Sunday, June 28, 2009
One day I got to the top of the stairs, and there was this girl standing by the water fountain looking up. Right next to the fountain there’s a ladder that comes down from a hatch with a padlock on it. The ladder’s dusty, and the lock looks so rusted it couldn’t possibly open.
“What are you looking at?” I asked. I was already late, and another minute wouldn’t make any difference.
She jumped a little and then looked at me. Her glassy eyes took a moment to focus on mine. Crying does that.
“Nothing. Just never noticed that door before,” she said, and then she scuffed off, her shoulders hunched.
At the end of the period, my teacher was sitting at her computer entering grades. We don’t talk much while I’m vacuuming, but I liked to watch her expressions as she entered grades. That day she shook her head a lot. I finally couldn’t stand it any more. I turned off the vacuum.
“What is it, Ms. B?”
She stared at the screen for a moment before answering.
“Thirty kids in your class, an easy in-class assignment, and only twelve people turned it in.”
“I did it.”
She nodded but didn’t say anything else so I turned the vacuum back on and finished up. When I looked back over at her, she was holding her head.
“I’m losing them,” she said, but I didn’t think she was talking to me.
The next day, my friends and I went to the local falafel place, but the owner was there so the line went really fast. I told Geoff, my best friend who always drove us, not to flirt with the hot girl that worked the register so that we could actually be on time back to class. He wiped the tip of his nose vigorously a couple times, but he grabbed his bag and headed for the car. We were one of the first cars in the student lot. Geoff didn’t even look at me as I got out of the car. He was digging in his glove compartment for something.
I was early that day, really early, but there was another girl standing next to the water fountain looking up. And she was pretty much sobbing. I slapped my feet a little as I reached the top stairs so I wouldn’t startle her, too, and she wiped her eyes and ran into the bathroom around the corner. I could hear a bang as she kicked or hit something metal in the bathroom, but I didn’t say anything. I’ve been there. I just didn’t know what it was about some unused maintenance ladder that seemed to be making girls cry.
Geoff wasn’t in English with me, although he had been at the beginning of the school year. He had this thing with teachers who got in his face, and Ms. B would do that if she felt like you were wasting your life or being otherwise terminally stupid. When she did it to him after he walked in reeking of pot, he mouthed off to her, called her a non-school appropriate name, and rather than suspend him or send him to the dean, she suggested he change English classes. This was like the second week of school. He wasn’t crazy about his next English teacher, a guy who spoke in a monotone and had a comb-over, but he didn’t go often enough for that stuff to bother him. Where I had tardies, Geoff had cuts. I thought Geoff might go down the same path as his older brother who got his GED. Peter makes good money as an auto mechanic, and there are definitely worse things that Geoff could do. At least he couldn’t do drugs.
Anyway, moving on. After that day Geoff got me back to school on time, he stopped hanging around to wait for me to go to lunch. And he wanted me to know he wasn’t waiting because he would lay rubber when he saw me instead of pulling over and unlocking the back door like he used to do. Actually, when I really think about it, I guess Geoff didn’t hang around with me at all after that. Maybe he didn’t think it was about me being on time. Maybe he thought it was me judging him for smoking dope, for cutting class, for being who he thought he had to be. I don’t know.
I started eating in the cafeteria, which isn’t bad but it’s the same stuff every day. I spent a little time with kids from my English class, and we all talked about Ms. B and the number of kids that were failing. We were all a little worried about her. She used to be so funny but not any more. Maybe she thought why waste the energy when only half the students would even finish out the year. I talked with the other kids about what we could do, but none of them had any ideas either. Nobody makes you decide to do the work; you just do it or you don’t. I wish parents knew that, and I think they did when they were our age.
After lunch one day, I headed up the other set of stairs, the ones by the quad not the parking lot. It was sort of nice being leisurely on those stairs, taking a couple of minutes, using the railing. I was about to go left around the building, which would have taken me on a shorter route to Ms. B’s room, but then I decided I wanted to pass the ladder and the water fountain. I told myself it was because I was thirsty, but I had had a twenty-ounce soda at lunch. I really just wanted to see if anyone was under the ladder.
There was. It was Ms. B.
At the end of the semester, she turned in her resignation. Teaching jobs in our state were in demand, so they were able to fill the position after only a week of subs. The new teacher is a bit of a stickler, but I haven’t been tardy in a while. I have no choice but to be an at-school luncher now, ever since Geoff dropped out.
