 

In tenth grade, I was standing in the hall by a locker when Mister Holden said, “You waiting for that girl again?”

“Yes, sir, I am.”

“You two must be pretty tight.”

“Yes, sir, we are.”

“Yes, sir,” he said, screwing up his face and whining, “yes, sir. Yes, sir. I guess your father must have whipped you pretty good.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, “he did. And any time you’re man enough to step outside, I’ll show you what I learned.”

I was excited. My father, I knew, had been suspended from his high school for hitting a teacher. I was tired of making good grades. It was getting harder to do. But Mister Holden turned and walked away.

 

In eleventh grade, I failed an exam and Mrs. Stewart cried when she told me. That night I dreamt her vagina was attached to the end of an elephant’s trunk and was chasing me.

 

In twelfth grade, I spent a lot of time in detention because I was rapidly becoming an ungovernable maniac, but detention, it turns out, is a terrific place to read and write and think, a place where you can sit by yourself, where people will leave you alone.

Many of the boys I went to school with are now doctors or lawyers. That wasn’t what I wanted, and it isn’t what I got. I fell among bad companions: I didn’t fall, I leapt.

 

I don’t remember my freshman year of college. I see from my transcript that my sophomore year I failed “Cognitive Processes” and “Perception” and “Interviewing” and “Fundamentals of American Government” and “Elementary Astronomy Lab”:

 

 

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much
applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

 

I had a job as an exterminator, making more than grown men who lived on my street, and I dropped out of college. Then I got a job parking cars. When I was fired, I got a job scheduling appliance repairs. When I was laid off, I took a job working down at the trailer plant with my father.

Rico said to me, “Don’t you listen to a word these boys say about your old man. He’s the only one of them worth anything. Never forget it.” He put his arm around my neck and hugged me, Rico, who, or so they whispered, had been to prison for killing a man. He worked in the undercoating pit, a hot job in the Kentucky summer, and when he undid his coveralls you could see the tattoo on his chest of an eagle holding a swastika in its talons. This man, then, was my father’s fervent character witness.

 

I went back and ground out a couple more years of college and when it was over I had a bachelor’s degree and a job driving a truck, delivering baked goods. When I got fired, I took a job at the university library as “assistant manager of stacks maintenance,” a fancy way to say “reshelving books and changing light bulbs.” I quit that one and for a while I had a job scanning forms for the Census Bureau. Then I got laid off. For a while I was a night watchman. For a while I delivered pizzas out of my car.

I went back to school and got a master’s degree; and then, because that had been so helpful, and because I was such a stupid animal, I went to another school and got another one.

And I became a teacher. At first I was held hostage, but now I am the man with the gun, teaching students who are entitled to expect to learn something. It’s not an unreasonable request.

I used to think I was pretty smart. And why was that? Because my own mother had told me so, stroking my head as I wept over a pile of flash cards? Because for a while I’d done all right in school? A seal can be taught to do tricks, a dog can. I saw a cat on television once that had learned to use a toilet and flush it.

Sometimes I imagine an anthology called What We Know. A little biology and physics, some Plutarch and Goethe. It would be a short book. You could put it in your pocket.

 

I lie awake at night, thinking: my father worked down at the trailer plant, and so did I, and my mother was a teacher, and so am I. Now and then I think I am my mother and don’t know it, and just happen to be a teacher because she was one. My mother was a drunk, and I became a drunk. My mother was a teacher, and I became a teacher.

I didn’t mean to do my mother’s job. I don’t even know if I can. I stand in front of students and I talk, but that is not necessarily teaching. And if I am a teacher, I don’t know that I’m a good one. I’ve had students who said they loved me and perhaps that was true, but all I have to do is think about my own romantic history to know that a feeling of love does not signify the presence of any actual merit. There are many reasons people tell you they love you. I end every telephone call to my mother by saying, “I love you,” even though at least half of the time I would like to set her on fire.

