by Nora Brooks
The first time I left Portland, I went to Transylvania. I got a job at a private language school near the center of a small city. Along the cobblestone street near the school was a raven that would hop down in front of pedestrians to scare them. All the students rose when I entered the room, their blazers a mass of maroon, winners of an application lottery. The students made up plays about corrupt traffic cops and suicide attempts, and we went to theater festivals to perform. At the break each day, some of the kids went to a café with me and sipped tiny cups of coffee. One of them told me I was brave, but I didn’t think so. It was only that I didn’t know of anything else I could do.
I was reading a lot then, furiously. Ann Carson said: I like to open my bedroom drapes as wide as possible at night. I like to see everything. My boyfriend in that city had another woman who lived across town. Sometimes we all got beers together. I walked up to the wall along the school and waited for the raven to hop down. He just stood there, eyeing me, his giant black beak a razor at its tip.
I came back home and got a teaching certificate. The easiest part about that year had been the walk to school, dreaming of what we would do in class. A year later, I was driving up and down the interstate to a farm town named Canby, a house and a man waiting each day back in Portland.
I pushed the chalk stub along the green board. The scratch of pencils behind me grew quiet and then stopped.
“Pinche lombriz,” Jorge yelled.
Juan’s thin face showed no reaction. He had three teardrops under his left eye. I had never heard of this particular tattoo before, one teardrop for each person you had killed.
This was my first year at Canby High. All I knew was that at a minimum, I didn’t want to harm anybody.
“No swearing,” I said.
Juan’s arms lay loose across his orange desk. All the kids were sitting in a half-circle, my attempt at discourse and cooperation. There was no way to move without everyone seeing.
“I ain’t swearing,” Jorge said.
Juan turned his shaved head. Through the wide windows were visible the alfalfa fields along the edge of the high school. The building was like a ranch house, long and low. Outside there were the kids’ parents, working somewhere off in the long green grass.
“We’re just joking, maestra,” Federico said. He flipped his hair off his face. “We always call each other like this.”
“That doesn’t sound like joking,” I said.
“Look, Jorge is a pinche burro, Lupe is a loca,” Federico said. “That’s how we talk.”
“Maestra, lombriz just means worm.” Lupe tried to save me. She was my teaching assistant. We had shared a few afternoons of cutting apart sentence strips.
“That’s not any more okay than swearing. Look, if you don’t all agree to stop, we will all have to sit here until you do,” I said.
“Ay Federico, calmate tu boca.” Xochitl slammed her pen down. “I’m not trying to stay after school.”
I hadn’t thought of that. Seventh was the last period of the day.
“What did I have to do with this?” Federico said.
Lupe looked at the floor. She was probably ashamed to have split a pack of Starburst with me.
“I have all day,” I said.
Their eyes all held identical expressions of blankness.
Sometimes an ICE unit would raid the processing plants or nurseries where their parents worked. Later I saw on the news that the parents were deported. It used to be that they would raid the school too, but not anymore. Maybe the kids were right not to attract too much attention.
Jorge said very slowly, “Simon, maestra, sure thing.”
Man, I was doing well at this.
“I think they are swearing,” I told Eduardo after school. I was camped out in his room before gathering the energy to drive home, my legs across the wide seats of his pleather sofa. “And I think they are picking on Juan.“
I didn’t mention anything about my own failure. But I didn’t really have to. Sadly, I didn’t usually stop by just to say hello. Eduardo straightened some papers on his wide metal desk and then sat, looking at his hands mottled with brown spots, a thick gold band on his right ring finger.
He was famously loving, Eduardo. The kids all speckled their conversation with his name. To them, he was Mr. Ramirez, organizer of field trips, giver of graduation credits. He taught them every subject except mine, ESL. He was a minister of an evangelical church in his spare time and had seven kids living in his house, including Juan. He had grown up around here, the son of a farmworker himself. I had collapsed on this couch several times already, and it was still September.
“Do you get along with them?” he asked.
“Yes. I think so. I don’t know,” I said. “This is not how I thought things would be.”
“They can be tough if they don’t like you,” he said. “You can’t fight with them.”
“It wasn’t this hard in grad school,” I said. “All I’m asking is for them to stop swearing at each other.”
He adjusted his shiny gold tie that perched on a worn-out white shirt.
“You don’t speak Spanish, right?” he asked, after a long pause.
Heading home in my car, the fields faded behind me. The dahlia beds along Swan Island, long chopped down to stubs after the fall bulbs festival, then the dank green lines of the fir farms. A Best Buy loomed up and then passed. I pushed the pedal of my old Volvo to the floor. Soon the cast iron buildings of Portland.
A time warp every day. Canby was the fifties, and Portland was the nineties, or some other epoch not recognized by the rest of the world. Tall bikes and art cars. Last month, some activists had pastured a herd of goats on a vacant lot downtown and demanded that the goats be awarded squatter’s rights. English teachers didn’t have a curriculum, just book lists and photocopied sets of strategies distributed at staff meetings. Even ESL teachers, who did have textbooks, read radical reform booklets and talked about “our practice” over coffee and sambuca in each other’s living rooms.
