Green Hills Literary Lantern

Tell Me, I'll Listen

 

 

            Priscilla was leaving the nurse’s office when she saw me in the next room making photocopies for class. I smiled at her. She was pretty. Though unlike some of her 13-year-old classmates, she was not yet shaped like a woman. But she was getting there.

            “Hola, Señor Reisenboch,” she said, marching right up to me. The tips of our shoes touched.

            I tried to step back, but my heel clanged the base of the photocopier. My momentum nearly sent me to the floor until I caught myself on the side of the machine. “Hola, Priscilla,” I said, trying to sound natural while straightening myself. “Como estás?”

            “Muy bien,” she said, beaming at me. “You have me back in class today.” Her arms were behind her back, her chest out.

            “I see that,” I said. “Welcome back.” Priscilla had been out for 11 school days straight.

            “Aren’t you glad I’m here?”

            “Yes.”

            “I’m going to try very hard.”

            “Good,” I said.

            “Adiós,” she said then left the office. Priscilla wore a hooded jacket over a shirt, the sleeves of which stretched down to her thumbnails, painted a dark green. Over her sleeves she wore bracelets and thick straps and leather bands. Designer sweatpants were popular that year; Priscilla’s were as tight as any girl’s in the school. I didn’t know how she could stand so much cover since it was the first very warm morning that spring, and many of her classmates wore T-shirts and shorts.

            That morning marked six weeks left until school let out, but I was ready to have been done months ago. I was tired. The heat and humidity made me feel sluggish, and I hadn’t slept well. On my nightstand lay a copy of Hemingway’s The First Forty-nine. I’d been reading the stories in order, and the night before I got to the one set in Kansas City—the one where the boy amputates his own penis. My dreams—in which the compassionate Doc Fischer of the story said the word “Listen,” again and again to the boy (who did not hear him) until he was screaming it—jolted me awake.

            The photocopier beeped—it was out of paper. I fed it, gathered my copies, and headed to class. In the hall the students teemed with excitement and energy from the warm weather. It had rained for a week, and I was happy for the blue skies myself. But I already felt sweat on my chest and forehead.



                                                                                                            *   *   *



            I entered the classroom. One of the AP students, walking behind me, jumped and grabbed the top of the doorjamb. He did a pull up. Then, still hanging there, he looked to see if I was watching. He did another pull up. Wood cracked.

            “Jeremy, don’t hang from the door!” I yelled. At Quest Charter School, AP stood for “ass pain.”

            A group of black boys were in the corner “beatin’,” as they called it, tapping their pencils, their fingertips, and the heels of their hands on desktops. Their heads bobbed in time with the rhythm.

            A girl named Rachel sat in the back row. Her age, attitude, and actions said she was an adolescent, but her body didn’t. It sloped and peaked in places I couldn’t help but notice. Boys noticed, too, because the moment she sat down they tugged at her shirt and tickled her. I had to admit: I was jealous. Those boys were closer to a woman than I’d gotten in some time.

            Jeremy finally dropped from the doorjamb then sprinted across the room to help pick on Rachel. I would have stepped in to keep the boys from her, but she slugged one in his stomach, another in his neck. They retreated, yelping and gasping for air.

            “Rachel,” I said, “please don’t hit.”

            Priscilla, also sitting in the back, said, “Then they should keep their Goddamn hands off her.”

            I scowled at Priscilla. “Language, please.”

            She smiled and batted her eyes.

            Jeremy, his hands waving, his lips flailing, could not control his bodily excretions near Rachel. Pointing at him, she screamed, “He spit on me!”

            “No I di’nt,” Jeremy squealed, running behind Priscilla for protection. “It flew out of my mouth on accident.” He whispered something in Priscilla’s ear, at which she rolled her eyes. Jeremy and Priscilla had a bond, the daily strength of which depended on her mood.

            “Señor,” I said to him, “sit please. Don’t spit.” I pointed to his chair. Jeremy did a cartwheel over to the black boys and beat with them until I put my hand on his shoulder and guided him to his seat.

            So far, it looked to be a normal day. There was still a minute before class began. I sat in front of the students, and though the din continued, my mind shut it out and returned to images of Hemingway’s boy. What could have driven him to commit such a desperate act? I wondered. Hemingway suggested that Christian fundamentalism was to blame, teaching the boy that natural body functions, like getting an erection, were a sin against purity. But there was also a communication problem. Words failed the boy; the only way that he could render his misery was by severing.

