April shows me her cuts. Small razor cuts spread on her arm. She’s managed to shape some of them like stick houses—triangles atop squares. Others are words—fuck them. Several of the wounds are still fresh. I want to run the tip of my finger on them, ease the pain, but several years of training stop me—I’m not wearing gloves.
April lets out a short laugh and shakes her head; the silver skulls dangling from her ears slap her jaw. The other students call her Ms. Ugly, but I find a certain beauty in her witchy features: the long, pale face and pointy chin, the crooked nose. The dark eyeliner brings out her daring eyes under ever-frowning brows.
The door of the classroom is ajar, as I never talk to students alone in closed quarters. I’m not teaching middle school for the long haul, but no scandal is going to force me out the door before I decide to call time. April whispers, “I did it to myself, you know. All the pain inside… I have to hurt myself.” Teeny-tiny zits cover her forehead. Her hair, which has been backcombed, is recalcitrant whenever her friend Katrina attempts to fix it in my Literature class.
April pulls down her long sleeves and folds her arms, black fingernails repeatedly scratching the purple shirt—reopening wounds through fabric. “You know what I like about you?” April asks. “You always look so damn unimpressed.” She hides a smile at the corners of her black lips. “I’d love to see your face when the shit hits the fan.”
I teach more than two hundred teens. My smallest class is thirty-three students. I simply don’t have the time to get to know them personally, and besides, I don’t want anything to do with teenage drama. All I can manage, as far as personal rapport with the student body goes, is playful sarcasm.
I’m not thrilled when April shows up in my room during my planning. Grades are due and there is a pile of ungraded essays and quizzes on my desk. I could use this time to plan lessons and call parents.
Even in September, when the temperature in Davie, Florida, reaches the high nineties, April wears long sleeves under the school-mandated Polo shirt, and black stockings or fishnets under the required Dockers-style pants. When the A.C. died the second week of school and stayed broken for days, I expected her to partially drop the emo fashion, including the leather dog collar, but she didn’t.
When she walks into my room that morning, her face is tight; she’s playing with her hands, the perfect portrayal of a drama queen, and it occurs to me that I’ll never understand teenagers. They’re so good at acting that you can never know when they’re rehearsing for a sordid play in their heads or when they really need you. In the principal’s office, April has a rap sheet for skipping class. For some reason she religiously attends mine, never asking for a pass to anywhere. But I often cross her path in the hallways, loitering when she should be in Science or Math, in another building altogether. Sometimes she’s just leaning against the wall, reading Japanese comics or English plays.
Shakespeare or Ben Johnson. Impressive. But what is it now?
Before she shows me her wounds and scars, April says she’s feeling down and doesn’t know what to do about it.
I’m sorry that of all people she’s come to see me. I can’t help her.
I tell Dr. Solow about April.
“What am I supposed to say to her?” I ask. “That it will get better twenty years from now? It sure didn’t get any better for me.”
At twelve, if I’d been able to see my future self and realize that my teenage angst would never go away, I would have jumped off a building. When I was April’s age, I swallowed half a bottle of sleeping pills, went to bed, supposedly delirious from all the medicine in my bloodstream. After a few hours I woke with my belly on fire, and by dawn I had thrown up everything there was to throw up into the toilet, shuddering on the bathroom tile, the blade of the oscillating fan in the attached bedroom nick-nick-nicking at its metal cage.
In the morning, Mother had come into my room, looking for her bottle of pills, which actually contained Flanax, I learned, a pain reliever. Not Valium, as it read on the label.
“So what did you tell her?” Dr. Solow asks. “April, I mean.”
“That everything will be fine. Just fine.” I pause. “I told her that she’ll outgrow it; that it might not appear this way now, but that she’ll start feeling better and better.”
I shake my head, my fingers playing the piano on my temple. “Such bullshit.”
Dr. Solow is old. He’s so skinny and his voice so raspy that sometimes I fear he might just crumble and die during one of our sessions. He mostly does children’s therapy, so his waiting room features small purple chairs and a tiny library with Dr. Seuss books and three copies of Alexander and the Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. I don’t remember how Alexander’s story ends. In Dr. Solow’s office, I barely fit in the miniature sofa. Alice in Wonderland.
The insurance company wouldn’t find me another personal shrink.
“I’m a good teacher,” I say. “I love words, I love the English language. I just wish I didn’t have to get involved.”
I’m waiting for Dr. Solow to comment and advise, but Dr. Solow is not my friend. He’s just supposed to listen and take notes.
We discuss my teenage years. I tell him about Soraya, about that one day at Sainte Rose de Lima, in Port-au-Prince. How these words, “Hey, you!” changed it all for me in middle school.
