Nuns, a gnome, Nancy, and more

I attended another Mr. Kyle photo class. I love how walking around with the purpose of capturing interesting images forces you to pay attention. There are so many jarring, strange, and beautiful sights there are in a neighborhood, maybe even one you already know well.


just another…


stoop on the side






closed till further notice




afternoon light






blue and green



close sesame





gnome on a bicycle




last of the season


black and white






wannabe leaf


(caption included)






beer plants


olive branch


sister partly shaded


Rod Iron


Rod Iron II




boot scraper


the top of the key




other heads


worth looking up






not a bad alley


stalking “sisters”






may they rest in peace




seasons change


welcome to 208





white noise no more






Mr. Kyle






diamond district


Frederick oversees


pane pains




We ❤ Baltimore.


Sheet Rock


Spread it.


new world


public art


you are a child of the universe


(caption included)


everything dances




basketball pride








shadow X reflection = this


urban sandcastle (beware of falling rocks)


back alley fish


chain, chain, chain










over the dome


on the dome

Dear Future Self

Dear Future Amandy,

This is a weird time and I don’t doubt that whenever this letter resonates with you in the future, that’ll be a weird time too. Generally, all the times are weird, aren’t they? If I think about past Amandy, I know she couldn’t have dreamt up the details of this life. But, I guess that’s the case with most people.

When you look back at the age of 30 and the year 2018, I hope you remember the growth you reached, the moments of peace you found, and the love you felt and gave.

Harnessing what sometimes feels like an absurd amount of energy, an innumerable collection of ideas, both interesting and atrocious, and general untamable excitedness is challenging. But that’s who you are now. And it’s really fun. Though, you might not always be this way. And that’s okay too.

Whatever you’re doing right now, think back. Remember what it was like to have a brain swimming with ideas for Baltimore and for the girls, for yoga, for your willing and unwilling friends and family? Do you still think that way? Do you still envision the best ideas at 4 a.m.? Do you still wake up before the world to write? Do you even write anymore? I realize I sound critical of you and I don’t mean to. I’m sure you’re fine, but I hope you continue to make it your mission to be more than “fine,” to make Baltimore more than “fine,” to make the people around you more than “fine.” Remember this?


Credit: Sierra Smith Photography

If you’re reading this and feeling stodgy and weighed down, step outside, look up, and take a long set of deep breaths. Put on something cute. Do a few rounds of surya namaskar A. Write down what’s in your head.

What does Emma look like now? I already know she’s brilliant and amazing. Does she think you’re insane? Does she have siblings? Cousins? Did any come from you and Chas? Go look at a photo of Baby Emms and remember what that was like. Here’s one for you…


Did you make an addition out of the basement? Did Chas ever get someone to fix the upstairs bathroom before the roof caved in? Does the rain shower still not work? Did hair stop growing on your feet? Are you still waxing your armpits? How many more countries have you and Chas visited? If it’s been a while, check Scott’s Cheap Flights. Go somewhere.

Did you get a dog? Does he smell? Does Chas let him sleep in the bed with you? Is there still U.S. Mail service? When’s the last time you sent thank you notes to the people you love? Does the dollar store still exist? Is everything still a dollar? I am scared to ask this, but did Trump actually win a second term? Are we still a country? If you haven’t done any activism lately, think of some cause that makes you feel alive and get after it. How about this–do you remember this?

Nasty Women

How many yoga classes are you teaching per week? How many are you taking? Do people live on the moon? Did you ever try running for office? If so, why? How’d that go? If not, why not? How about Chas? What’s his career like? Did you and Mom ever get your noses pierced? If not, maybe send her a text and see if she’s still interested. You only get one life, and one nose–it might as well be decorated.

Did you ever write a book? Maybe a few? If not, why? Look at all these blogs–read through them. One or more of them could surely become a book. Even Bobby Ray alone could be a book. Write it. The world might need what you have to say.