            I  looked at the clock; the bell was about to ring. What I wanted with these students was a way to connect. For that day’s lesson, the origin of the Romance languages, I’d use my body to get through to them.

            The bell rang. “Atención clase,” I said. I held my hand high, my five fingers spread apart. “My arm represents Latin, which is the root of five languages spoken in the world today.”

            Priscilla raised her hand. “Señor Reisenboch,” she said in that eager yet whiny voice of the adolescent seeking attention.

            “Un momento,” I said. “Now, Latin gives us Spanish,” I wiggled my thumb, “French,” I wiggled my first finger, “Italian …” I stopped, my arm still over my head. Priscilla was standing now, shaking her hand in the air, the bracelets and bands clicking and dinging. “Sí, señorita,” I said. “What is so important that you have to interrupt?”

            “Señor Reisenboch,” she said, pointing, “you’re sweating under your arm.”

            The class exploded in laughter. I lowered my hand, my face reddening.

            “Something stinks!” Jeremy shouted, waving his hand under his nose.

            “Ladies and Gentlemen,” I said, “do we need to have a discussion of the body’s natural cooling system, which we call perspiration?”

            That was my best comeback. A real teacher would’ve had a response that immediately restored his authority. But I—never having taught before that year, never having taken an education course, and without a teaching license—wasn’t a real teacher. While my master’s in English, love of languages, and proficiency in speaking Spanish might have qualified me to stand in front of these kids, none of those things helped my influence on their young souls. But Quest—in a poor, ethnic, inner-ring Minneapolis suburb—already budget depleted, had suffered further budget cuts the year before, and the school director, an old family friend, needed someone cheap to teach Spanish three mornings a week. She called me. I was available, since my full-time work was nights as a waiter.

            While the students finished laughing at my underarm sweat, I went to the chalkboard. I put my hand with my five fingers extended on the board and traced it with chalk. Above the outline I wrote, “Romance Languages.” Then I handed out the photocopies I made earlier. “Clase,” I said. “On one side of this sheet are groups of countries where the five Romance languages are spoken in the world today. The other side is blank. On the blank side I want you to trace your hand and arm like I’ve done on the board.”

            A quiet girl raised her hand and asked, “Does Romance language mean language of love?”

            “It can,” I said. “And in fact many of the Romance languages are lovely and beautiful to listen to. But in our context, today, Romance language means any language that comes from Latin. Does anyone know where Latin originated?”

            “Latvia?” asked a boy.

            “No,” I said, trying to hold back a laugh. “In Rome, during the Roman Empire. Hence ‘Romantic’. Now please finish tracing your hand and arm.” I walked among the students to check work. “No,” I said to one of the boys sitting near Rachel, “don’t trace just your middle finger. All five, please.” Priscilla had only outlined her hand. “Please remove your bracelets and roll up your sleeve so you can outline your arm,” I told her.

            I returned to the chalkboard. “OK,” I said to the class, “in the arm area write, ‘Latin’.” I wrote it on the board. “Over the pinkie write, ‘Romanian’.” The students needed plenty of time to get the spelling right. “Over the next finger write, ‘Portuguese’.”

            I wrote the rest of the languages over the other fingers on the board. “Now, as we know, all five of these languages come from Latin, which is a dead language. Does anyone know what a dead language is?”

            I walked among the students, waiting for a response, looking down at their Romance-language trees.

            A boy said, “It’s a language that isn’t alive.”

            Priscilla was staring into space. She hadn’t rolled up her sleeve to trace her arm, and she hadn’t written any words on her paper. I knelt down next to her and whispered in her ear, “Weren’t you going to try very hard?” She didn’t respond. This close, I could smell her scent, a sharp, youthful sweat mixed with the vanilla from a lotion or spray. “Here,” I said, “I’ll trace my arm and you just copy the words on the board. OK?”

            Her attention came back as soon as I’d traced my arm. Priscilla’s zombie-like trances were not new to me, though I didn’t know why she would slip in and out of them. She picked up her pencil and quickly wrote the words over each finger.

            To the class, I said, “A dead language is one that isn’t alive, exactamente. But what does it mean when a language isn’t alive?”

            The boy next to Rachel poked her in the ribs. She squealed and slapped his hand. “Tell him,” the boy whispered.

            “Tell me what?”

            Rachel stretched, saying, “This is so stupid.”

            “Yeah,” said the boy. “Why do we have to study this?”