Paulo Freire, that Brazilian educator to the people, thought teachers should live part of their dreams in the classroom. But maybe my dreams were only my own, and not the kids.
I pulled off the freeway into downtown. I eased the Volvo into the lot at Powell’s and bought a Mexican slang dictionary.
I drew a line from the word idea to the word support. The bell rang for seventh period. Nice board cool under my hand. Maybe today would go well.
“When you write an essay,” I said, “your idea goes first.”
“Pinche asqueroso! Tu cabron,” Jorge called out to Juan.
A lesson was supposed to open and close like the aperture of a camera. First the lens opened, then it let in the light. Later, it closed again, the film full of images.
Jorge leaned back in his chair and put his arms behind his head. The Playboy bunny on his neon green t-shirt stretched wide across his chest. Juan twitched in his seat, his thin face fixed forward.
“Tu tenías malas pulgas,” Federico said to Juan. Literal translation: you have bad fleas. I pulled the slang dictionary out of my leather messenger bag and held it over my head .
“Que onda, gueyes?” I said. Translation: what’s waving, dudes? All around the circle, eyes shot looks at each other. No more blankness. “From now on, you will address each other properly in English and in Spanish,” I said. “Or your parents will know.”
It’s only then that I saw him. Dick Horn, the principal, leaning against the door. He didn’t say anything. Just waved and walked down the hall.
A question: can you fall in love with a language by translating it word for word? I think I fell in love with Russian that way. Translating War and Peace for fourth-year Russian, Tolstoy’s words were more brutal and tender than the translator had ever let on.
At lunch, the corridors roared outside my door. A cool light streamed through the bank of windows. Almost Thanksgiving. The dark rolled in early now.
Juan slid into a desk. His arms and legs were turned away from the door. The kids playing Uno on the couches in the back all looked up. “You got anything to eat?” Juan asked me.
“Y un cojon,” somebody muttered, but I couldn’t hear who.
“Do you like Snickers?” I asked. All that came to mind when he asked was the scene in Dangerous Minds where Michelle Pfeiffer gave out candy bars in return for homework. I hated movies like this that posited the teacher as a savior. Freire believed the teacher was a conduit for the students to teach themselves. No one ever saved anyone. That wasn’t even the point. No one wants a liberator.
Freire was born in a part of Brazil where bandits roamed dirt avenues and were made local heroes. All those sugar barons. Bananas and coffee were loaded on boats and shipped away, and then there was the Depression, the same one as in the US. In the street, the children played soccer instead of going to school. Freire ended up four grades behind, but he got a spot at university anyway, and went on, infiltrating the school system, a professor now, writing, always writing. He went back to the countryside to speak to the teachers. He grew his hair long and wore cotton tunics. He trusted no revolutionary who didn’t serve good food. If the food at a meeting was bad, he would leave. Everything he did was as a whole person, not just a mind.
For Freire, social and community love were not separate from love, radical love. He said: Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful. On the other hand, he also said: The more radical a person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she could transform it.
Like the reality of a sixteen-year-old boy who was broke and liked candy. Maybe it wasn’t so bad to bribe him.
“One mini-bar per page,” I told Juan. “You can write about anything.”
“Orale,” he said, and borrowed a sheet of paper.
“Maestra,” Lupe said. We were cutting out tour guide instructions. She set down her scissors and raised her penciled eyebrows. Weak winter light across her face.
“You know Juan is no angel like in your room. He is like a different person outside the school.”
I got a ring on my desk phone. Dick’s secretary, asking if I could stop by.
The light in Dick’s office was dank and fluorescent. Bright soft soppy light. Behind his desk, a poster of a white man wielding a golf club read: Winners Keep Reaching for the Stars.
Dick did not like my Socratic dialogue technique. There were no “mandatory response protocols,” no rounds of “random volunteers” at the end. There were dead ends. Sometimes there were silences.
Freire said: The teacher could not be viewed as a technician, a functionary carrying out the instructions of others. He believed in the teacher as culture worker, as philosopher. Politics was not something separate from life, not a thing reserved for election cycles.
“I’m glad you had the time to dialogue,” Dick said. “We’ve learned so much about instructional methodology in the last twenty years.” He didn’t want poetry slams or tourism posters or zines or fake business presentations. He said, “Just give me your lesson plans the day before, and I’ll look them over.”
“Thanks for taking the time to work with me,“ I said. It wouldn’t help anyone if I got fired, would it? The room smelled like antiperspirant, most likely mine. “So every day, an anticipatory set, guided practice and daily assessment structures.”
“And try to command the room.”
“Am I on a plan of assistance here?” I said.
“I’m sure it won’t get to that.”
Lately, Tim had seemed like he wasn’t too happy with me. I lived in the house he owned, which presumably would become mine too after we got married, though we hadn’t set a date. Last weekend when he was installing a chandelier in our dining room, and I said I was too busy to come hold the ladder, he huffed at me to forget the whole thing. I still hadn’t asked him what he meant by the whole thing.