 

My first class went well enough, I thought. Two days later I was drinking beer and shooting nine-ball in the middle of the afternoon when I realized I had neglected to teach my second class. I had forgotten I was a college professor. It seemed improbable.

I went off another afternoon for a cold one and blacked out and came to later that evening in the middle of a lecture. I cleared my throat and looked at my students, and I looked at my notes, and I kept talking. I don’t think they noticed. They loved my lectures, they said.

 

My mother hated teaching, and now, since I am my mother, so do I. Our feelings are not our own.

There were lockers full of books at the high school where she taught. “Half of these kids can’t even read,” she said, “you should take whatever you want.” Sometimes she would call in sick for both of us, lying, and she would take me to the movies in the middle of the week. The movies were stupid, as movies tend to be—a bicycle race, or an English country-house murder—but what a thrill for a little boy to skip school and sit alone with his mother in the dark.

 

Years later, when I had moved north, I called to wish her a happy Mother’s Day. “I’m already having a happy day,” she said. “I went into your old bedroom and I opened the closet, and there was a suitcase marked private do not open. So I opened it, and inside the suitcase there was a cardboard box, taped shut, that said private do not open. And inside that box were some tapes marked private journals do not listen. I’ve been listening to them all morning. It is the best Mother’s Day present a mother could ever have.”

She had made me with her body, I had lived inside her body, during those months I was her body, like an organ, like her hand. Perhaps you have technically exited my body by way of the birth canal, but what rights did you thereby obtain, hand? Will you grow up and put all of your things in a U-Haul truck and leave me? No, hand, I control you, you are mine. Come back here, you belong to me, you are me, I grew you, I made you. Do as you are told and get back inside my pussy.

 

It’s nice to make some money, but there are other ways to earn money, at least there used to be.

The head of my department, an old hairball named Rob, says, “You are the most beloved teacher at this school! We’re so glad to have you back for another semester! What can we do for you? Anything! Name it!”

I say, “You could pay me more money.”

“Anything but that!” he says. “Anything else! Carte blanche!”

And I say, “I’m pretty sure carte blanche means blank check, Rob.”

 

My mother hated teaching because she was terrified of all that focused attention. She thought they would learn her secret. And what was her secret? My mother was an ex-beauty queen, what a pretty girl. Was she afraid of the attention she had worked so hard to get? Her so-called fear was a masked desire: she was afraid of how much attention she wanted, afraid that there just wasn’t enough. You open wide and whiskey fucks you, you put whiskey inside you until no more will fit, but it still isn’t enough.

I love the attention. I have arranged a captive audience of undergraduates. I think this speaks poorly of my character.

Writing is not different. I ask for attention while I pretend to be self-sufficient and mature. I look in the mirror as I put on my tie and jacket: How grown-up I seem.

 

I don’t trust the way being a teacher pleases me. I like teaching. I liked drinking, too, and look where that got me. It’s tough to trust your instincts when you know you spent a decade beating your head against a wall and thinking that it was a good idea. When you hit the wall you need the man with the hammer, but I ask you, is my skull a hammer?

What was wrong with me then and what is wrong with me now can be turned to their advantage. They will learn what not to do from my example. Hiding a tall can of beer in the toilet tank in the office lounge, wiping the top dry with your shirt-tail and jacking a rush-hole under the lip with your pocketknife and shotgunning it before sauntering back to the faculty meeting? Don’t do that.

 

Some of the girls act sexy, and why not? Those girls aren’t interested in me. They are interested in authority, and I happen to have a temporary authority; and so they manipulate me, adapting to their uncannily, unerringly accurate sense of my desires, as we all of us had no choice but to adapt to the desires of our parents, lest we die—an instrumental sexuality, a sign that our most private and spontaneous feelings are a means to an end. The girls do not seem to know they are doing it. They think they are in love with me, and they say so on the Internet. I am going to marry him, they say. Why am I reading their private journals on the Internet, that’s a separate question.