            I sighed. What a bunch of jerks, I thought. You’re making the next six weeks look like six more months. But rather than say anything that would get me in trouble, I sat down on the stool at the front of the class and said nothing until I had everyone’s attention. “Why do we study this?” I asked, finally. “Somebody tell me. Why should we study about dead languages or where languages come from? Why should we study Spanish, for that matter?”

            A girl who worried about her grades said, “We need it for college.”

            I nodded. “That’s a reason. Not a good one, but a reason. Why else?”

            “So I can talk to the taco-jockeys roofing the house next door,” said Priscilla.

            Students snickered.

            Priscilla was smiling coyly. You little tart, I thought. “See me after class,” I said to her.

            One of the beatin’ boys said, “So we can communicate with other people.”

            “Now there’s a good reason. Did everyone hear that? To communicate. Wanting to listen to and understand what people say. One of the most profound ways that we as humans can connect.” I went to the chalkboard and wrote “Communication and Connection.” When I turned around, Jeremy was leaning back in his chair, stretched across his neighbor’s desk, his arm extended toward Priscilla, who, angry at having to stay after class, was ignoring him. He held a piece of paper folded in half several times. It looked like a note, and note passing was unequivocally forbidden.

            “Jeremy,” I growled, drawing out each syllable.

            He looked at me and his chair tipped over, spilling him on the floor. Some students laughed at him; others taunted, “Uh oh.”

            “What’s in your hand, señor?”

            “Nothing,” he said, scrambling to his feet. His eyes were wide. His jaw hung open.

            “Is it a note?”

            “No.” He squeezed the paper in his fist and headed toward the wastebasket.

            “I’m just going to take it out of the garbage and read it,” I said.

            “Yeah, read it out loud!” shouted some boys.

            He paused in front of the wastebasket. I held out my hand and said, “Give it to me.”

            Jeremy was an ass pain, to be sure. But I had to admire his energy and his ability to improvise. He shoved the note in his mouth and began chewing with all his might. He couldn’t close his lips for the amount of paper.

            “Ah ha,” said a girl, taunting me. “You ain’t gettin’ that note.”

            Jeremy grinned. He tried to walk past me to his seat. But I stopped him. “I don’t care how much saliva is on that note,” I said, wiggling my fingers, “I’m going to have it.” I moved fast, catching him off guard. Cupping the back of Jeremy’s head with one hand, I pinched the largest chunk of wet paper I could with the other and pulled. Out came the note.

            It dangled as if I held the tail of a dead mouse. “Have a seat, Jeremy.” I dropped the note on my desk.

            “Read it!” shouted several students.

            A girl, the beads in her braids clicking, ran up next to me. “What it say?” she said.

            “Siéntate,” I said, glaring at her. She returned to her chair.

            “Clase,” I said, “I will read this note out loud.”

            “No!” Jeremy shouted.

            “Yes!” screamed others.

            “Silencio.” I picked up three pens, each by the end. Two went into my right hand like chopsticks, the other into my left. “Clase,” I said, “this is how a classically trained French waiter would serve your main course if it is prepared en papillote, which is French for ‘wrapped in parchment paper.’” I opened the note with the tips of the pens. “Steam and aromas that were trapped inside would rise to your nose just before you eat. It’s quite tantalizing.”

            “Who cares?” said a boy who liked to write the word “Murder” at the top of his assignments. “Read the friggin’ thing!”

            “Paciencia.”

            Jeremy buried his face in his arms.

            I looked down at the note, which read: “P— R U OK? I hop so I miss you bad —J” I inhaled deeply.

            “Well?” someone said.

            I kept my eyes on the note. “Here’s what it says: ‘Priscilla, Spanish class is boring. Don’t you think Señor Reisenboch is a geek? Jeremy.’”

            The class laughed.

            I scowled at Jeremy, who peeked at me in disbelief.

            “Oooo!” said the girl with beaded braids. “You in trouble.”

            Priscilla stared at her desk, impervious to us. “Now, Jeremy,” I said, “as punishment I want two 500-word essays by tomorrow. One on the origin of the word ‘boring.’ The other on the origin of ‘geek.’ And I also want you to translate ‘boring’ and ‘geek’ into español.”

            “Dang!” shouted a boy. “That’s harsh.”

            “Harsh, indeed. So, no more note passing lest you enjoy discovering the origin of words and also translating them.”

            “I sure as hell don’t,” a boy mumbled.