I brought my bolt cutters to school today. I hid them in my backpack because people might get the wrong idea and think I was going to rob lockers or something equally stupid. What I figure is, if the padlock is gone, they can all come back -- Ms. B, Geoff, whoever the girls were looking for -- but either way, at least I’ll know where they’ve all gone.
“Aluka? That’s an interesting name. I don’t think I’ve ever taught an Aluka before.”
The pale girl with neon pink hair just shrugged at me from her 1970s-era desk in the front row. As I moved off, she mumbled something.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“I said it’s from the Bible. Were you really curious about it, or just trying to build bullshit rapport with me on a superficial basis?”
I knew she was testing me so I didn’t respond. After I had made the rounds of the other twenty-six students, I looked at her again. She was no longer glaring at me. She had taken a Stephen King novel, one of his earlier strictly horror pieces, from the shelf behind her and had white iPod strings dangling from her ears. I stood in front of her desk until she looked up, and I pantomimed pulling the earphones out.
“It’s not on,” she muttered, but pulled the cords anyway.
While I was doing my first-of-the-year schpiel, I frequently looked at Aluka. She wore an odd expression with her lips making a wide, flat line that was not quite a smile. It almost looked like she was gritting her teeth. It was distracting and reminded me that even after sixteen years in the classroom, I had not seen everything.
Next we played a name memorization game. When they got around to Aluka, she said her name and then said she liked anorexia. The other kids showed admirable restraint, simply looking at each other and frowning, and the game went on. When we finished, the bell rang, and the always-painful first class of the year ended – for most of them.
“Did you need something, Aluka?” I asked.
She fiddled with the tassel on her backpack zipper.
“You had my stepsister last year. She said you were cool,” she said, speaking to a spot over my right shoulder.
“It’s hard to be cool the first day.”
“You’re okay. I just hate the first couple weeks. Everyone looking at me, you know.”
“Welcome to my world. It gets better, though, right?”
“Or it doesn’t. Anyway, sorry I was a bitch.”
She turned and went out, holding her backpack rather than wearing it, and I left to meet my friends for lunch in the lounge. None of the women had had Aluka her freshman year, but they had all seen her and her endlessly changing hair color in the halls.
“She wears a lot of black,” Carol said. She taught four of the other sophomore English classes and had a reputation for being really strict but fair.
“And I think she had that hair color for about a month last year,” Bonnie added this in between mouthfuls of soup. She was Carol’s social studies counterpart and her
more laid-back style complemented Carol’s perfectly.
“Anyway, the fact that she apologized immediately is a good sign. On a different note, not to change the subject but I am—have you all noticed how many hickeys are blooming already this year?” Bonnie said.
Hickeys are the bane of teachers, at least female teachers. We all may have gotten a few in our time, and my husband will occasionally even now give me a really blatant one before I visit my family, but we generally disapprove of the things. Especially the way they are “applied” in high school. It isn’t enough to have a tiny little one under the jaw or just above the hairline on the neck. No, high-school boys these days have to make a whole necklace of the things in full view of the world, no matter how modest a girl’s neckline. One particularly sick little bastard lined up his hickeys on either side of his “girlfriend’s” throat so that it looked like fingerprints. He was trying to make her look like she’d been strangled. I talked to the girl for an hour after school, and she promised she’d dump him. Four years later, they were still together although I never saw another mark on her.
Lunch ended, too soon, and I went back to my room for my last class of the day. Another schpiel, another game, another thirty names memorized, and I cleaned up my desk, entered the day’s attendance and went home.
“How was work, honey?”
“How was school, Max?”
“I kicked him and took his crayons.”
“A little excessive. What did your teachers do?”
“I got quiet time.”
“So what did we learn?”
“I won’t kick
“Wrong. But very interesting. All right, Mommy has to make dinner.”
We had dinner, I bathed Max, and then I sat with my husband on the couch, stroking Max’s hair until he fell asleep watching Tivoed “Blue’s Clues.” Every night during the school year was the same. Only the show changed. The nightly ritual was my protection against the whirlpool of student need and it would only get worse.
Out of 150 students, I had only a few of the really troubling variety. One always came in late and immediately needed to use the restroom. One talked to whoever sat next to her and responded to my asking her to be quiet with a look of mute disgust. And one didn’t seem to understand that the middle of class is not the time to share intimate details of your interactions with boys. This last girl was in the same class as Aluka, and Aluka seemed fascinated by her, watching her every move.
