“The pencil sharpener is racist!” they announce from the corner of the classroom, holding up their pencils as if the injustice of their broken stubs were self-evident. You calmly remind them that, in fact, the sharpener breaks Latino pencils only as often as it breaks African-American pencils. You wonder about them and what it must take to believe in the intolerance of inanimate objects.
On the fifth day of school, Marcos gets his head stuck in the front fence, the wrought iron gate that separates school from street. The girls come running to you at lunch recess, telling you Marcos is trapped again. Probably for ever and ever this time, they say. When you find him, his back is toward you, legs in a lunge position, butt sticking out, skinny arms clenched at the sides of his head on the bars of the fence.
You stand beside him, fold your arms across your chest like you think teachers are supposed to do, and ask the obvious question, “Marcos, why is your head in the fence.”
“I’m sorry, Miss. Because I wanted to see if it would fit,” the obvious answer.
“Well, what do you think we can learn from this situation?” you ask, thinking back to your training courses and what they said about taking advantage of teachable moments. A strange phrase, in your opinion, teachable moment. As if the moment itself could be taught. As if time can learn from people and the mistakes they make.
Marcos says that what he’s learned is that his head fits through one way, but not back, and this satisfies you. You can start helping him now, though you don’t know how. You were trained to keep them out of gangs, not fences. But, after a couple minutes of squeezing around the ears, Marcos realizes it’s easier for him to slide his whole body forward through the fence, where his head already is. He pushes through, takes a step on the other side, the street side, and turns back to you, jubilant. He raises his arms above his head and smiles. It’s like crossing the border, he says.
Diego tells you that today at lunch a black girl stood on one of the cafeteria tables and shouted, “Fuck Mexicans!” You look at him for a moment, take a seat in the empty desk next to him. You ask him how he felt when that happened.
“I laughed,” he answers, and laughs now. You search his eyes, trying to understand.
“Didn’t it hurt to hear that?”
“But, Miss,” he says, “No, because I’m Salvadoran.”
When Jovita turns fifteen, you’re invited to her quinceañera party. You sit in her backyard, which is a square of cement and stucco but smells like jacaranda blossoms. You help Jovita’s little cousins fold pink and white streamers, draping the rough strips of paper along a chain link fence. Jovita’s aunts smile at you shyly and offer you thick bowls of posole and tortillas warm on a plate and mango popsicles for dessert. Jovita’s friends are there, including some of your students. The boys lean against the hoods of cars, self-conscious, strained, fidgeting with the cuffs and edges of their suits. They speak in murmurs to each other and watch the quiet of the street. A man offers them bottles of beer. Their faces turn pink, and they say, not in front of Miss.
The kids are working in groups and Sergio—whom they call Sergito, because he’s small—waves his arm at you from across the room. You raise your eyebrows at him, as if to ask, what is it? He continues to motion you over, again and again as you approach.
“I need to tell you something, Miss. It’s a secret.”
“Your focus should be on the assignment, Sergio. Do you need to tell me something about the assignment?”
“No, Miss, I need to tell you something that’s very important.”
“I’m right here. Tell me.”
“No, outside, please. It’s a secret.”
You’ve been told never to take your eyes off the class, so you let him outside and stand straddling the doorway, your foot propping the door partway open. Alone in the hallway with you, Sergio reaches into his backpack and pulls out a knife. It’s what the kids call a shank, roughhewn and rusty, just a blade, like a steak knife with the handle sawed off. He holds it up, its stained metal stark against the beige tile of the walls. He tells you some boys stuck it in his backpack so he’d get in trouble, that he doesn’t want anybody to find it, tell his mom, send him back to Guatemala. You wonder if it’s true what it says, or if he brought it with him because having it is a way to get to school safely.
He wants you to take it. You imagine yourself walking back into the classroom, holding a knife, trailed by Sergito. You imagine the noise, the focus taken away from diagramming compound and complex sentences. You imagine the incongruity, the fear of the sight of a teacher with a blade. And so, you nod and, having nowhere else to put it, you stick it up your sleeve. You hold it at its base, under your sweater. You enter your classroom, you continue to teach with it there until several minutes later, when finally you can hide it in your desk drawer. Until then, you feel the metal cold against the veins in your wrist.
Lauren Guza Brown grew up in California and has been writing about it ever since. Her work explores issues of place and the intersection of education and social justice, an interest triggered by her experiences teaching in Los Angeles and Oakland with Teach for America and the Knowledge is Power Program. A recent graduate of San Francisco State’s MFA program in fiction, Lauren lives, teaches, and writes in New York City.