A Day in the Life
I burn sage before my students arrive. Cane, my ex-boyfriend, says the sweet musk scent reminds him of his grandmother’s house in New Orleans. I make last-minute copies, tweak lesson plans, and scarf down a donut while drinking gas station coffee. Moments later, frenzied students file off school buses while hall monitors beseech them to slow down. My sixth graders enter class hype because their ADHD medicine hasn’t kicked in or sluggish because it has — the rest zigzag between the two.
Jade’s hair is pretty, braided in a knotless style hanging down her back. Once, a teacher sent her to in-school suspension for refusing to remove the hood on her hoodie. She’d stopped by my room, eyes moist and puffy, to explain her reason for not taking it off. I grabbed my emergency stockpile of hair supplies and instructed my para-assistant to take over. I sculpted Jade’s mop of a mess into a style in the bathroom.
Later, the teacher told me that she put hers in a ponytail when she’s having a bad hair day. I stared at her blonde mane and wanted to say to her that it’s not that simple for Black girls. When I was little, Mama would slather grease the color of the music she listened to on Saturday mornings on my scalp. Like thunder, B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland’s songs rumbled through the house.
She’d pass the metal comb through iridescent flames emitting from the stove. I’d wince as the scorching comb grazed the beaded hair at my nape.
I received permission to move Jade to my homeroom.
In today’s lesson, I teach conflict and symbolism from Esperanza Rising. The book I wanted to use about a black kid in a new, predominately white school is banned. Cameron’s head is face down on his desk. He told me he babysits his little sister while his mother works the night shift at Circle K. He reads at an eighth-grade level but can’t do a simple math problem. My partner teacher says it’s because of a lack of effort and took away his calculator. I explained that the law allows him to use one because of his classification.
Law, Schmaw, she smirked and said if he can memorize rap lyrics verbatim, he can add 20 + 15 without a calculator.
I promised Cameron’s mother he would make it to the seventh grade. Even if I must carry him on my back.
During lunch hour, the teachers I lesson plan with are out due to a flu bug, so, for once, I spend lunch period in my classroom alone. I glance at my email, checking responses on my submitted job applications. Like Lebron, I plan to take my talents elsewhere after five years here. There are better schools on the other side of town, with quality resources in areas where I feel safe staying after dark. My phone buzzes. A text from Cane:
What can I do to fix this?
I roll my eyes and text back: Un-sleep with her.
Before I can bite into my turkey muffuletta, Chantal, who I’d nicknamed ‘Nosy Rosy’, peeks her head in the door. She says Jade plans to fight Pam outside near the basketball court during the break before the next period because Pam likes Jade’s boyfriend, Darnell.
My partner teacher once said, “If students want to fight, let them fight. They’ll get suspended and learn their lesson, and we won’t have to deal with them for a few days. Cherry on top.”
I summon Jade.
She arrives, and I sidestep the rumors and remind her she is a descendant of queens. I recite the black women I highlight in class, not just during Black History Month: Harriet Tubman, Mary McLeod Bethune, Marian Wright Edelman, Cardi B. I compliment her braids and send her on her way. I want to email more resumes and finish the rest of my sandwich while the Italian bread and mozzarella cheese are still warm, but the impending fight lulls me outside minutes later.
A crowd of antsy eleven and twelve-year-olds has gathered. I spot Pam. At least two inches taller than her peers, she is chewing gum and talking smack while Darnell, who’s failed sixth grade twice, looks on with a smug smile.
Fifteen minutes pass, and Jade’s a no-show. A collective sigh of disappointment blankets the crisp January air. Students scatter to their next class as chicken and scaredy-cat fly off their tongues like vocabulary words.
My phone buzzes, and I ignore what I assume is Cane’s response. Instead, I check my emails back in my classroom and see interest from a private school in St. George, the section of town where the residents are trying to separate from Baton Rouge. I look out the window, and a group of Black girls runs their fingers through a white teacher’s silky hair. I twirl coils of my natural hair with my fingers and delete the email.
After school, I wave kids to the bus and carpool lines. A faint rotten egg odor from a nearby oil refinery swishes in the wind. Across the parking lot, I see Jade, who lives two blocks away, walking home with Darnell by her side. Our eyes meet, and she flashes a sheepish smile. I think about how I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend until I was sixteen. I think about the two years I’d dated Cane and how I’d thought he was the one until he wasn’t. I think about freezing my eggs.
Out of nowhere, Pam runs up and attacks Jade from behind. Arms are swinging, and fistfuls of hair are being pulled while Darnell looks on as if he’s watching an exhibition sport. I think of retrieving the email to schedule an interview. The school has an active PTA, a steady influx of resources from private donors, and receives cost of living raises. I shake the thought out of my head and run to break up the fight.
Here is where I belong.
Erica L. Williams received an MFA in Creative Writing-Fiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Blood Orange Review, Entropy Literary Magazine, Necessary Fiction, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Idle Ink Literary Journal, Cutleaf Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine & elsewhere. She currently resides in Baton Rouge, LA. You can find her online at www.ericalwilliams.com and on Twitter @ericalwilliams3
Art Kehinde Williams/gsz CC2.0 ALT A close up of a stained window artwork by Kehinde Williams at Moynihan Train Hall in Penn Station. A woman is holding the hand of a girl, who is in the sky.
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