One day Aluka stayed after class, ostensibly to ask a question about an upcoming project. When the last of the other kids had filed out, she said, “Haley’s a little slow, isn’t she?”
Haley was in Special Ed, but that was confidential.
Aluka read my thoughts and said, “I know you can’t tell me anything, but it’s pretty obvious. No impulse control. She probably has ADHD, maybe even FAS. I don’t have an IEP myself, but I could. I did in middle school but transitioned out. I know what ADHD can do, and I had enough friends with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome I can spot it. Something in the eyes gives it away. Anyway, do you think she’s lying when she says she’s been getting with guys between classes? ‘Cause if it’s true, there’s something you should know.”
“Go on,” I said.
“There’s a group of guys that are preying on the SpEd girls. I don’t know if they’re having full-on sex or just doing a little groping in the shadows, but it’s messed up. Those girls will say yes because they want to be cool, and I don’t think they really get the whole consequences thing.”
“Like STDs, reputations for being sluts, you name it. Anyway, I just thought you should know.”
“How do you know this?”
“Like I said, I used to be one of them. Then I grew out of it—and stopped saying yes.”
While I was thinking about what to do with this information, the dean walked in and Aluka ducked out the door. He wanted to ask me about the boy who lived in the bathroom during my class.
“Who’s the girl with the blue hair?”
“When I have her figured out, I’ll let you know.”
At the end of the first quarter, we sent out progress reports. Two days after the mailing went out, we held all-day parent conferences. Most of the parents who came just wanted confirmation that their kids were, indeed, brilliant A-students, but there were a few who had other needs. Aluka’s parents were in the latter group. Her hair color and four new piercings were concerning them; they couldn’t have cared less about her straight A’s and excellent comments from teachers.
Aluka’s dad was a heavyish fifty-year old man with thick features and an accent of elusive origin.
“I am from
Aluka’s stepmother was a blonde in her late twenties, early thirties. Her features were angular, harsh, and disturbingly shiny. I wondered if she used the sparkly foundation being marketed to teens. Only her teeth were dull, but she flashed them often just the same.
“We’re a little worried about Allie,” Mom said. Flash of teeth.
“Aluka is doing great. She’s punctual, respectful, insightful, funny, creative—“
“But deeply troubled,” her father interrupted, sounding a lot like Jumba from Lilo and Stitch, one of Max’s favorites. It was a bad thing to have thought, and for the remainder of the meeting I was picturing a large purple alien with two sets of eyes.
“Your experience at home, of course, may be very different from mine at school, but I’m not reading ‘troubled’ or anything else but the normal angst of being a teen.”
“She is on her eighth hair color in as many weeks. And that’s not counting her wigs. And how can you not see that the piercings are a cry for help?” Mom again. Calling me blind and a moron, but there’s those flashing teeth to make it all better.
“And there’s another thing you should know—“ the father began but his wife cut him off with a look.
“That’s a family matter, dear.”
“I’ll try to keep more alert to danger signs. I’m very sorry. Oh, our time’s up. The next parents are waiting. Thank you!”
It wasn’t nearly the ten minutes we were supposed to give, but Jumba and Sharklike Step Mom were not going to waste any more of my time.
I had a lull after the next set of parents so I took out my laptop and surfed the Net for a while. I could always pretend to be reading educational journals if an administrator walked up.
After I checked my email and my favorite urban-legends site, I couldn’t stop thinking about Aluka’s parents. There was a story there, and not a happy one, and yet Aluka really did seem okay. I had stopped seeing piercings as anything but self-expression that eventually healed over, just like bad haircuts and dye jobs, but with parents like that, how could she be anything but miserable?
“Aluka,” I said to myself. “Who names their kid that?”
I decided to Google it. There were almost 31,000 references to the word, from the acronym of an African librarians group to a location in a video game, but when I remembered that she had said it was from the Bible and that her father was Jewish, I found the relevant reference fairly quickly.
“Did it ever occur to you,” I said in the email I wrote moments later, “that your daughter might have issues because her name translates to leech in English?”
I got the response at home that night.
“We named her Aliza, which means joyful. She picked Aluka when she was in middle school. As a compromise, we call her Allie. So save your attitude for someone who deserves it.”
The email was signed by both parents and a CC went to my principal. He loved those CCs, having much experience with them over the years.
I called on Aluka the next day in class, trying on ‘Allie’ to see if it fit my mouth.
“Aluka,” she corrected. “I hate ‘Allie.”
I nodded and we went on with class, but I whispered that I wanted to talk to her after the bell.