I was finishing The Orient Express, rushing through the last pages so I could start reading Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? when the girl stood in front of me, two sidekicks in her shadow.
“Hey, you!” she said, towering over me. “Tell me something.” She had a mean, scrunched-up little face, all nasty and twitching, like a rat’s. She sneered while fumbling in the pocket of her school uniform. She finally retrieved a small mirror and put it to my face. “How can you bear to look at yourself?” she asked. “You’re so damn ugly.”
Although I registered the hurtful impact that these words were supposed to have, they didn’t slash their way through me then. I don’t know if it’s genetics or maladaptive behavior—my emotions are usually delayed. Pain, joy, anger—they take their sweet time before manifesting themselves, which allows me to usually look unimpressed.
On account of books, I’d gone AWOL from most of my adolescence. Even in middle school, people—including the well-intentioned ones—were a nuisance. At school I spent so much time reading that I often found myself stuttering when students addressed me, as if my mouth had grown rusty.
“What do… do you want?” I asked, my jaw in need of a tune-up. “Who… who are you?”
It was May, almost June, the air fragrant with jasmine. Ylang-ylang blossoms burst like stars in the trees; their delicate custard scent infused the heated air. I was trying to make sense of the conversation—trying to reacquaint myself with the real world. I couldn’t understand why this girl was even talking to me.
She mocked me. “Who… who are you?”
I finally recognized her. She’d read some of her original poems at the Concours d’Art Oratoire, the yearly middle school literary contest, too. I’d won first place and landed a set of three Agatha Christie books (translated in French, s’il vous plaît!) along with a framed certificate signed by the assistant principal, Sister Claudette. Soraya was being a sore loser.
I’d seen Soraya around the school before. Between chapters, I often people watched, observing students leaving for home in the afternoon, vendors of ice-cream and Oreo-like cookies wearing colorful straw hats, unschooled Haitian teenagers-turned-street-pharmacists holding up buckets filled to the rim with long-expired prescription drugs.
Soraya’s mother usually came to pick her up in a beige Nissan, always wearing these humongous dark glasses. One day, the mother took these glasses off to powder her face in the rearview mirror—and that’s when I saw it. The horrible black eye.
Another day, Soraya’s father was riding shotgun, and the couple was still arguing when the mother parked the car. The windows were up, but I could see their angry faces, could imagine their angry words. I don’t think anyone else saw it—the way he grabbed her wrist. The firm set of his brow, the rigidity of his mouth, reminding me of my own father.
I wanted to feel sorry for Soraya, but she was a bully. I say, if a witch hates you for no reason, give that witch a reason. I started feeling my anger then, but it still wouldn’t show on my face—it lingered inside, acidic, caustic, fuming. I was angry at her, at her violent father, at my own father.
I gently pushed away from my face the hand shoving the mirror.
“I hope Daddy doesn’t break that mirror in your face and make you as ugly as I am,” I said. “When he’s done rearranging your mother’s face, I mean. Something tells me you might be next.”
She held her breath. For a moment, I thought she was going to hit me. I have to admit I was taken aback by my own conviction and ferocity. I didn’t think I had that much mean in me, the hot bad words suddenly crowding my throat. The anger caught along the base of my neck like needles. My pulse twitched, and yet I could tell my facial expression remained courteous, almost kind.
I went back to reading. So many books to explore, so little time. Reading, a compulsion. Following Agatha Christie’s novels, La bête humaine, L’Etranger, and La porte étroite were on my list.
After the bell rang, I briefly saw Soraya on my way to algebra class. Her eyes were red and she was sniffling. I was still gripped by the raw, naked feeling, the acute bewilderment that comes with the realization of my unfocused anger and the indifference I felt toward her pain.
No one deserved the words I’d told her.
“This is the first day I ever remember feeling lonely,” I tell Dr. Solow. “Before that, yes, I sensed I was a bit weird—a loner. But I was okay with it. I used to think that I didn’t belong because I didn’t choose to. After I talked to Soraya, I realized that I’d never belong even if I tried to. Somehow I felt doomed.”
I am not a people person. There is only so much private conversation with April I can take. Does she feel we’re akin somehow? Does she see in me the kind of person she’ll be in fifteen years?
I send her to the Guidance Counselor with a hall pass.
“You can talk to me whenever you want to,” I say. “I’ll even try to look impressed. But Ms. May is the one who’ll help you find… whatever you need to feel better inside.”
“I’ve been to Ms. May,” she says, playing with her dog collar. “She doesn’t care like you do.”
“I thought you didn’t think I cared,” I say.
“You never show it. But you do. I know you do.” She yawns. “Ms. May sent some lady to my house, y’a know. I’ve seen a therapist too. He’s old and wrinkly. Gives me the creeps.” She rolls up her sleeves again to admire her work.
