The students have just been dismissed for recess, and I’m on the boys’ side today. Neliv comes up anyway; she hovers while I delegate bathroom privileges, waiting for my ears.
Half an hour earlier, as she presented to the class why “him and me” was the more appropriate pronoun choice than “I and he” for our state test prep, I noticed her voice shaking, something that happens when she gets knocked off balance. This isn’t a common occurrence; this is my North-Carolina-New-Student, the one that confronted a bully in front of the entire class. The one who wrote an essay about inner versus outer beauty, typed it, and brought it to school without anyone prompting her. The one that came from a charter school with values so strong she shakes when they’re violated.
Which is what happened today, which is what brought her to me at recess, on the wrong side of the playground.
She prefaced by talking about being extra emotional today, us being girls at all, but as her story lengthened she paced with wider strides, her voice fluctuated between calm and pained. She explained what happened while I was in the back of the room and she was in the front, between her, our class bully J, and his biggest target D. “Today during presentations J said something and was rude. And I knew what it must feel like to be D. I felt what D feels like. It is horrible. No one should feel like that, not every day, not ever.” She glances between my face, my shoes; she spreads her arms wide then pulls them back to her chest.
“This school, I don’t like it. My brother went to the office over and over to talk about getting bullied, then he yelled back finally. He snapped and he got suspended. No one does anything here, no one did anything to the kids that were bothering him. He went to the office so many times…” Here I want to take her shoulders and scream at her so loud the administration can hear. I want to yell Good God, Neliv, you are twelve and you see what we see. You speak like we do. You can articulate what everyone at this school feels and you understand that it is wrong and you can tell us.
I want all of my students to have the ability to tell us. A student revolution (bear with me), a time when they can recognize how they are violating one another, stripping away opportunities when they show out to get attention but instead get put into suspension over and over. I want them to understand what Neliv was explaining as her voice shook more and more.
“At my old school, my landlord changed all these things and we couldn’t afford it. And I know what it’s like. I wasn’t cool or popular, I was just smart and I worked hard. I always competed for the highest grade.” I am trying to follow her story as her words get quicker and pushed into each other, like clouds growing stronger, darker. “…and the landlord added all these late fees and we had to move, so we went to stay with my mom’s friend. Then my mom’s friend kicked us out and I kept going to school but–”
Here is the broken dam, here two thick, perfect drops of salt water tear down her face and end just below her collar bones. Remains polka dot the insides of her glasses. She does nothing to wipe them away.
“But I know what it’s like. They don’t know what it’s like. To live out of a car, to not have food to eat. We lived out of the car and no one knew, I didn’t tell anyone at my old school. Because once people know, they– I slept in the car. I didn’t tell anyone because they don’t know what it’s like. I know what it’s like. They’re so ignorant.”
And all the while, she is full of tact. She refuses to name names, she is so politically correct, she is bursting at the injustice of the school she was financially forced into. Out of the charter that was doing something undeniably right.
“Neliv, let me pause you,” I started. “Let me pause you because recess is almost over and I need to tell you–” here I do put my hands on her shoulders. I struggle. Her tears have been pushed aside. She is listening.
“Neliv, you are so lucky to have your mother and your brother, that you were raised to understand these things. These kids,” I’m gesturing to the playground, kids crawling off of slides to line up for third period, “they don’t understand like you do. You’re right. They’re ignorant. Neliv you are so smart, and you are so brave. I am so proud of you, and your mom is proud of you because you bring up these things. You can tell discipline here is a problem. The teachers know it is a problem; we are trying to fix the problem.”
I pause to wonder if I am saying anything worth listening to, because lately I feel I haven’t been.
“Neliv, maybe you were put here because we need you. When you came to my class and as a new student confronted J like that I was like YES. I was like This girl. This girl is something else. It’s not going to get better overnight, but if you keep being a positive example, and if you keep talking about it, and if we keep thinking, it will get better. Even if just by a little bit, we can make it better.”
At this point the other duty teacher started dismissing the lines to go back into the building, and Ms. Reading Teacher was at my side, asking about a meeting we had in twenty minutes. I was almost crying right there with Neliv, but I wasn’t.
Instead, I was trying to stop asking the same question over and over: How can I leave this?