“I get the Goth thing, I do. I probably qualify myself some days when the only clean clothes I have are black, but why would you name yourself ‘leech?’”
She traced the crack in her desk with her fingernail and didn’t answer.
“Your parents are concerned. So am I.”
She looked up at me and her eyes were wet.
“My dad is concerned. My stepmom is just a bitch.”
I waited. It was lunch. I had all the time in the world, and no students had made appointments to come in. The girls could clatch without me.
“I was a difficult pregnancy. My mom, my real mom, developed horrible anemia and she spent almost the entire nine months in the hospital with an IV in her arm. She died hours after I was born. I don’t know if she ever even got to hold me. My dad was angry at me, he was angry at God, he was angry at everything. And he let me know he was angry my whole childhood. He told me all the time that I had better be worth the life I took. When I was studying for my bat mitzvah, I read something about leeches who hung off of horses’ necks, draining them without their knowledge. Aluka, that’s what they were called, these leeches. And that’s what I was. Truth in advertising. There’s no joy here.”
The black polish was stripped from the tip of her nail. She studied it briefly then stood up.
“I have a therapist. I’m on meds, but you probably know that. I appreciate you worrying about me, but you don’t need to. I deal the way I deal.”
I went up to lunch when she left, but I just let the conversation wash over me. Was a macabre name, even one made legal, any worse than a piercing? She had taken this one. She could take another one when she got older, when she moved out. She certainly dug horror, if her working her way through my entire Stephen King collection was any indication.
True to my word, I did keep an eye out for problems with Aluka, but none came up – until the day that Hale
Haley, like the girl four years before, came to class covered in bruises on her neck. She was almost purple and her neck was so swollen it was almost as big as her head. I called the nurse’s office and said I was sending them the email they had asked for about Universal Precautions. This was our code when I needed to tell them something urgently without any student knowing. After an appropriate interval, the assistant health aide came by with a note for Haley. It had the usual request that she come to the health center because of a question on her eligibility for winter sports, and she went, seemingly unsuspicious.
Aluka watched me intently throughout the procedure and stared after Haley. Then she looked at the wall straight in front of her, and her eyes narrowed.
After class, she could hardly contain her rage, which initially I thought was directed at me.
“How could anyone be so stupid? I swear to the goddess, sometimes I want to just—“
“Hey, relax. Slow down. Who is stupid and what could you just do?”
“I keep telling them it’s not love when they do that. I keep telling them they can do better, they don’t have to say yes to any guy who asks. They don’t even know it’s a game to the boys. Just a name they can add to a list. You know those boys even have a blog about it? Maybe if you’re that stupid you deserve it!”
“You don’t believe that,” I said.
“I don’t. But that’s what those boys think. And no one can do anything to stop them. Chase them off campus, they wait by the bus stop. Get a restraining order, they wait until the cops have their shift change. Well, I’m done waiting.”
And she ran out. She knocked over her desk and the contents of her backpack slid all over the floor. I ran after her, but she was lost in the crowds on the quad before I could get there.
I guess that’s why I feel guilty now. Not that anything really permanently bad happened to the boy. The boy wouldn’t give a description of the person who attacked him under the stairwell. Wouldn’t admit that a girl had gotten the better of him. And even his blog was curiously silent on the subject.
The police were baffled by the marks on his neck. They couldn’t decide what kind of weapon had inflicted them, but I knew. Step Mom may have liked to flash her teeth, but Aluka never did-- except that day she ran out of my room. I didn’t think those boys would ever give another hickey again after one of their group got one from her and the fake teeth she had installed to go along with her new name.
Peter Gabriel bounced through my speakers, and the girls groaned. We were on our way back from a volleyball game across town, and they wanted their own music. Because we lost to a weaker team, they were listening to mine. My Honda Civic has seatbelts enough for five passengers, and all seven members of my team were crammed into the car. Sofia, the smallest girl and our only setter, lay across three girls in the back. Karissa, who served like she was smiting demons, was in the hatchback area with her neck crooked. I had two girls in my passenger seat, but at least they were restrained. Everyone watched for cops as we made our careful, below-the-limit way to the road that goes by a circuitous route back to the east side. No freeway or Main Street for us. It would mean my credential and maybe even a lost driver’s license if I was caught. But leaving any girl at the opponents’ school was out of the question, and their parents were all at work.
