Last year, when the girls got me to do the talent show, it was entirely because of their persistence. Continuously, every day, for months, they would come up to me at recess, before school, after school; they would write me page-long letters of plans and ideas; they would send me Facebook messages and texts asking When can we do the talent show? It was Dria the most, running up with shining eyes behind glasses, never letting a conversation end without asking if I’ve yet talked to the principal.
This year, it started up again, but with Isa in the lead. It’s surprising because while last year she was a constant force, she was always quiet while we planned; she smiled and pulled her shoulders into herself while we made posters and typed letters. After the show, when every person that helped was jumping on the stage as the younger students left the gym, she was the one who ran to every performer, ripping the yellow rosebuds off their stems and strewing the petals all over the floor. She’s the one who refused to wear the “Team Talent” shirt I bought her (and all the planners) out of my own pocket for the performer. Isa’s been texting me about plans since September. I’ve gotten a new phone since then, but the earliest text was October 13th:
Hey Ms. L I Miss You . ! When Can We Come After School For The Talent Show I Can’t Wait For It We Have To Make Better Than Last Year I Have Alot of Ideas. ! How Is This Year
She left voicemails and texts consistently (but not irritatingly) for the past three months. Finally, last week when I saw her at the basketball game, I invited her and any of the other now-seventh-graders to come back to my school to help plan.
I almost dreaded it. It was a lot of work last year, a lot of chaos, a lot to clean up and look after. But I’m not someone that can say no to an old student wanting to come back. We agreed for them to come today.
First Ria showed up. She was dropped off by her parents. After ten minutes of me helplessly watching the bus line explode (I was on bus duty), we saw two specks trekking the half mile up the road to get to my school. It was my girls. I pretended I couldn’t tell, that they weren’t mine, that I didn’t give them permission to walk from the Junior High back down to the elementary school (which I didn’t! They told me they were riding the bus.)
“Is that them?” I asked Ria.
“Yep. See the red speck? That’s My’s shirt.”
I made each of the three girls help me haul books from my trunk into my classroom, something I’ve been meaning to do literally since June. If the come, I might as well be as productive as possible. As we zigzagged through the empty (Friday at 3:45!!) hallways, Isa offered: “My cousin killed herself.”
Imagine a movie scene with the teacher in front, a file box full of books in her hands. Behind are three girls, two are Hispanic with long dark hair and ever-present smiles, one African American with thick twists of hair pulled into a pony-tail. All four near the same height, same build, all pleasant and casual. With these words the teacher closes her eyes slowly but with purpose, bites the lower lip but keeps her tone calm, even. Matches the casual pacing Isa used to issue this news. Keeps walking as she asks.
“I don’t really… there was a boy… I don’t know details… but she killed herself.”
Adds My: “There was a funeral.”
Teacher: “From Dumas?”
“The boy– something happened, I’m not really sure. But she just shot herself in the head.”
And still her lanky legs are swerving the same tempo they always have. Her slender arms clutch a basket full of books, a small backpack the Junior High distributed to all the students in the beginning of the year swings from her elbow.
This is real life. In sixth grade, Isa tells stories of her friends in gangs. In seventh, her cousin commits suicide. These are the chapters in her story.
My heart is shredded with track marks– each student pushes through, grinds against the mush, presses on foot or bike or combine or four-wheeler, gets through sixth grade and Language Arts and being eleven and continues forward. But the mush gets mushier, it rips up and clings to the tires, to the shoes, to the bare feet. No matter what I think of this job, of this place, of my circumstances now or what they will turn to, this organ in my ribs is not mine. It’s distributed across the halls of two schools into the hands of three years worth of students. It seems every time I forget I pull up another piece and press it firmly into the fingers of a student instinctively. As an apology, as strength, as solidarity.
Here, Isa. Here. I didn’t text you I’m so glad you came today, thanks for pestering me to finally get started planning! I didn’t call you after you left. I didn’t even ask if you were okay. But if you look I’m sure there’s some red mass in the ridges of your high tops. Some red mush that followed you home.
I feel like I’ve said this a hundred times by now, but every time I start to forget why I teach, I remember again.