Whereever you are (likely Baltimore, duh), whatever you’re doing, what ever you’re writing and teaching and learning, just know that it’s exactly where you’re meant to be. And if this Amandy nudges you in a few right directions, so be it. Despite her greater instincts toward self-doubt, she’s already pretty wise.


With love,



PS: I share this with the world instead of just tucking it in a drawer, because I encourage you to do this too. Tell your future self what your current self thinks.

Still That Karaoke Singer from Hon Bar

This is a continuation from last week. If you haven’t read last week’s blog, please read this first. 

“Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel—only worse. For the common cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence, and it affects not only his own psyche but also seems to cause a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him, drink with him, love him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability. A Sinatra with a cold can, in a small way, send vibrations through the entertainment industry and beyond as surely as a President of the United States, suddenly sick, can shake the national economy.”

-Gay Talese, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” Esquire Magazine, April 1966

Thinking about Frank Sinatra with a cold, and other similes above, I don’t think Bobby Ray would ever tell you he’s lacking anything. I don’t know if I’d call him glass-half-full, or just that the concept of the fullness of a glass is so far out of his vision, that it’s irrelevant. He’s just Bobby Ray and at the very least to him (if not to others as well), he lacks for nothing. Though, he’ll also tell you, he doesn’t have much to begin with.

“I came into the world banging my head on the way in,” says Bobby Ray. “I’ve been here before,” he says as he looks at me, half making sure I believe him, half I can tell he doesn’t give a shit if I believe him. This is his truth. “I had to write it all down,” he says.

When he talks of the vision that recurs for him assuring him that he’s reincarnated he says, “I know it’s true because it never changes. I got one of those old black copy books primers to write it all down. From before I entered this life I have memories. I have no reason to lie,” he tells me, and when I think about it, I guess he’s right.

“I had to really come to grips with this over a long period of time, whether I concocted it or it was a childhood dream or just the truth and that’s why I wrote it down. And it’ll never change.” Then his talk parades into a place where I get lost, of merging your unconscious and subconscious with your conscious. “We are talking right now through conscious mind, subliminal and the unconscious mind.” And as I start to lose him, he spells a word I must have missed completely, without being asked. He’ll do that, spell things for you, even when you’re not taking notes. His story of his pre-birth-image, he says, “This is like god’s memory in the subconscious mind.”

“Before I entered this life I was awakened in my soul body. I was out there in the darkness of space. It was like my eyes were open but I wasn’t a physical being. Under my vision was the earth and over here were these voices and they were female.” He points to where the voices came from. “There were two of them and they may have been like ancestors,” he points over his right shoulder with his thumb.

“I had my ears and eyes. I was looking ahead and listening to them. I was seeing the earth and they were talking about me coming to the earth, how I was gonna be, and I heard them and I got scared.” And this one ends.

He launches into memory two. “I looked down and I saw these little stick figures…it was my parents getting ready to copulate. I got scared and I went under again.”

And the third, “The next time I became conscious I was in the womb, fully formed.” And a side step. “My father was an ass. He was unedcuated and not refined. He had my mother locked in when he got her pregnant with my brother. Men did that to women back then. She was tiny. He was Fred Flintstone and she was Wilma.” He comes back to his vision. “I’m awakended all of the sudden. My mother was upset. She’s in a rocking chair rocking me in her belly, apprehensive about my father coming home. I’m seeing through the womb. I saw him come through the door with his paint overalls. She’s rocking me really hard like she’s worried about him coming home and I wake up. I’m psychically gifted, did a lot of psychic work.”

And finally, “I’m hung upside down by my ankles, soaking wet, just got slapped on the ass at the old Mercy Hospital down on Calvert Street.” He digresses and his memories get lost again as he returns to the reasons he believes he’s found them in the first place, “I’ve taken many awareness-increasing, consciousness-expanding sacrements. I did a lot of clinical acid, peyote, mescuplic, STP, DMT, I still make DMT by looking at the sun.” (See last week’s entry for specific instructions from Bobby Ray.)