It was dusk when we turned onto Old Stage Road, and the girls’ excited chatter, tickling, and giggles all stopped. Their eyes were glued to the windows on either side of the car, and Karissa scrunched down in the back so that she could see out. Noemi, the girl on the passenger side who was actually sitting on the seat, told me to put on my headlights.
“If you put them on before it gets dark, she can’t mess with them.”
I knew who “she” was. She was the woman who haunted this road. The girls all claimed to have seen her – at dusk. They all said you will never meet someone who’s seen her after dark because those people don’t live to tell the tale. They all said their cars were found abandoned by the side of the road. They all said they knew someone who had disappeared because they had the bad sense to drive this road at night. But none of them wanted to be left at the middle school across town. Even the most firmly held belief in the supernatural was nothing compared to the certainty of a beating at the hands of gang members from the other side of town.
It was getting dark and we were only about halfway to the east side. The girls were talking in low murmurs in Spanish now. I was not sure, but I thought Karissa, six-one, hard-core sureña Karissa, was actually crying a little bit. I switched my Peter Gabriel CD to their favorite radio station and cranked it, but Noemi reached over and turned it off.
“Just speed it up a little, maestra. Not even cops drive on this road at night.”
I increased my speed by ten miles per hour. I was over the limit now, but I felt less worried about losing licenses now. Maybe it was the girls’ mood, maybe it was just the exhaustion of another full work week, but I wanted to get back to the east side as much as they did.
We drove past lettuce fields that glowed faintly pink in the dying light when we heard a loud bang and the car began to fishtail. In trying to get the car under control, I elbowed Veronica, who sat on Noemi’s lap, in the face. She grabbed her nose and cussed me out in Spanish, but my attention was on the car and not sending us into an irrigation ditch with two unrestrained passengers.
The car came to rest in thick gravel by the side of the road. I did a roll call to make sure everyone was okay. They all answered, very softly, and I turned and saw pale, frightened faces.
My cell phone had been stolen the week before, and none of the girls had one with them, out of fear that their gear would be messed with. We were not terribly far from where the houses and businesses began, but if I wasn’t going to leave my girls at a crowded middle school, I was certainly not going to leave them in a car out in the boondocks. They could all walk with me, but the easier alternative was for me to be steady and adult and not girly and change the tire. I also needed to get my first aid kit so that I could give an ice pack to Veronica.
I reached for the door handle, and all the girls yelled at me.
“Maestra! You can’t go out there! That’s how she gets you,” Noemi said.
“You mean to tell me one little headless lady ghost is a match for seven girls from the east side? You guys got my back, right?”
The girls laughed a little, and Karissa started to climb over the rear seat back.
“Karissa, I’m coming around to open that up. Just chill.”
I got out and went around to the back of the car. I opened the hatchback, and Karissa climbed out. She stretched her neck and back, then reached into the cargo area and took out a flashlight.
“I was wondering what I was sitting on.”
“Hold onto that. I have to get my jack and the spare. Oh, and grab that first aid kit, will you? Veronica needs an ice pack.”
Karissa got the red bag and walked around to the passenger door.
I got out the jack and leaned it against the side of the car. When I lifted the carpet to look for the spare, I remembered three things. One, this wasn’t my first flat tire. Two, I bought a full-size spare for the car. And three, I never replaced that full-size spare after I used it to replace the flat. So the tire that I was now looking at under the carpet was another flat.
It was now full dark. The pink light was gone from the lettuce and a quarter-moon was rising. Karissa had come back with the first aid kit and was looking at my flat spare.
Even though she had been crying earlier, I thought now it must have been stress from the game because she didn’t react. She looked at the spare then at me.
“Now what, maestra? We all walk?”
“Like they’ll do that.”
“What else we gonna do? We ain’t stayin’ here overnight.”
I nodded and looked out into the darkened fields and then down the road, towards the tiny lights of houses, bodegas, and gas stations.
I went to the rear, driver’s side door and opened it.
“Okay, everybody out.”
I waited without looking or listening to their reactions. Karissa played the beam of the flashlight over rocks and garbage in the ditch. After what seemed like several minutes, the other girls began to pile out. They all checked their bags for all of their stuff, and Noemi pulled something out of hers and put it in her back pocket. She saw me see her do it and looked away. I didn’t comment.
“It’s like a ten-minute walk, ladies. You’re athletes; we can do this.”
I started walking and didn’t look back. Karissa jogged up beside me and shined the flashlight ahead of us. No one said anything.
The night was mostly silent at first. I could hear every kicked pebble and the tick of someone’s untied shoelace smacking the pavement. Sofia stepped on the shoelace and Noemi went flying.