Another dream of fucking them. It’s harmless but it’s endless. Another dream of fucking, another dream.

What about the boys? Another dream: I meet myself. He wants to fight me. Why would I hit you, I say, I don’t even know you.

 

I can teach my students what I know, if I can stand it. That’s what I can teach them. If you know something else, teach them what you know.

My father used to say, “Don’t tell everything you know, son. You might not like how little time it takes you.” 


 


Take That, Donna Reed


by Megan Mayhew Bergman

In 1996, my father took a new job and moved our family to Spartanburg, South Carolina. A junior, I was ripped from my comfortable small-town existence in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and plunked into a public high school where people still prayed over the loudspeaker at football games and it was cool to sign the abstinence pledge taped to the cafeteria wall.

Cue requisite dark poetry phase.

I gave my parents hell. “How could you do this to me?” I said.

“Please understand,” my father said. “I’m trying to do what’s best for the family.”

The first day in my new class, I slept on the desk. Girls with perms and blue eye shadow asked me what church I went to. I don’t go to church, I said, thinking to myself: What decade is this? Is Kevin Bacon going to shimmy down the hall?  

I was disconnected from my past life and alien in my new one; in Spartanburg I could feel my otherness, particularly at school.

The teachers didn’t like me any more than the evangelical cheerleaders did. I didn’t talk much in class and I was perceived as difficult, once refusing to scald earthworms for a cardiology lab and then sifting for them in the garbage in a self-righteous rescue attempt. Jesus would totally rescue an earthworm, I said to the wide-eyed kid whose arm was sheathed in WWJD bangles.

But the truth is this: I was used to being liked, used to being the good kid near the top of her class, the sensitive nerd whose mother still inspected her hair before she left the house.

In Spartanburg, I landed a job at the local bookstore, and it was the only place I was remotely happy. I read excessively and made friends with other booksellers, mostly middle-aged men in Doc Martens who still lived with their mothers, one of whom was obsessed with the band Heart.

“I walk without a cut through a stained-glass wall,” he earnestly quoted to me in the stockroom.

My social life sucked, but at least I had reading and my nascent writing. 1996 was the year I began to believe I might become a writer, so I hung my hopes of academic engagement on my English class.

My English teacher wore homemade dresses fashioned in a Donna Reed silhouette. Her hair was dyed black and styled like Elizabeth Montgomery’s Bewitched flip. Her wrinkled smoker’s face, raspy voice, and small eyes seemed incongruous with the rest of her sugary set-up.

The third day of class, she asked us about our summer vacations. Talk turned to exotic things we’d eaten.

“Alligator,” one girl said.

“Goat,” said another.

Our teacher chimed in. “I ate some cock in the Bahamas once,” she said.

My eyes widened in shock, and I looked down at the desk. Had I heard her correctly? Don’t laugh, I told myself. Don’t.

But I was so nervous, and so homesick, that I couldn’t stop myself; I felt as if I would explode if I didn’t laugh. I took a deep breath and tried to rein it in. A class full of seventeen-year-olds looked at me as if I was depraved—was I?

The teacher cleared her throat. “Do you need to excuse yourself?” she said, pausing as if searching for my name. “Megan?”

I kept laughing, choking as I tried to stop. Tears streamed down my face; I tilted my head back to hold the rest in. For God’s sake stop laughing, I thought. But I couldn’t. It was as if all the weirdness I’d been hiding during the first part of my small-town life, all my sadness, had been released in maniacal laughter.

“Please be excused,” my teacher said, gesturing toward the door, her lips pinched in confusion. “And get yourself together.”

What’s wrong with you people! I wanted to scream. How is this not funny to you?

I had crossed over. From then on, I feigned ambivalence in class, then spent hours on papers, fueled by spite, nerdiness, and an annoying, insuppressible need to please.

But I could not impress my English teacher. She once read a portion of my essay out loud and openly mocked my sentences. Mid-semester I asked her to write a recommendation for a state-sponsored creative-writing program I wanted to attend that summer.