Bobby Ray shifts in the backed stool at Mom’s Market. He’s sitting in “figure four pose” as we talk, and he tells me that he knows that he’s often in yoga postures. While he holds his body in asanas, Bobby Ray measures life in musical eras–I think it might be easier for him than one’s typical time stamps.

He tells me about the time period from when he was born and up through Elvis. Then he talks of the “blues shouters and how “the spirit was there” and Big Joe Turner and the “jumpin’ blues.” Then, he says, in 1956 everything changed. He launches into a description that draws out some Bobby Ray style nostalgia. The rockabilly era through 1959.

“All these country boys really came out of the woodwork. Such American soul,” he says so intensely. “I remember getting up on Sunday morning with my brother and watching these old black and white films of these hillbilly families in the Appalachian families up in the hills. The best country music you’d ever want to see, double guitar, it was raw American country music.” It’s like he’s still watching the show in front of me on his old black and white, as trails of ironic boots and post-workout millennials padder by. 

He launches into one short non-music tangent, “In 1960 when Kennedy came in, this new look, Joe College, cool guy, more polished, the president was a cool guy. The early 60s everybody was cleaning their act up.” But it’s short lived. “I was 15 years old, a sophomore at Calvert Hall, everything was gray when Kennedy died, for about 90 days. Everything was grey. Until February 14, 1964 when The Beatles showed up on Ed Sullivan and the whole thing changed again.”

He tells me that The Beatles were “diff-er-ent” when most people use only two syllables. “I didn’t know how to process it. That changed the whole nation. All the way through 1969. Anything The Beatles did, they were the spearhead. Then they met Bob Dylan and George got turned onto LSD by his dentist.” I realize that anyone could google this information, but there’s something about Bobby Ray’s telling and I’d much rather hear it from him.

“They were trippin’ their brains out. That translated into their music. Deep esoteric metaphysical soulful head music. After Woodstock, August of 1969, November, I’m stationed on the Gulf Coast in Mississippi, we hear over the television. We hear Nixon is president and Spiro Agnew is VP. Spiro says, ‘The Beatles are writing anti-American lyrics in their music.’ Four months later the Beatles broke up.” 

He tells me about 1972 when Glamrock arrived, followed by Kiss and David Bowie, and Bobby Ray says, “It got back to cutesie wootsie in a different way. The police would see you and follow you, harass you, if you had long hair. 1969. A quarter ounce of marijuana in 1969–it was a felony.”

But then the record scratches. And Bobby Ray stops his musical timelines.

“In 1970 I got discharged from the military, addicted, mentally and emotionally disabled. I found a special diet shop. All I could do was make myself as strong as possible. Fought it that way all the way through.” 

Bobby Ray explains that half of him was addicted to drugs and the half was trying to get healthy and strong. “One side of me has a needle in its arm, the other side wants only vitamins and minerals.”

His struggle has been his own, if you ask Bobby Ray. It’s his struggle to fight through alone, too. “Knowing you got a problem, 50% of it is already solved. You’re already halfway there. You can change anything. I feel like should’ve died four times. I’m still trying to overcome stuff, little things,” he says. 

Bobby Ray returns to his pre-determined death time and again in conversation. He seems to love his ability to dodge it, but also he’s amazed by his own aptitude.

“I was supposed to die 24 years ago. 24 years ago, I was at a seminar at the natural food store, on macrbiotic theory and meal, by Murray Snyder. Michael Rossoff–acupuncturist and lecturer–was outside and he was reading peoples’ palms. I’m watching and listening to him. He was telling him how long he was going to live and when he was going to die. So I asked him when I was going to die. He said 45-46. And I’m 24 years old at the time. He said ‘You chose that. That’s why it’s on your palm. You choose how long you’re gonna be here when you get here. But you can change that any time you want.’ That was in the fall of 1972…Zen buddhism and macrobiotics.”