“Puta!” she yelled.
“Hey, learn to tie your laces, mensa!”
Sofia said this, but she still gave Noemi her hand and Noemi took it. My heart didn’t jump into my mouth at these things any more. In the beginning, when I first taught gang kids, I thought every little thing was cause for a brawl. I knew now, in a lot of cases, they were a lot harder to rile than “regular” kids. They knew about fighting and they knew how their fights had to end.
“Maestra,” Karissa said. “Since we got nothing to do but walk, tell us a story from when you were a young bad-ass.”
The girls liked it when I told them about fights I used to get into when I was their age. They didn’t realize I was doing it to show them that fights can end when they end, that they can end when one person is down on the ground, that they don’t have to involve the rest of the family or anyone else. That no one has to die.
“You’ve heard all my stories.”
“So tell us the best one again,” Veronica said through the ice pack.
“Yeah, that one where you beat up five girls at once.”
“I didn’t beat up five girls at once,” I said and paused. “I beat up five girls in a series.”
I was in elementary school in a mythical land far away from Salinas called Laguna Beach. I was in fourth grade and yet I was 5’ 7”. I was quiet, bookish, a bit of a teacher’s pet, and the target of the playground bullies. These girls, who ranged in height from a full foot shorter than I was to about six inches, would approach me wherever I was on the playground at recess and start taunting me. They’d call me names, make fun of me for being too tall or Jewish or the child of a single, widowed dad. And when the taunts didn’t work, they would start throwing things at me until I stood up, at which point they would surround me and start hitting me, pulling my hair, and scratching me. At least once a week, my homeroom teacher would come out and see me -- scratched, dirty, and crying -- outside her classroom door. And after seeing this scene once too often, she asked me why I let them do this to me. Apparently she didn’t need to ask who the “them” was.
My only twinge of remorse from the incident comes because I pretty much entrapped them. I went to a bench close to where they were hanging out on the play structure, and I took out a book to read. It was maybe fifteen seconds before they were on me.
I stood up straight, probably for the first time, and clenched my fists.
“Who do you think you are?” I bellowed.
They shrunk back at that, but the biggest, strongest girl recovered quickly.
“We’re the people who are going to kick your Jew ass,” she said and moved toward me.
I had never fought back before but it struck me that the advantage of height was that I had pretty easy access to people’s heads. I grabbed the hair on the top of hers and I swung her around hard. She fell down, and then the next one was on me. Most of the other four girls I pushed or swung by their clothes. I pushed them into each other, kicked out at them, and generally tried to only be fighting one at any one time. By the end of the fight, I was sitting on the biggest girl and the others had fled.
This time, when our teacher came out, it was the five other girls who were sitting outside her door. She never said a word.
When I finished my story, everyone was quiet and the absolute silence of the night was broken only by the girls’ footfalls. Beatriz, one of the girls who had sat in the back seat, began to whistle – a cumbia song – and Sofia shushed her.
“You want some reggae maybe?”
“No, Bea. Just callate, okay? It’s not always about who you’re down with.”
We walked along with no one talking. Karissa, who was in the rear, kept looking behind her. She picked up her pace until she was even with Marisol, the other girl who had been sitting in the back seat. Every now and then one of the girls would startle, for no apparent reason. After another fifty feet, we were all walking side by side on the road.
“You can still kick ass, huh, Ms. H?” Noemi said, trying to distract the others.
“Yeah, remember when Dolores asked her to fight and she said yes?” Sofia replied.
“Girls, I wouldn’t have fought her,” I said.
“She didn’t know that. She didn’t show and her clica gave her shit for weeks.”
All the girls were laughing at that, but it had probably been the dumbest move of my career. I used an Exit Pass during the class before lunch to make sure the kids did their work. If they didn’t finish their assignment, I held them until they did. Dolores spent the period checking her make-up, playing with her hair, making faces at other kids – anything but her schoolwork. She hadn’t been in the class long and she thought she could “get over” on the white teacher. And I didn’t understand gang kids yet, especially not the girls. So when the bell rang, I released the kids whose names were on the Exit List, and, when Dolores stood to go, I said no.
“¿Que dijiste? What do you mean, no? You can’t tell me I can’t go to lunch.”
“You’re not on the list.”
“The hell with your list, bitch. I’m going.”
I moved to stand in the doorway. The other four kids whose names were also not on the list but who were dutifully completing the last few questions in their workbooks became very focused on what they were doing.