“I have to decline,” she said. “I’m sorry, honey, but it’s a competitive program.”

Tears pooled in my eyes; rejection had never occurred to me.

“Bless your heart,” she said. Her tone possessed all the dismissive qualities of a tender fuck you.

Though I didn’t understand it then, my English teacher shouldn’t have written the recommendation. She didn’t like me or my work. She was being honest, upholding the integrity of the process—though part of me will always believe her response had more to do with how she felt about me than my writing ability.

After my fledgling dreams were stomped on by an evangelical in scuffed leather pumps, I raged around the house with teenage vitriol I am still ashamed of. My mother convinced me to find another recommender. I did, and was granted the privilege of working under the author George Singleton, who inspired me and, fifteen years later, kindly blurbed my first book.

Take that, Donna Reed.

I had always been reverent of authority, especially that of my teachers. But in Spartanburg, I began to see teachers as human, and realized that the student-teacher relationship was often imperfect, composed of two flawed individuals, one giving what the other didn’t need, or, in my case, want. I also learned how motivating it is to be disliked, disbelieved, how rejection can shape artistic and academic drive.

A guidance counselor once told my father he was “not college material.”

I’m glad he didn’t listen—if he had, he might not have put himself through college in three years, or found that good job in Spartanburg that paid for my own college education.

There are, occasionally, teachers you can’t, or shouldn’t, please. In my experience, the ire of a bad teacher sent me in what I can only regard as a good direction.*

 

*Recently I shared this story with my father. “Conch,” he said, exasperated. “She had conch in the Bahamas, Megan."



Lessons in the Past Tense

by Ellen Ann Fentress


Brandon High needed a French teacher and I needed a paycheck and Blue Cross. Only in Mississippi do you teach because twenty-eight thousand dollars sounds good. I had never taught French.

Katrina hit three weeks into my second year. The storm was the shove I needed to admit to myself that I wanted back my former job as a journalist. The proof was my envy of reporters getting to write the story of the decade. I, meanwhile, had let myself be seduced by a teacher’s fat paycheck and that 3:30 P.M. dismissal. Resigning would be lame—the school needed me—and I didn’t have any journalism prospects lined up.

I spent my weekends, however, nudging my way back into print and radio. The end of school was a mere 173 days off—I checked the countdown no more than three times every day, tops.

Antoinette, a New Orleans tenth-grader, joined my French II class after evacuating to her relatives’ Brandon home with her mother. (I’ve changed her name.) She had a tight, worried gaze. Touched by the panic in her eyes, I put a hand on her back the first morning. “Sit by me,” I said. “Follow what we’re doing, and see if your class was doing about the same.” She folded into a front-row desk, four feet away. Her shoulders loosened slightly, but her eyes stayed on me, never letting go of my face, not even to glance at her classmates. Small dogs whose survival depends on the whims of an oversized world stare with a similar intensity.

Antoinette, with short, side-parted hair, wore snug jeans and a ribbed turtleneck. The outfit may or may not have been to her taste, since all of her clothes had been donated. Her own clothes were lost in New Orleans, where she’d gone to a predominantly African-American parochial girls’ school.

I was ready to start the instant the bell quieted. Take the offense, seasoned teachers advised me. (Another pass-along: Don’t smile until Thanksgiving, or the students will wipe the floor with you.) The teacher copy of Discovering French jutted from my hip like a semi-automatic. “Aujourd’hui nous sommes à la page soixante-trois. Alors, commençons.” I drilled the too-big, antsy class bell to bell, not because I was conscientious, but because it was the easiest tactic I knew to stay in control. That, of course, is the real aim in running a school. Talk yourself blue about nurturing a passion for learning, but the truth is, an administrator’s idea of a crack teacher is one who keeps her class in a busy-work headlock that chokes out all potential mischief. What’s optimal is keeping the machine running smoothly and silently.