He returns to 1972 so often, it makes me want to inquire about why this year was so significant. Maybe it’s obvious in his stories but still, I’m sure he’d have a reason tied to numerology or history or diet, or all of the above. He launches into the year of his pre-determined death.

“You know where I was on my 46th birthday? In city jail in N Section. I was on there for a 200K bail for marijuana. They put me with murderers, rapists, and [nationalities] who sold cocaine who had no bail. And I was under durress.” (Bobby Ray loves the word durress.)

“I was in there with one black guy. He was trying to appeal his sentence. Two cold blooded murders. The last night I was in jail, I had spent 114 days in the place. I was told I was gonna get murdered. They openeded the cages for dinner and I sneak down to the shower so I can get a shower before they let me out the next morning. The murderer walks in with three guys behind him. Bob, how would like me to kill you right now?” Bobby Ray explains that he just kept on showering, finished, and then “walked back to the cage.” He showed no fear. He looked the guy in the eyes and didn’t flinch. And they spared him. 

Bobby Ray suggests, “You let your enemy destroy himself. If your opponent is trying to intimidate you with fear and you don’t show it, you don’t feed him anything. I wasn’t afraid. They [cops, I think] had stuck a gun to my head an 8 mm, I had 4 pounds of pot, I was struggling, I had a drug record, a drug habit. Veterans wanted to put me on chemicals and lobotomize me.” He rattles off his list of issues again. 

“But I’m like a phoenix rising,” he says as his hands lift like he’s picking up a beach ball. “The greater the struggle, the greater the reward. Why am I still alive? Why didn’t I die? [Rossoff] told me I could change it. Over the years of struggling and studying while I was trying to survive. With diet, exercise prayer, I did it. I kept gleaning all these things from different religions and lifestyles. Tauruses are like that–we extract things from our environment that work practically and we discard the rest. Over the course of decades I’ve done that with religions and cultures. I became universalized with all the sacraments. These things have worked into a lifestyle that I customized to who I am now.” 

And amidst a tangent about growing up in east Baltimore, hearing about the street lamp lighters who used to go down Harford Road and light each street lamp, every night, one at a time, and about the new gas buses that came around in the ’50s, and a pack of Camels for 32 cents, Bobby tells me that Baltimore is a Scorpio-run city (and so is New Orleans, he says).

He tells me that growing up in a violent neighborhood, as a guy thrown in the midst of lowlives, military, jail, poverty, and trying to get along with people that “the world is an ugly place, it’s cold,” He says again, “It’s cold.” And then he starts signing “Riders on the Storm” aloud. “I can relate to that,” says Bobby Ray. 

So I ask him toward what I thought was the end of our conversation, “What did you want to be when you were a kid?”

“Kinda who I am now,” he says. “Someone who was evolving. I didn’t want to be a mechanic or anything I saw around me. I’m a master barber, a numerologist, an astrologist…” And then he starts talking about his face surgeries. He has a spiritual connection with Frank Sinatra, he says. He’s been in touch with Sinatra’s spirit before, while chanting one of his mantras.

So that’s who Bobby Ray is. He’s a phoenix, a spiritualist, a karma-changer, a master barber, an astrologer-numerologist, a recovering addict, a pothead, a chanter, a Buddhist, recently, a right-wing Republican, a Silician-Irish man, a sharp-dressed, overactive, introspective septagenarian. He texts me weird jokes around 9 p.m. now. He’s 40 years older than me and I can barely keep up. He’s a rider on the storm, a survivor, a unique cat. All of that, and a karaoke singer. Maybe he’s out of his mind, or maybe he’s more sane than all of us.