“You want to start something with me, white girl? I’ll see you tomorrow at lunch. You don’t, you move out of my way now.”
I moved out of the way, but as Dolores was walking past, I whispered in her ear, “See you tomorrow – at lunch.”
She looked up at me and her face was unreadable. I only figured out what I had done when I got home, and I started looking for my resume.
The next day I didn’t have Dolores’ class, but the periods before lunch flew by. All the kids seemed to know what I had done, and every student, down to the rowdiest, was perfectly behaved.
The lunch bell finally rang and I walked out to the athletic field. There were kids of both gangs standing in a cluster, and when they saw me, they came over. No one said anything. One of my colleagues came out of his classroom that looked out on the field when he saw the crowd, but upon seeing me, a teacher, already on scene, he went back in.
We waited, that crowd and I, for a half hour. The silence lasted about twenty-five minutes of that, and then the sureños started yelling insults at the norteños about how they ran from fights.
“What fight are you guys talking about?” I yelled and, for good measure, repeated in Spanish.
“You were supposed to fight Dolores Peña,” one guy said.
“A teacher fight a student? Are you loco? That would be my job. Nah, I just thought Dolores wanted to talk to me and she’d feel more comfortable out here than in my stuffy portable.
“Nobody ran from any fight, mijos, but maybe it would be good if you did every now and then. There’d be more of you around, fewer funerals.”
And with that little “gem,” I went back to my portable. As soon as I had closed the door, I sat at my desk and let myself fall apart. By the time the kids arrived, I had it together, but they could see my puffy red face and eyes. To their credit, not one said anything.
“You cried, maestra?” asked little Sofia, whose older brother had been there.
“I would have thrown up if I’d eaten anything that day.”
“Seriously?” said Estella, the third back-seat girl.
“It was a stupid thing, girls.”
They looked at each other. “Stupid,” from me, was worse than a cuss word.
We kept walking, and I thought about the power of this legend. These were tough girls but middle schoolers all the same. At any other time, they’d be skipping, running off into the fields to poke around with sticks, singing loud songs. I knew; we’d driven around enough and had enough practices for me to see their kid side. And they were also down pandilleras, every one of them jumped in and committed to that life. Now, even though about a third of the girls claimed norte and the others sur, they saw the team as neutral. I had worked hard to make it that way, and anyone who couldn’t buy into that idea didn’t make it past tryouts. As a matter of fact, that was the only requirement to be on the team. I took neophytes, just plain bad players, the entirely uncoordinated, and the gravitationally challenged – a group I counted myself in due to my utter inability to clear an inch when I jumped. Over time, the girls who couldn’t improve quit the team, and those who were left were purely there because they wanted to be.
And yet these tough girls, these playful children, were marching in this line, eyes straight ahead because of a legend. I started laughing.
“What?” asked Noemi, sounding annoyed.
“You guys are just funny,” I said.
“Funny? Funny, how? Do we amuse you?” said Karissa, in almost perfect mimicry of Joe Pesci from GoodFellas.
“You are way too young to have seen that movie,” I said.
“Yeah, right. Like Blockbuster in Salinas even checks.”
“Anyway, in answer to your query, yes, you do amuse me. You guys and your ‘ghost lady.’”
“Don’t make fun of her, maestra. She’s real. One time, my cousin—“
“Beatriz, don’t talk about her while we’re out here. That’s the best way to make her come,” said Sofia.
“Oh, come on. You guys get the living crap beaten out of you – by your own choice – and you’re afraid of a story!” I suppose I had grown a little heated. I had never spoken to the girls about their jumping in, never really confronted them with my knowing that they were members of a criminal group.
They were all silent. Then Karissa slowed her pace.
“I was ten,” she said.
The other girls glanced at me and then back at her.
“I was ten, but already tall. My hermano said it would be better if I was younger, that they’d maybe take it a little easy on me.”
She didn’t say anything else, but everyone had seen the scar on the back of her neck where one of her home girls had taken a chunk out of her with a ring designed just for that purpose.
“Did you—“ Marisol began.
“Did I cry? Hell no. My brother would have kicked my ass if I had made a sound.”
“I cried, but later,” said Sofia. Sofia, who had grabbed my hand in terror when we rode a rollercoaster at Great America, was known for being one of the most hardcore gangsters in the school. Fifteen other girls had taken part in her jumping in. They had broken her collarbone and cracked three ribs, but she wouldn’t react. The teachers got out to the field and found her curled up on the ground, her scalp bleeding in five places, her earlobe torn, her face a mass of scratches and abrasions. When the dean leaned down and told her an ambulance was on the way, her only response was to laugh. And here she was admitting to have cried.
