By: Michelle Bracken
At thirty-three years old, I work for the local school district, and after nine years of teaching elementary school, I leave the classroom for an office position. I work in a department founded to serve the needs of second language learners, but the truth is, it’s harder than teaching.
The pay is better. The hours, too. I tell myself that I will have a greater impact on students, but there are days I miss the classroom: the sounds of a school, the tattles and stories children tell, the questions they ask, the way they run up and throw their arms around me. The light in their eyes—the hope. It’s unmistakable. That’s the one thing I’ve never had. As a child, I had no hope, just a darkness I could not escape like an albatross around my neck.
By the time I am eight, I have learned how to change a diaper, how to properly make a bottle for my baby brother, and how the threat of the hanger frightens my brothers and sister into silence. I’ve also learned that life is disappointing, and that even though my stepfather promises a visit by Easter, it will never happen.
I have learned that men are attracted to beauty, and that because my mother is beautiful, there will always be a man vying for her attention, and that sometimes we will come last. I have learned that my father is still in love with her, and that he believes they will get back together. I know this will never happen. Many things will not happen.
I will not be the smartest kid in my class. I will not have many friends. I will find it hard to relate to kids my age, and when the teacher asks us what we had for dinner last night, or what we did over the weekend, I will find it difficult to answer without feeling shame. I will not learn how to deflect until I am much older, but I have learned to be quiet and to mind my place. By the time I am eight, I have learned that if you say nothing enough, people will think you have nothing to say.
By the time I am ten, I have learned how to shop on food stamps, and find it ridiculous that it doesn’t allow funds for toilet paper. I’ve learned how to go without, that sometimes it feels better to eat nothing, that the emptiness in my stomach comforts the loneliness I carry. I’ve learned how to hide my body in oversized shirts and that the uglier I look, the less people speak to me. I make myself look how I feel: worthless, someone to be forgotten.
I am forgotten after school, left alone at the flagpole, watching mothers collect their sons and daughters, and I see the pity in their eyes. They ask if I need a ride, if everything is okay, and I have finally learned how to smile when all I want to do is cry. Yes, I tell them, yes, she’s on her way. She is always on her way. There is always something that must be done. A bill to pay. A child to take to the babysitter. A date. Cigarettes to buy. I tell myself these are all things to be done, that she must be on her way, that she has not forgotten me, that she could never forget. My mother is young, and I know she’s doing the best she can. But there are days I wish that she did better and that no one looked at us with pity.
My mother leaves us for a weekend getaway. She leaves us with a childhood friend of hers. This friend, she’s a drug addict, and we endure a hellish weekend. The worst storm that year—the streets are flooded, and it seems like the rain will never stop. My mother’s friend spends all the money my mother gave her on drugs and we spend that weekend sleeping in her car and sneaking into hotel rooms.
My infant sister has a fever and vomits all over my clothes. I sleep with her on the floor and try not to cry, try to believe that my mother will find us, that this weekend will end, and that one day my childhood will be normal, that I will not have to repeat this life, that I will not need to worry about such things as money and safety and whether or not we’ll eat that day. I make a wish that my childhood will be different, that instead of crying myself to sleep, I will sleep soundly, that my mother will tuck me into bed and read me a story. That never happens.
It’s my last year of college, and the university has required that all students complete eighty hours of community service. I live a mile from an elementary school, and since I have no car and no driver’s license, I have decided this is my option. I don’t know it yet, but I will make my career here. I will become a teacher. I work with third graders, and we sit at the lunch tables in the cafeteria and talk about writing. Their teachers have given us assignments, but I don’t care about any of that. I only care about what the kids have to say, about what they had for dinner, and about what they did on the weekend. I can see it in their eyes, a commonality. A childhood of poverty, trauma. That perhaps they want to say what no one has yet heard, what no one would care to know.
Why can’t they just read?
They never do homework.
I can never get the mother on the phone. She just doesn’t care.
These are things teachers say about their students, and though it isn’t all of them, their voices are loud, and it stings me every time. The tone. The lack of empathy. How everything is wrong and how it is everybody’s fault.
One afternoon, a young girl sits beside me while her friends play double dutch.
“Don’t you want to join them?” The day is beautiful. It’s not yet April. The sun warms the concrete wall against our backs.
“My mom has brain cancer.”
There’s a moment of silence between us, and even though there’s so much I want to tell her, all I can say is how sorry I am.
“It’s okay,” she says, “but I’m really going to miss her.”
We sit like that until the bell rings, and even though her eyes are wet, she smiles when she waves goodbye. I don’t know what I can do to comfort her or if I can comfort anyone.
When I’m twelve, my shoes have no shoelaces, and sometimes I sit in the closet of my bedroom. I share a room with my sister, and we have no toys. That year, my teacher assigns Where the Red Fern Grows, and I hate it. I hate every bit of it. I hate reading about how poor Billy’s family is and how his dogs die. I hate the sadness of it all.
My mother’s boyfriend is a man I cannot stand. We hate each other. He calls me a fat cow, but this is nothing in comparison to what he does to my brothers. To the belt he wraps around his wrist as he walks down the hall. To the steel boots he wears when he storms into their room. I hate how I do nothing and that instead of trying to save them, I cry myself to sleep, hoping that my cries will drown everything out. I cannot stand to know the pain my brothers endure, and even though I know this will affect them, that it will be something they always carry, I try to believe it won’t, that somehow it won’t tarnish who they have yet to become. I try to believe that like the novel, something positive will come out of all of this, that some kind of red fern will sprout from the brambles of our childhood.