That Karaoke Singer from Hon Bar

“Frank Sinatra, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood in a dark corner of the bar between two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something. But he said nothing; he had been silent during much of the evening, except now in this private club in Beverly Hills he seemed even more distant, staring out through the smoke and semidarkness into a large room beyond the bar where dozens of young couples sat huddled around small tables or twisted in the center of the floor to the clamorous clang of folk-rock music blaring from the stereo. The two blondes knew, as did Sinatra’s four male friends who stood nearby, that it was a bad idea to force conversation upon him when he was in this mood of sullen silence, a mood that had hardly been uncommon during this first week of November, a month before his fiftieth birthday

Sinatra had been working in a film that he now disliked, could not wait to finish; he was tired of all the publicity attached to his dating the twenty-year-old Mia Farrow, who was not in sight tonight; he was angry that a CBS television documentary of his life, to be shown in two weeks, was reportedly prying into his privacy, even speculating on his possible friendship with Mafia leaders; he was worried about his starring role in an hour-long NBC show entitled Sinatra—A Man and His Music, which would require that he sing eighteen songs with a voice that at this particular moment, just a few nights before the taping was to begin, was weak and sore and uncertain. Sinatra was ill. He was the victim of an ailment so common that most people would consider it trivial. But when it gets to Sinatra it can plunge him into a state of anguish, deep depression, panic, even rage. Frank Sinatra had a cold.”

-Gay Talese, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” Esquire Magazine, April 1966

It is not 1966 and I am not Gay Talese. Robert Murray “Bobby Ray” Barnaba is not Frank Sinatra and his health issues well-exceed a common cold. But if you hear Bobby Ray sing on a Friday night at Cafe Hon on the Avenue in Hampden, Baltimore, you can close your eyes and almost imagine that Sinatra found his way out from six feet under.


“I got this jacket for $2 down at the church. 100% silk.”

Not knowing much about Frank Sinatra as a person, I’d say that he and Bobby Ray have only a handful of things in common. They’re Sicilian. They’ve been in a few fights and would have the scars to prove it. Olive skin that’s seen some wind and wear. And they can croon. Although the parallels may stop there, Bobby Ray has found his small stage, his loyal audience, his look and his voice and his repertoire. And he shares it with the willing every Friday at Hon Bar karaoke after 10 p.m. while he sucks down a few “long necks,” or what others call, Blue Moon bottles.

He landed on “Bobby Ray” because Barnaba was getting butchered too badly. He’ll tell you in not so few words, that every letter has a numerological value. Bobby Ray somehow equals a 9, “a good number to be out in the public eye,” he says.

Then there’s the Bobby Darin influence. “The first karaoke song I sang was 10 years ago. ‘Beyond the Sea,’ Bobby Darin. I loved it all along. Later I found out he was born in May, he’s a Taurus, year of the rat, had an Italian last name they used to butcher,” says Bobby Ray.

“He got Darin from a Mandarin restaurant–took off the front part of the word. And I thought, I got an affinity with this cat and I love his music. Too bad he died early, I’m keeping his spirit up.” 

Bobby Ray will rattle off details about his bouts of West Nile virus, about biosuperfood, about the natural food store, and about how he changed his own karma. He will tell you about his studies in astronomy and numerology. He will list names and dates like he’s been studying for this test all night. He’ll tell you about Geminis and full moon Sagittariuses. He will tell you how if you stare directly at the sun, you can get a high, that he’s trained himself by staring at weak rays and gradually increasing his tolerance to stare directly up at an August sun at two in the afternoon. And he will tell you about what he calls “the sacraments,” LSD, peyote, mescaline, acid. Then he’ll tell you how he moved beyond those very sacraments, how he got clean, well, relatively clean, on his own without help.

Bobby grew up in Waverly near the intersection of Gorsuch Avenue and Independence Street. Educated at St. Bernards by the Mercy nuns, in 1962, Bobby went to Calvert Hall College High School for two years and hated it. “Freaking hated it.” He said his highest marks were in religion so they tried to get him to be a priest. His response: “That’s when I started doing drugs.”

