teaching english
teaching english

i thought i saw what had happened,
however, when i looked down for only a second
i must have missed the most important moment,
because when i looked back up
from the dog-eared pages of the robert frost poetry book
that i had been in the midst of closing for the fourth time today,
after my fourth english class about yellow woods,
and roads not taken, and choices between the expected
and the adventure, all the clamoring had begun,
and in the end i let the most forceful voice win.

the kids were in line, on their way to the cafeteria,
that stinking but finally well-painted cubicle of chaos and mayhem.
i was glad to be able to put the textbooks away
and send them off, for i was not on duty that day,
i was allowed to breathe a cool breath of air on the teacher’s deck
rather than manage and rule the lunchroom,
i had a spark of an hour’s creativity
before the next bunch of children cascaded in
for afternoon classes.

one child was standing quietly,
unfortunately,
in the middle of the line - a place no-one wants to be,
marking the space between the rowdy and the quiet,
being jostled on either side by those too hungry for patience
and those already earmarked for detention tonight.
she stood with her back against the metal shelves -
the kind you now see in places like home depot - floor to ceiling,
the ones needing wheeled ladders,
the ones for all the textbooks we have ever used
in the 100 year history of the school - the ones with wing-nuts
sticking out at odd points - jabbing into backs and bashing elbows
indiscriminately along formed lines just like this one.
the girl in front of her asked about her lunch money - did she get
hot lunch?  just milk?  too poor for lunch?  the quiet girl was quiet.
the girl in front of her asked to see her quarters,
were they the new ones?
“can i see the pictures” she said?  the quiet girl complied,
she took the quarters out of her pocket and her cupped hands tentatively
offered them in front of her body.  i looked down at that moment. 
and while i have my suspicions of what occurred in that ten seconds,
i have no proof.

when i looked back up
there were two quarters rolling onto the floor,
behind the monstrous shelving units, underneath the metal edges
sticking out so sharp you can shred your shoelaces on them if you
happen to trip.
the quiet girl was quiet, she tried slowly to find the quarters
without moving,
her eyes wide,
following one rolling disk
behind the line of dust mites bordering the metal sills.
the girl in front of her was shouting “mrs oaks mrs oaks
she stole my quarters,
make her pick them up, she took them, she did, she Toooook them!”

i looked again at the quiet girl.  she had her eyes closed.
the quarters were gone,
lost underneath 100 years worth of books, dust,
100 years worth of student scrapes, tears, jostled hunger,
mean quips, and attention-getting theatrics.
she was quiet.
her hands were still cupped a little, lower than before,
as if they had been pushed down and she had resisted a little,
unconsciously rebelling against the girl in front of her,
as if she had forgotten to put them down to her sides
after the quarters fell,
as if the distraction had made her forget
there was nothing left in her hands in the first place.
and i looked at the girl in front of her.
she was pointing, gesticulating wildly,
sometimes she was one of those destined for detention already
and sometimes she was simply, impatiently hungry,
and i often wondered if she even had her own lunch money.

to be clear,
i suspected her of trying to take the quarters from the quiet girl.
i did.
either she was hungry and wanted the money,
or she was trying to look like she had some sort of power that she
did not hold,
and thus impress her impressionable peers.
i never knew exactly which was the case with this one
- the girl in front -
i did know that she often terrorized the meek, physically, verbally,
violently.
i often wondered where she had learned to slap like that,
things i had seen on other days.
how she even knew about slapping,
that it was a thing that could be done,
that it had it’s own reason.

she had stepped closer to the quiet girl,
pointing in the girl’s face, yelling now,
in the course of only a few seconds the force of her anger
had wildly escalated
past the point of reason and association with simply dropping some
loose change.  maybe it had actually been her money.
i can’t be sure,
as it had all happened in the exact moment
i had closed the book we were reading in class,
fondly taking a second to stroke the cover:
robert frost.  two roads diverged in a yellow wood.  and i could not
travel both…. 
and the students had spent the class memorizing the poem. 
i had been trying to instill some hope in them, some level of
understanding
that there are different roads one can take, that one can decide
between the mainstream, the weight of generations of family values
and disasters, the depth of the harsh climate
and the way it deepens the well worn ruts of survival.
i had been trying to teach them with these old words
that they could be different,
that they can grow to be less entwined in all of it.
perhaps it was too subtle for these 6th graders.
they were after all only 10, close to 11 maybe.
but some of them i could see that they saw it, they heard it, they
lifted their eyebrows,
and i watched them imagine a change, a spark of hope
for their survival
it lit into their eyes, and then into their writing, and then
into their schoolwork.

the quiet girl was backed into the shelves,
her hands up now against an assault,
the metal wing nuts digging deep into her back, her spine arched
sideways
to avoid the sharpest of the corners, but i could see she was already scratched,
she would have bruises later, bruises she could blame on recess,
the monkey bars, a slip and fall at the playground.
she would be quiet about it.  i could tell.
the girl in front of her shouting back again to me:
 “mrs oaks, mrs oaks she STOLE it,
i want my money, she made me drop it,
i Need it for lunch, i Need it now,
she should be in trouble!!!”
her face was in the face of the quiet girl.
her face was red, matching her hair,
her face matched her fingernails painted hot pink
jabbing at the chest of the quiet one.  “Give it to me Now!”

i took a deep breath and fished around in my desk
for four quarters,
I usually had a stash so as not to embarrass the ones who forgot,
or the ones whose forgetfulness could only be blamed
on a lack of even having a quarter to remember.  i found two.
i looked between the children,
i made a decision.
i gave the quiet one a sympathetic glance,
a look that sighed and apologized for what i was about to do,
and i gave the quarters to the one in front of her.
immediately the girl jabbed her finger
one last time into the skin of the quiet one,
and she turned around - sickly smiling “i told you so”
to me,
to her classmates,
to the quiet girl behind her.
the bell rang in that instant,

and i had been about to say i would write a note to the cafeteria,
i truly had been,
so that the quiet girl would not be hungry either,
but in that moment the line moved,
bodies flooded and streamed out the door
so fast i couldn’t blink,
the rage of these children’s hunger forcing them through the doors
without any sort of farewell.
and the quiet one’s face had fallen, and a look
of abject betrayal had arisen,
and i saw it,
and i saw a tiny tiny spot of blood on the back of her shirt
where the metal had broken the skin,
and she moved out of the room into the chaos of the hallway,
and i knew i had taken the wrong road.
and she was quiet
(some words borrowed from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” written in 1915)

all writing ©2020, unpublished works by Rj/Ruth wplk