Our class was ahead of Antoinette’s old one. “We didn’t have this,” she whispered.

“Don’t worry. We’ll work it out after you get settled,” I said.

“I don’t know how to do this,” she’d report every morning about her homework in the thirty seconds before the room filled. Then the bell would sound, and Antoinette evaporated. “Activité A, s’il vous plaît.

The next bell would eventually ring. Another second period muddled through.

After a month, Antoinette was still lost. Her frantic searching eyes came into the classroom ahead of her body. Her face held rigid the entire ninety minutes. (High schools run on four ninety-minute classes now instead of the old six-class, fifty-minute model. The staff only has to contend with students loose in the hall four times daily, not six.)

I collected a grocery sack of overflow from my two teenaged daughters’ closets. “See if you could use any of these,” I said. Next day, she returned it full. I don’t think she said why. I wonder now. Our talk must have been cut short by another student’s pre-class drama, which trumped Antoinette’s. I think back on Antoinette as a series of quick pre-bell exchanges, the only attention I gave her. My mission was to stay one step ahead of the second-period gang.

Let’s get serious about catching you up, I said in November. What’s the best time—before or after school? Neither, she said. Her bus arrived just in time for school and departed about one minute after the 3:30 bell—the buses were precisely timed to circumvent trouble. Could we work during my planning time, first period? She shook her head. She had algebra and couldn’t miss. I never sat down with her. She kept turning in nearly blank tests. The week that we started the passé composé, I handed back the graded tests, including Antoinette’s nearly blank one. Her old school—surprise—hadn’t covered this. “Antoinette,” I said, “nobody in here had the past tense until this week. This is what we’re doing—you and everyone else.”

Next day, instead of sitting by me, she folded into a desk in the back. She slumped in her seat, hunkering into the low formation of a Gulf live oak, whose horizontal shape deflects the wind’s assault. I was careful never to call on Antoinette unless I was certain she knew the answer. Of course, that meant I rarely did.

I checked with the guidance office. Antoinette was assigned to the cute counselor, who rose above the school’s fashion aesthetic of the Elastic Waist and sweaters with bright-hued narratives. The cute counselor had long honey hair that she tossed over her shoulders and wore a miniskirt and a denim jacket every day. “I’m trying to get her in at Mental Health,” she said. “Her depression has gotten so severe.”

It hadn’t hit me. What I’d been watching with dense irritation was a tenth-grader moving closer to imploding, one day to the next. How important could French II be in Antoinette’s chaos? I didn’t give a rip about French II myself. Antoinette’s life had disappeared in a day. To make things worse, the counselor reported, her mother had returned to work in New Orleans, leaving Antoinette behind.

The term neared the end. Everyone in French II was told to write a brief report on an aspect of French culture. Coco Chanel and Versailles were favorite topics. Antoinette proposed New Orleans as her subject. Report day, Antoinette walked to the front. I sensed curiosity in the room over what the always-silent student would say. Antoinette held up her poster, a website printout of a Quarter townhouse, Bloody Mary red, with a requisite lacy ironwork balcony. “This is the French Quarter. It’s where the white people lived,” she said. “It stayed dry, but the black neighborhoods flooded.” She looked at her classmates with a confiding smile, knowing and bitter. She paused a moment. “That’s what they planned.”

I didn’t debate Antoinette. I didn’t argue that what happened in New Orleans was callous, but not calculated. That it showed a lack of concern, but not a conspiracy. 

I’ve checked Facebook. I wanted to find her, to see that she’s okay, back in New Orleans with her mother. Out of the dozen or so possible Antoinettes on Facebook, there is not one I can believe is her, no confirmation that Antoinette is now smiling and restored.

Back in French II that day, when Antoinette finished, she slumped low again in her desk in the back of the room. I checked the clock. Only six minutes until the bell. One more report would get us to the end. “Who’s next?” I asked.


ABOVE ART: Melanie Eberhardt

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