When I am twenty-four, I teach reading to a group of fourth and fifth graders. I do not have a classroom, but a hallway. The custodian has sectioned off an area for me, bordered by tall filing cabinets and rolling cupboards. I tape motivational posters to the walls of these cabinets and treat our space as hallowed ground. We have classroom rules, rewards, and even a holiday party. Sometimes the students don’t want to return to their regular classrooms, and even though they are all considered to be reading far below grade level, the students all enjoy reading Bud, Not Buddy. It isn’t a book I assigned, but we found an excerpt of it in a textbook, and because they loved that excerpt so much, I buy them each a copy.
But that isn’t the moment that sticks with me. Mostly, I think of Raj. He lives with his grandmother, his twin brother, and their cousins. He often writes about football, and his handwriting is careful and precise. He isn’t a bad speller, nor a bad reader, just behind.
Once, I ask him about his grandmother and if he’d like it if she’d read to him. His eyes light up, and for the first time, I can see the hope. A little fire of hope. His smile is small. He looks away. “She’d never do that,” he says. “Says I’m too big for that stuff.”
Raj, a fourth grader, often got sent to the office. It seems as if all the teachers are afraid of him. The principal, too. As I eat my lunch in the staff lounge one afternoon, the school counselor talks about him and another boy. The teachers talk about these boys all the time, all the trouble they cause. When asked what he thought would happen to them, the counselor nonchalantly replies: “On the street in two years, for sure. In a gang. Drugs, that’s what.”
When I am thirty, I teach third grade. During a poetry lesson, we analyze the lyrics of Beyonce’s “Halo.” It’s my attempt to teach imagery and figurative language, and when I ask them to consider who would be the halo in their lives, I’m only taken aback by Tyler’s response. Tyler says that his halo was his dog, but that someone has stolen his dog, and so now he has no one.
When he says this, the room is silent. There is no joke to be made, no laugh to be had, and nothing to distract. The class sits with his words and we play the song again and everyone sings.
Months after I leave the classroom for a district office position, I find myself at one of the toughest elementary schools in the city. I’m there for a student meeting. I attend several student meetings. I attend these meetings and discuss whether or not the student in question needs additional services because of a learning disability or because they are a second language learner. Mostly, it’s language.
This day, a fight breaks out, and the principal and vice principal rush out of the room, desperate to break it up. I follow and though I can’t see around the building, I hear the shouting and cursing and the adults yelling to stop it, just stop it!
A boy runs toward me, and though I can’t make out his face, I have a sense that it’s someone I know, and before I can make him out, he has wrapped his arms around me and keeps calling my name.
Nathan, a former student of mine, just holds onto me. He isn’t crying, isn’t shouting, just holds me, and when he looks up, he smiles. “I can’t believe it’s really you,” he says.
We talk about the fight, and I tell the administrators that I know him, that we have a good rapport.
“He’s always so angry,” they say. They say many other things. That he needs medication, that he destroys school property.
“That’s not like him,” I tell them.
And I go further. I ask if they know that a few years ago his youngest sibling died, that later he lived with his grandfather, and that recently, he too passed away. They did not know any of this. They shake their heads.
Nathan. When he smiled, I could see that he still had hope, that something still glimmered. But I wonder about him all the time. I wonder where he is and if that smile still surfaces, if his eyes still light up when he thinks of the future, his favorite meal, his favorite book, his favorite song.
Tyler is having trouble in middle school, and I make an appointment to see him. That hope in his eyes, it’s gone. His eyes are dark, and whatever fire was there has vanished.
“You’re here to see me?”
“Definitely you,” I tell him, and he gives me the tightest embrace. I can tell that he’s sad, perhaps lost, disconnected. His hug tells me all of this, that he can’t believe I’m even there. We sit in a nurse’s office, and we talk about school, his grades. The projects he has due, how he’s unhappy. Tyler is the oldest and has to take care of his younger brothers. He knows that I did the same with my family, and I get it when he says he’s tired.
“I just don’t think it’s fair,” he says.
It isn’t. It will never be fair, and it’s hard for me to put into words what has taken me years to understand. The cards we are dealt, they’re unpredictable. Life isn’t fair for everyone, and for most people, it’s disappointing.
But I can’t tell this to a thirteen-year-old. I can’t tell him that it will take him years to get over it, that it will take him years to let go of the resentment. But I tell him that school will be his saving grace. Stay focused on that, I tell him, and that will be your ticket out. Your dreams, what you want in your future, it is in your hands.
Perhaps that’s too much for a seventh grader to understand, but I have to try. We talk for an hour, and when it is time to leave, he doesn’t want to say goodbye.
“This is it?” he asks.
This is it. I wish I could do more. I wish that I could make his problems go away and that I could give him the childhood we both wanted.
I cannot say that I know any better than anyone else, but I know what it is like to come to school hungry, to think of excuses not to go home, to wear the same clothes day after day. I know what it is like to grow up poor, tough, and sometimes unloved. That feeling—it gnaws at you, and there comes a time when all you want to do is scream, and if my students needed to scream, I let them.
Raj threw a chair at me, and he missed, and years later we saw each other again. He still had that small smile, and out of all the teachers standing outside the front of the school during dismissal, I am the one he chose to see.
He talked about his high school classes and how he was on the football team, and his life wasn’t perfect, but I could see that he was better, and that he still remembered whatever kindness I had showed him so many years before.
The brambles of his youth—they were no longer the same. And neither were mine.
Michelle Bracken is a former elementary school teacher who lives in Los Angeles. She’s a 2019 fellowship winner at theOFFICE,and a past participant of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and the ZYZZYVA Writers’ Workshop. Her writing has appeared in Litro UK, The Baltimore Review, Forklift Ohio, The Superstition Review, Empty Mirror and elsewhere.