Were You Scared?

01/16/2017 01:36 pm ET

This post originally appeared in Luna Luna magazine in 2014. All students named in this essay are at least 18 years of age and have given their consent.

It’s 4:30 and we are sitting around on the floor of the dirty hallway outside of my “cloffice,” which is literally a very small utility closet that I joke about doing yoga in each morning. We are using the paper cutter and several children’s-sized, safe, “microbiotic” scissors, preparing “pocket poems” for National Poetry Month.

I am in charge of posting poems all around the school next week, so I offered extra credit to any seniors in my Creative Writing class who wanted to help. Anthony grabs the paper cutter and insists on cutting too much card stock at one time. He doesn’t cut down in one smooth motion; he’s chopping them up. I keep bugging him about the terrible grinding sound, about the rugged edges and being careful, but he tells me to “relax” because “they look great.”

Dajah and I opt for the kid scissors, and Devonte watches and pretends to do work for another class. The hallways won’t clear out for another hour at least, so people have to step over us as they pass by.

Because of the book we’re reading in my Resistance Writing class, Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller, our conversation naturally turns to funny family stories and funerals. We laugh and talk about my “character first” boarding school for delinquents, and why I wasn’t home “growing up” with my sister. I love these moments the most, when we are relaxed and sharing secrets. I spot two of my freshmen making out in the stairwell. I say in my teacher voice, “Okay, less touching, more leaving please,” and, trying to be serious a few moments later, “Come on guys, let’s leave a little room for God.” I chuckle, picking up the poems again, and Dajah says, “What?”

“I’m old now,” I say, “and I finally understand the hell I put my teachers through.”

“Yeah, and you lived at your school!” she says.

“You was bad, Ms. Marcus,” Devonte chimes in.

“Yeah,” I say. “I was.”

Anthony looks up and asks, “What’s the difference between me and you, Ms. Marcus? I mean, besides your graduate degree? Teachers are always saying that… their degree.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“You know what I mean!”

“Well, I’m a woman,” I smile. Dajah and Devonte snicker at my jest.

“Forget it…it’s stupid,” he says.

“No, it’s definitely not stupid, and I honestly want to answer your question—I’m just not sure what you’re asking. Can you try to explain it to me?”

“What’s it like to work with a bunch of black kids, Ms. Marcus? You know, urrrrban kids?”

“What do you mean?” I ask. And he says, “Were you scared?”

I think for a moment. I say that I had never been in a situation where I needed to discipline anyone before. That when I taught college and someone wasn’t behaving right and I asked them to leave, they would just leave and go wherever adults go when you kick them out of your classroom. “But I am responsible for you. It’s different,” I say. I’m responsible for keeping you safe—for keeping you in my classroom. I was scared to discipline you, because I didn’t know how.

I tell them a story about my first day teaching high school when, after I asked him to move seats, a very tall male student sneered, “You think you’re the fucking queen of the classroom.” I told them that he went on aggressively like this, standing over me, for what felt like several minutes. How I stood there like a deer in headlights watching, waiting for another teacher to step in and rescue me. How I immediately knew that this was the wrong choice. (I don’t explain to them how this power dynamic felt so impossibly heavy in that moment. How when he said “queen of the classroom,” I heard “white,” and was mortified for a million reasons.)

I tell them how, finally, another teacher did come to my rescue, and after he calmed down, the student apologized. I do not say how eventually, although I still flushed with guilt, I realized that I had forgotten that I was the adult, because in that moment I could only think of my whiteness. I tell them what I learned: if I wanted this student’s respect, I should show up with a handmade crown and give him a hard time for at least two weeks. They laugh. I say, “I have learned to take my job seriously and not myself.” I want to say, I have learned that nothing that I could do, any consequence I might give, would punish you more than you already are every single day.

I’ve developed a good relationship with that student. Around 10:30 a.m., daily, he gives me a high five and asks for the keys to my cloffice.

“How are you today, Ms. Marcus?” he asks.

“I’m great, thanks! How are you?”

“I’m pretty black,” he smiles widely.

In the beginning, this was some sort of test.

“Right bottom drawer,” I say, really as a reminder for him to not snoop around the graded papers on my desk, but he already knows where I keep them. I buy boxes and boxes of granola bars. I ask my parents to help me buy more. They are always gone within days.

I make a decision. I turn back to Anthony and say that I was scared, but that I wasn’t scared of you. I was scared of what’s inside of all the “bandos” (derelict structures). I was scared to walk past the entrances with the police officers in bulletproof vests. I was scared the morning I could see that the lone crosswalk officer had to choose between walking students across the street and dealing with the domestic abuse situation at the house on the corner. The man screaming, “Let me in, you fucking whore,” and “I’ll kill you, bitch.” I was scared that first month of school when there was a double homicide outside of our building, a drug deal gone bad, the bodies found a day later in the yard. When the loudspeaker told us we would not be going into lockdown. When the loudspeaker told us we were safe. When I wanted to tell you that murder in my neighborhood was a movie, was a television show, was an “over there.” I tell him how my heart breaks each time one of our students is mugged, is held at gunpoint, in this neighborhood, because it’s well known in the community that many of our students have iPads from school. I want to tell him that I am scared most of failing you, because you deserve the world. Because I am one person, and I am deeply flawed.

***

“You’re all a bunch of young, pretty white people who think they can just come in here and save the poor black kids,” a female senior tells me in the art room where I am sitting and unconsciously picking up and gluing paperclips, dirt, and salt back onto the already crusty table.

“You’re probably right,” I say. I talk freely of my privilege. Pretending is worse. I wonder out loud how we can provide these desperately needed opportunities to families of modest means without people feeling like we are trying to “save” them.