He went to City College and repeated 10th grade, survived junior year, then dropped out. So he joined the Navy and got his GED. Bobby Ray says, “You don’t need all that. You get all the basics down.” Then he launches into a story about a kid who grew up in the ’20s who sold papers and ended up owning half of Howard Street. “Fourth grade education.” For Bobby Ray, the exception often proves the rule. 

But even if he didn’t finish school, he’s constantly learning. His “teachers” these days are the authors of the books he reads. “One of my favorite quotes,” he says, is Einstein, ‘Education is something you get when you forget everything you learned in school.’ Great I didn’t fuck up.” 

Bobby Ray said that in school, they weren’t teaching him what he wanted to learn. He was nearsighted and undiagnosed. “I’m squinting going what the hell are you talking about?” Pretending to put on his first pair of glasses, he says, “I get my eyes again. I’m like Mr. Magoo.” He blinks hugely to show his new ability.

“I was the little one. I was a little guy. I wasn’t big. I wasn’t hairy. I wasn’t aggressive. I wasn’t athletic. I was intellectual. Everybody was calling me names and pushing me. It was the ’50s,” he says. “To be an asshole was to be a guy. [The neighborhood] was mostly working class. I was the more artist philosopher type, around all these rednecks, greasers, and the biker parties down on Gorsuch Avenue. I knew a kid named Motor Snyder. Motor–that was his name,” he says laughing.

Without notice, Bobby Ray launches into a story about his reincarnation. “I’ve been here before,” he says. “I have xray vision in my third eye.” And all of this might sound whacky to the typical person but then he throws his whole story out there–memories he has of his own infancy, visions of his ancestors. He lets the world, or anyone who will listen, take it at face value. “What have I got to lose? I’m an open book.” Open, he certainly is.


To be continued…

I have 9 pages of notes from talking to Bobby for about 3 total hours. I will continue this next week.

The Day I Ordered Turkey Lunchmeat

I wrote this during my MA in Writing. I also read an abbreviated version of this piece at our thesis reading at the end of the program in May 2015. It remains one of my favorite pieces although I just renamed it, again (never did find a title I liked). Thank you to my friend Tim Cyphers, who helped me sharpen it several times. 



The grocery store is an awkward place to run into someone you once knew. You could see the same person many times and, if encounter number one was uncomfortable, number five is excruciating. You make a quick duck into the cleaning supplies aisle—knowing you need no cleaning supplies. The person, of course, will also need cleaning supplies, and Swiffer Sweepers aren’t good cover. I find it’s best to get in, check off your list, and get out.

On a grocery trip to the Giant near my house, I am not worrying about awkward encounters. I’m thinking of food. All thirty-five members of my homeroom have realized I am not as hardhearted as my raised left eyebrow and crumpled lips would seem to indicate. I’m exhausted from full days of my focus-deficient seventh graders, and by the time the sun begins its leisurely spring descent, my stomach is in high hunting mode. Leaving produce, I guide my leafy greens toward the deli. A family stands in front of me. Man, woman, boy. And girl.

I study the fabric paint on the girl’s T-shirt and think about the odd practice of a commemorative T-shirt that’s unwearable in six months, yet undiscardable for a lifetime. Two boxes of shirts like this one rot in my basement: not sentimental enough for drawer space, too specific for Goodwill. Reading the haphazard red and silver glitter paint on cotton I make out “Pre Pre” on the back. Steve Prefontaine? Prepubescent? Prenup?

She and her brother receive a ham sample from behind the deli. She turns around to eat the pink sliver and there: her image rushes from my corneas, courses through my occipital lobe, and races, violently, through my synapses to a memory.

We stare. We know. No need for small talk. No breeze to shoot.

And, because it’s too much, we look down. In unison.