“Tu madre!” Juan yelled. Suddenly he was standing. His desk skittered across the room and hit Jorge’s chair.
Everyone flinched. It was the day after Christmas break. Lupe and Xochitl were talking about Mariah Carey. Nothing had seemed different.
“Que mosca te ha picado?” Felix yelled. “Jorge was joking!”
Jorge just sat there for once.
I jumped in front of Juan: “Out. Now!”
Juan’s back hit the wall of the corridor, and he slid down onto his heels. His head dropped down between his knees. Only the top of his head showed: bald new skin.
I couldn’t tell if he was trying not to cry, and then he looked up. Yep, there it was, the water streaking down his small face.
“Ay, crap.” Mr. Ramirez ran a hand over his face. The skin around his eyes was reddened and dark. There were stacks of worksheets lined along the edge of his desk. Every subject the kids learned, there in piles of worksheets. I think he graded almost everything they turned in with an answer key. His mottled hand fell onto his gradebook, and he looked straight at me. His hair had grown out into a rough halo around his bald spot. “Juan is pushing it these days.”
Juan was going to get kicked out if he couldn’t start showing up to dinner on time. It was one of the conditions of his living there, like paying rent from Juan’s job at the gas station. Just one of the ways Eduardo maintained.
“Our goal today is to use adjectives to describe food items,” I said. Dick was watching from a seat in the back. Deep golf wrinkles. You could tell he’d had sun recently.
I said: “Adjectives help us to give more information about a person or thing. Today we will talk about buying groceries.”
We moved on to guided practice: “Window-side students, you are an A partner. A partners, ask your B partner the prompt. Good! Now switch!”
The kids turned in their seats, raised their hands, did not speak out of turn.
Juan handed in another paper to me. This time, he had asked me for a prompt. I said: “Give me a moment when everything changed for you.”
The story took place at a gas station. He used words like dark-haired man, shadowy, dishonor. In September he would have said disrespect. Or dis.
In the story, a dark-haired man worked at the gas station with Juan. They were the same rank exactly, but the man constantly dishonored him. One evening, Juan crouched in a shadowy hedge and watched him. In the waistband of his jeans, against the skin of his lower back, hung a pistol. The man placed the gas nozzle in the truck of a customer. He took the customer’s card and ran it through the machine. The truck drove off, and the man was alone.
Juan could see clearly the green shirt with a Playboy bunny stretched across the chest of this man that he hated.
The pistol hung, heavy and cold. He didn’t take it out, just watched Jorge stand in the carport. This part was not new for Juan. The first time he was shown how to stalk a man, it had reminded him of hunting deer.
The high parking lot lamps almost certainly blinded Jorge from seeing Juan, but he turned toward him out of some instinct. Something about his wide confident face stopped Juan. He backed away through the gap in the hedge and broke into a run, leaving Jorge blinking under the carport.
He wrote: “This was the night everything changed.”
The air was hazy, motes of dust floating in the tender spring light. Juan was sitting opposite me. I was shaking but didn’t want him to notice, so I put down the paper.
“When did this happen?” I asked. He didn’t answer me. He kept looking out towards the baseball diamond, no doubt crowded with maroon and yellow jerseys. I came around my desk and leaned against the low bank of radiators. I had no idea what to do. “Where are you from?”
He looked up at the lighting fixtures. His eyes were flat, unreadable.
Juan was from Jalisco, northern Mexico, just below the border. A place with ranches and farms, dusty flat pastures, and cows that he had known by name.
His family’s farm burned down. He didn’t get into why, or how. The family scattered. It was his older brother who snuck him across the frontier via a coyote. Translation: a smuggler of migrants across the border and sometimes a killer, if only through negligence. The coyote made them crawl into a barrel still sticky with oil. He had no idea where his mother and father and abuela were, or his other two brothers. Or if they were alive.
I had heard some of this story before in my student teaching. Variations: a walk across a desert, a belly of a train, or a oil barrel in the hold of a freighter truck bound for Oakland in four days with no water or food or bathroom.
In Oakland, his brother simply wasn’t there one day. He got up and wandered around the empty apartment, furnished only with a beaten-down couch and a jar of Skippy.
He sat in the sun, a whispery moustache coming in above his soft mouth. Eduardo would kill him. Freire said: The radical individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. All the windows of the world, uncovered.
“Hey, I set the date for my wedding,” I said to Juan.
“He finally got off the pot,” Juan said.
“Nice,” I said. “Nice idiom. I didn’t know you noticed he was on the pot.”
He rubbed his bleary face, and his eyes got clearer. “Can I come?”
“You should. We’re going to have salmon and crab cakes. There’s going to be a ton of food.”
His thick eyebrows creased. “Maestra, I don’t care about the food.”
“Oh right,” I said. “Sorry.”
I put his paper in my lower desk drawer with the others. I would keep them for years.