I give her cotton balls and alcohol from my First Aid kit so she can clean up her wounds. I wonder if she carries a blade around with her. I ask her. She denies it.
She’s sitting on my desk, looking down at me, a thespian in a Shakespeare play, looking a tad annoyed now.
“I’m going to call Ms. May and let her know that you’re on your way to Guidance,” I say.
She mumbles. “Okay. But I’ll come see you again.”
April gets Othello and her manga books from my desk, the Japanese characters on the cover just as big-eyed. She smiles her half-smile and soon she’s out the door.
I call Ms. May. “April is on her way to your office. She’s been cutting herself.”
Ms. May has a sing-songy, I-am-not-very-efficient kind of voice. “Yes,” she says. “We are aware of the situation.” I imagine her in her cloud of perfume, cinched tightly into a dress that tapers narrowly to her waist before puffing out over her hips in a cloud of swishy material.
“May I ask what is being done about this?”
“She’s seeing a therapist.”
“He’s not very effective, I guess. For her to come knocking on some teacher’s door for help.”
“She doesn’t see you like some teacher, Ms. Fievre. I spoke to April. She’s very fond of you. She likes the way you talk about books.”
The bell rings. Time to go back to teaching. Still holding the phone, I look in dismay at the ungraded papers and vocabulary quizzes on my desk.
“Well, keep me posted,” I say.
I don’t know what to do with April. She stops by, leaves me notes in my teacher’s mailbox, bumps into me accidentally on purpose in the hallways. I try calling home several times, but there’s no one there. I learn there’s already a child neglect case opened on her behalf, but I’m not privy to the details.
She likes the way you talk about books. I wish she could just leave me alone. I don’t have what it takes to get involved.
At twelve, I used to think of my own life as a novel in which we were all actors assuming different roles. Equaling my existence to a plot line helped me develop a very dark sense of humor; I also felt myself become more observant and detached from reality. Because I distanced myself from situations, I didn’t take it personally when things got ugly—that was just how the story was supposed to go. Suddenly, nothing was quite real, and I sensed a kind of perversion in this way of viewing the world.
To most people who ask me about my reasons for wanting to quit teaching, I give the standard list of complaints—low salary, oversized classes, and the such. But to Dr. Solow, I say the truth: It’s the students like April who make me want to vamoose. I don’t want to be responsible for anyone’s emotional health. No matter how much I distance myself from the kids, some of them cling to me, looking for the love and attention they don’t find at home. And this I can’t give them.
“ It’s like they want me to save them from themselves.”
Dr. Solow is so old. Whatever I say, it seems I’m a brat having a tantrum. I feel shrunken; I almost fit the purple sofa.
He doesn’t stop checking his watch.
“April even invades my dreams,” I say.
In one of these dreams, we’re climbing the mountains of Thomassin, in Haiti. The road narrows and becomes increasingly steep. As April climbs, loose stones and dirt slide beneath her. She begins to crawl on her hands and knees, groping for roots and branches to keep herself from sliding, urging me to help. In the dream, the roots and branches turn into pages of a manga book and as April falls I know she’s going to be okay because our world has turned into paper. We’re surrounded by words and punctuations.
One day, when I was twelve, Sister Claudette caught me reading under the grapevines, skipping Math, hiding with Sartre’s La Nausée, until Mother picked me up from school. My sister Patricia was up to forty-eight books that month; she was the faster reader. I was lagging behind with forty-one; getting in trouble with Administration was a chance I was willing to take.
She didn’t punish me. She liked me; she believed I had a good heart. Somehow our conversation led to faith and service, and Sister Claudette said that love was a decision. “If you wait until you feel love for others, you’ll never love anyone. You need to take the decision to love them, and then stick to that decision.”
She got into a very deep thought, and I wondered about the life she’d left behind in Paris to become a teacher in Port-au-Prince, and later an administrator. I wondered if she was varicosed under her habit.
“You’re named after an archangel,” she said. “Your name, Michele, means ‘Gift of God’ and ‘Who is like God.’ You have some big shoes to fill because Michael protects and inspires faith.”
She arrives with her Japanese comics in hand—graphic novels, April corrects me—and I realize I’ve been expecting her. She’s grown on me.
I put the essays away, lock them in a drawer. For once, I’ll try, really try. I’ll listen. I’ll have a genuine conversation with a student. Not one about the class. Not one that involves a twelve year-old trying to get a reaction out of me, trying to make me look less unimpressed by showing me cuts shaped like houses and curse words. I’m signing for a real dialogue. Small talk about something we both like.
“Tell me about what you’re reading. What’s that Japanese crap?” I say. “Let’s talk about books.”
She smiles. “I’d love that,” she says. “Talk about books. I thought you’d never ask.”