I swallowed hard and tried to blink back the tears that filled my eyes.
After a long moment, I asked, “And were you guys scared when you got jumped in?”
They all looked around again and, almost as one, they nodded.
“But you did it anyway?”
Now there were shrugs.
“It isn’t a choice, Ms. H. Either your family is in it or your barrio is. Either way, you join or bad stuff happens,” Veronica said, sniffling a bit from her sore nose.
“Every street around the school is territory for either norte or sur. If you don’t belong to their gang, they think you belong to the other one and they beat you up just the same. But if you’re down, then you got your homeys to back you up,” Marisol said.
“And if you’re not?”
“Then you got nobody but you.”
We were quiet again, and the loud cry of a bird came out of the night. The girls all jumped and clutched onto each other, but it wasn’t the exhilarating terror of the roller coaster or scary movie. Three of the girls started to cry, and I felt a little nervous myself. Suddenly I noticed that Noemi was holding an unfolded navaja, and I moved in front of her.
“Put it away, sweetie. A knife won’t stop a ghost.”
She looked around her, and then folded it up and put it in her pocket.
We had actually made decent progress and the lights of town were closer. The girls who had been crying almost immediately realized that the sound had been a bird, and we were back to walking in silence again.
Noemi walked looking at the ground for a while.
“How do you know it wouldn’t stop a ghost?” she finally asked. “You ever fought a ghost, white girl?”
We all started laughing at that and when Marisol started loudly singing “Row Your Boat,” the others all joined in. Apparently there were Spanish cusswords that I had never known were part of the song.
Noemi made her way next to me and whispered in my ear.
“Why didn’t you take my blade, maestra?”
I looked at her and hesitated before responding. “Would you have given it to me?”
“Only to you, teacher. Only to you.”
We made it back to the east side without further incident. We called parents, cousins, uncles, brothers and sisters to come and pick up the girls. When they were all gone, I called a cab for myself.
When I think back to that night, I can picture the girls as they each got into their various modes of transportation. No one was taken by the ghost, but life has many greater risks than just women who haunt country roads, and kids from the barrio have more than the usual number.
Karissa’s cousin picked her up in a blue low-rider that he bounced a few times for my benefit before he peeled out. Karissa would get into a lot of fights in high school and be expelled her sophomore year for almost killing a norteña with an ice pick. Pregnant by the time she reached sixteen, she would go from boyfriend to boyfriend trying to find someone who would take care of her and the babies they fathered and who would be able to hold his own in a conversation with her. She would end up in prison for dealing meth in order to support herself and her five kids.
Veronica’s mother picked her up and yelled at her for five minutes about her nose. When I apologized, the mother wouldn’t hear of it. I said they should probably go to the hospital, but she waved it away. Too expensive, her mother said, and I said the school’s insurance could pay. She fled at the mention of insurance because she thought the hospital would report her undocumented status. Her protectiveness wouldn’t help Veronica the following year when she would be arrested for holding a 9 mm handgun that had been used in a drive by and then sent back to Mexico.
Sofia, little Sofia, decided to walk home when her father hung up on her. “He’s tired,” she said, but the girls and I knew she meant passed out drunk. Sofia would be the victim of a drive by herself the summer between middle school and high school, retaliation for the stabbing death of a sureño she had never even seen.
The other girls – Marisol, Beatriz, and Estela – got into the back of Marisol’s uncle’s truck. Marisol would graduate from high school and work at her uncle’s farm, but she would start using meth with some boys from her clica and eventually overdose. Beatriz would fall asleep at the wheel after the third of her four jobs ended one night and be killed instantly. Estela would move back to Mexico after a fellow norteña caught her with her boyfriend. When Estela would make an unscheduled trip back to Salinas at Christmas, a friend of the other girl would walk up to Estela while she rode back to her house from the bodega and shoot her in the face.
Finally, Noemi was picked up by her father, a small man with a weathered face and kind eyes. He drove an ancient El Camino that was polished within an inch of its life. Noemi would be the only one of my girls to make it. She and her family would move to Washington state the summer after that year. She never told me what she was planning, but I received a package in the mail the first day back at school. It held a short note and the knife.
“No one to fight in Olympia,” the note said, “and this won’t work on ghosts.”
“Nothing does,” I murmured to myself and held the note to my heart and wept.