Sunday, June 28, 2009


“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?”

“Good. You?”


“How was school, Max?”

“Good. Kendall called me a fart.”

“How nice.”

“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 Kendall or take his stuff until the teachers are changing the babies in the bathroom.”

“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 pregnancy?”

“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 Russia,” he said, before I even asked.

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.

1 comment:

rachelw said...

Damn i liked that story a lot. I mean a lot. I think it was very well written and it held me attention, it held more then my attention (I couldn't read fast enough), all the way through to the end, where it didn't disappoint me with the outcome.
I liked how you followed the teacher home, and around school, and didn't just focus on her interactions with Aluka. I liked how Aluka handled things too, in a rebellious but not necessarily destructive way.
I really don't have anything I think you should change, I think it's excellent all around, and if you aren't already, you should try and get it published.
I like the mild commentary on high school too, I wonder if you actually see that many hickeys.
Also I think the way you tied everything in was excellent, because at first I wasn't sure how hickeys were relevant to Aluka, but it ended up beautifully.
I'll try and see if I can come up with some constructive criticism, but right now, i've got nothing.