I try to show my students how we are the same and how we are not. We share our freewrites and poems with each other. We talk about the value of empathy and vulnerability. We create a safe, supportive space. My seniors really get to know their classmates. They feel connected to kids they didn’t get along with before. They let down their guard. They care. I teach my seniors June Jordan and Lucille Clifton, because the only black poet they have ever read is Langston Hughes. I teach them about Nelson Mandela, but only think to do so because he is dead and Maya Angelou wrote a eulogy poem.

After I assign homework, there is the usual cacophony of teeth sucking and exacerbated sighs… “Are you blowing kisses at me?” I ask. “That is so sweet!”

“Ewww, gross. Ms. Marcus that’s just wrong! Uuck!”

“I think it’s beautiful,” I say. “Thank you.”

***

My younger sister, Michelle, comes to visit from L.A. She is an editor at an artsy fashion magazine. I ask her to come in and talk to my students about her job. I know that my girls will fall in love with her and they do. She is all of the girliness that I am not. Sometimes, in the study hall I proctor, one of my senior girls asks to braid my hair. This feels so childish, so foreign, so loving, so uncomfortable. She’s terrible at it, but I would never say so. Everyone teases her for being my favorite, because she is. I let her practice grading all of the freshmen papers even though I have to regrade them all afterwards. Her comments are fantastically blunt. I cross most of them out and write something less antagonistic. I know that she will love my sister, too.

I tell my sister to stay on the main roads, to not follow her GPS, to lock her doors, and to put her purse in the trunk. These are the things I used to do. My boyfriend recently installed a new stereo in my beaten-up 2003 Honda Civic. My car is falling apart. I have electrical tape on my windshield and mustache-themed duct tape on my door handles. My students tease me. My boyfriend asks me to please take my stereo out when I park at school. He makes me promise. I do this faithfully for one month.

I remind Michelle to dress modestly—after all this is a Catholic School—and to bring cookies… a lot of cookies. When she’s on her way here, I wonder if I’ve made a terrible mistake asking her to come. I wonder if I have the relationship with my students that I think I do. I have seen the wily noncompliance that destroys the moral of many substitute teachers, but this is someone I love, and they love me, right? I have to leave the building to get Michelle. I bring keys because every door on the outside of the entire school is locked to keep our kids safe, and every door inside the school is locked to keep our things—our wallets and phones and computers—safe.

My freshmen girls love Michelle and her outfit—they love her magazine. They love the dresses and the hair and the beautiful pictures, and they all want to hug her. I forgot to warn her about the touching. I tell them how sweet they are and that the other Ms. Marcus might appreciate having some personal space after her long trip. I am someone who has always needed complete trust to be affectionate with people, but I have adapted here. Even when I don’t want to be touched, even when it’s clear that my students have not had the opportunity to change their clothes in a few days or take care of their bodies, even then, I tell myself that these kids need love.

At the end of my senior class, Michelle walks with me around the room to collect highlighters. Anthony is literally running around the classroom in circles. I see him pocket at least five highlighters. He hands me the two that he is holding. I raise my eyebrows and hold out my hand. He smiles and looks at Michelle, who is now looking a bit uncomfortable.

“Please don’t steal my highlighters,” I say.

Anthony starts to giggle, “Are you accusing me of stealing…. because I’m black, Ms. Marcus?”

“No,” I roll my eyes, “I’m accusing you because I can see them in your pocket right now.”

Anthony thinks this is funny and it is and it isn’t.

***

Sometimes I don’t know what to say. One of my freshmen girls approaches me in study hall, leaning off the back of her desk and smacking her bubble gum, and says, “Ms. Mar Mar, you seem like you’d be cool to hang out with” and “Did you know I almost got shot last week?” Then this 14-year-old proceeds to tell me about being at a party on Tuesday night where there was a drive-by. She and her friend were standing outside talking about Instagram. When she saw the car, she ducked, but her friend didn’t move in time and was shot. The bullet entered in her ear and came out through her eye. My student describes the horror afterwards, her friend screaming that she couldn’t breathe, how she fought the paramedics and police. She describes her friend’s family collapsing in grief in the same tone that she always speaks in: “real.” She tells me that she spent the night in the hospital.

When I say that she must have felt absolutely terrified, she says that she’s seen worse. She says it’s not like her friend died or anything. This, like many of Cleveland’s shootings, was not on the news. I ask her if she can avoid returning to that place. She shrugs and says that her great aunt lives four houses down. I try to give my best “you are supported and loved and it’s okay to grieve over the trauma of this situation” speech, but she’s one step ahead of me. “It’s just how it is, Mar Mar” she says. I tell her that I am so proud of her for being here, and I reiterate the importance of keeping up with her schoolwork (she’s almost failing my Literature class), which seems so trite in this moment and also like the most significant thing in the whole world.

***

We are finishing up with the poems, and the halls have mostly cleared out. The school begins to feel empty. I ask them if they are ever scared. They don’t talk about this neighborhood, but rather, Anthony tells me a story about the time he and his cousins were pulled out of their car by the police while they were waiting in a friend’s driveway in a white neighborhood. The police accused them of being in someone’s backyard where a break-in had just occurred. He says that three cop cars followed them two cities over, tail to tail. He talks about how terrified his cousin was. How his cousin had never been in a situation like that. I say, “I can only imagine how terrified you were.” I tell him that this is unfair and awful, but he already knows.

I look at my watch. It will be dark out by now. “Let’s get out of here!” I say. I thank them for their help, I tell them how much I love them, I promise a ridiculous amount of extra credit, and we walk down the three flights of stairs. We give high-fives. I remind them to do their homework. As I begin to leave, I look over my shoulder and call out, “Be safe,” and they turn back and say, “You too, Ms. Marcus.” I walk quickly to my car so I can release the tears I have been holding back, because I get to drive home.

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