            “Language, please,” I sighed, looking at the clock. Only 18 minutes into the period, I was already spent. “Clase, what would you like to do now?”

            “Can we go outside?” begged a boy.

            A real teacher would’ve continued class. A real teacher thought on his feet, delighting the students with tales of the conquistadores who spread Spanish throughout the Americas. He talked about the ancient Mayan calendar and how it was more accurate than the one we use today. He explained that the word ojalá, meaning “God grant,” descended from the Arabic, “Allah,” and was one of many linguistic reminders of Spain’s 750-year Muslim occupation during the Middle Ages. A real teacher at least had a game of bingo ready.

            “I’ll call down to Mrs. Pinkleworth in the gym and tell her to meet you outside,” I said, picking up the telephone. “Don’t give her any trouble.” The students rioted toward the door. I tried to shout an assignment over the stampede: “Everyone has to name three outdoor items in Spanish.” But no one paid attention. I called Mrs. Pinkleworth.

            Priscilla and Jeremy stayed in their seats. She was a zombie. He stared at her from the edge of his chair, his hands crossed, biting his lip. Jeremy got up and said, “Priscilla, can I talk to you?” He touched her wrist.

            Priscilla swatted his hand. She pointed in his face, growling through her teeth, “Leave me the fuck alone, you tool!”

            “Señorita!” I shouted. “What did you say?”

            “You fucking heard me!” She shoved her desk over. “God, I hate this!” She stomped toward the door.

            “Stop,” I said. “Calm down.”

            “No!”

            “Yes,” I said firmly. “I want to talk to you.” I held my arm out. “Now sit down and listen.”

            Priscilla’s eyes were clouded. “No!” she screamed. Then, panting through her teeth, she hissed, “I won’t listen. You can’t make me listen.”

            I dropped my arm to my side.

            She stomped past me and out of the room.

            This is hopeless, a voice inside me said. You are going to walk out of this school and never look back.

            In a frail voice Jeremy said my name.

            I had almost forgotten he was there. “What?” I said.

            “You can’t let her go alone,” Jeremy said, blinking away tears.

            “Why not?”

            “She cuts her arms. She’s done it here at school. That’s why she’s been gone for so many days.”

            The internal voice pleaded for me to leave, to unburden myself. Walk away, it told me. One step, then another, then another. But I stayed put. It was as if my feet were moored to the thin, industrial-brown carpet. Something more powerful than my consciousness, something corporeal held me there, insisting that I not neglect my commitment to these kids, no matter how ineffectual it seemed.

            “All right, then,” I said to Jeremy. “Compose yourself, and let’s go after her.”

            Jeremy nodded, pulled up the bottom of his shirt to wipe his face, and we left the room.



                                                                                                        *  *  *



            We moved fast down the empty hall toward the girl’s bathroom, which was on the opposite end of the building. Once there, we faced the door and could hear someone crying inside.

            “Someone has to go in,” I said.

            “Last year I got suspended for a week just for peeking in the girl’s bathroom,” Jeremy said.

            “Jeremy,” I said, “if I go in there, I will get in more trouble than you can imagine. You have to do it.”

            He looked like he might start crying again, so, holding up my right hand, I told him, “I, Señor Reisenboch, as your teacher and immediate caretaker bequeath upon you, Jeremy Noblinski, temporary immunity from punishment to enter the girl’s bathroom for the purpose of getting Priscilla the hell out of there.”

            “OK,” he whispered, nodding, and dashed inside.

            I put my ear to the door. There was a knocking, probably him on a closed stall. “Priscilla?” he said, his voice stronger than I thought he could muster.

            She keened.

            Hearing her make that awful, pleading sound no child should make, I was sure she had cut herself. I threw open the door, repercussions be damned.

            But I was merely witness. Jeremy, standing outside her closed stall, said, “I’m coming in there.” He dropped to his stomach and scuttled under. Once inside he got to his knees and, though I couldn’t see this part for the stall, I believe he pulled her to him. The action dropped Priscilla’s hands to the floor. Her sleeves were rolled up; bandages covered her arms. But she had not cut them that day. Jeremy, holding her in his lap, cooed over her sobs, “It’s all right, Priscilla. You can tell me what’s wrong. C’mon, now. Tell me. I’ll listen.”

 

 

James Wagner has published stories in Roux, Rockhurst Review, and South Dakota Review and has another story forthcoming in Paper Street.  He lives in Minneapolis.