Three years ago, newly twenty-two, I chose to hide my age. Five teachers deemed this group unteachable, untamable, intolerable…impossible, and left the students behind. In these choppy teacher wakes lay trampled posters of kittens canoodling novels: “Snuggle Up to a Good Book” and wallet-sized images of middle school students now adults somewhere else. A dusty computer monitor, in one corner, powered to life like a jet plane in turbulence.

By January and by teacher number six (me), these students no longer thought of themselves as students. Some were proud. Like arrogant prizefighters, they beamed up toward imaginary rafters. Imaginary teacher resignation letters hung like banners of hard fought championships. I just wanted a vertical slash in the win column.

The homeroom would be the greatest contest. Convincing the Morgans just to sit sparked a clash of eye rolls, by both parties. Collecting homework mimicked begging for money on a median. Then I had to coerce twenty-seven fire-breathing dragons to listen, learn, and worst of all, to write something down. This was English after all, and I’d yet to gather enough evidence to definitively state that all of them could read.

Yet, small glints of hope kept me on my path. Ronald finally handed in a homework assignment. Armani asked me to read over a short story she’d written. By March we won a competition against other homerooms to collect the most money for Leukemia. We had started to work together. We were one. We devoured our victory donuts with football team cohesion—I, the fearless quarterback.

I didn’t bother to tell them that I slipped another teacher enough cash to surpass the group who should have won first place. I would not lose—we would not lose.

March rolled on, and April brought more marrow to my strengthening backbone, more calluses to my toughening skin. Despite the Morgans (L. and G.) still refusing to sit, and my literacy investigation still inconclusive, I could finally end a week without crying alone in my office, which I had done all winter long.

One April Wednesday, with my patience thinning like the female students’ clothing, I read the moral lesson of the day to the class, above a persistent hum about Who. Would. Be. At. Hot. Skates. One frequent and diverse lawbreaker wandered in late, so smugly casual that I had to show my power.

“Why are you late?” I said, both verbally and with my trusty eyebrow.

“I don’t know,” she said, not granting eye-contact respect.

“At this point, you’re up to an afterschool. Sorry ‘bout it,” I sassed back.

Dramatically, I pulled the white form and its attached yellow carbon copy from the file on my cart. I shook out the papers, attracting the attention of the front row. I slammed the pages on the table. A judge pounding her gavel.

I branded her name and checked off her offenses. I depressed both copies. Yes, this detention would go down in history. I signed my name as monstrous as the form would allow, waved the sheets just once in the view of the whole class, then shoved them down on her desk as if the wood was going to give. I challenged her, again, to meet my eyes. She declined, opting to apply pink lip-gloss with her small pointer finger instead.

Knowing I’d meet with the excess gloss on the underside of the desk later, I stormed back to the computer to send the attendance.

My detention victim and a friend stood at my cart—my filing cabinet, desk, and classroom—retrieving supplies.

Both victim and companion watched me as I aggressively clicked “P” for present next to each name in the computer attendance list, intermittently looking up at the two girls from the back of the room. Click, click, click, click, finally lock eyes. Click, click, click, click, lock eyes. Click, click, click, click, lock eyes. They kept staring back at me.

I figured my mascara had already found its way above my right eyelid. They were probably making fun of the small black streaks of residue that pointed to my forehead everyday by a certain hour—my own five o’clock shadow. I agreed that it was kind of funny as I hit “save” and returned to the front of the room. Victim and companion settled back into their seats to ignore me in favor of another round of lip-gloss application.

After class, I wheeled my cart back to my closety office. I rolled in and slammed the door, still running on the fuel of assigning the afterschool detention. I checked for food in my teeth and mascara above my lid, finding neither. Settling into my chair, I hoped for an uplifting email. Opening Outlook, I reached for a water bottle that rested on my cart and put it to my glossless lips.

I threw two gulps to the back of my throat. Quickly, I spit what I could back into the bottle. Perfume and alcohol flooded my mouth, torched my nose, and clawed at my throat. Coughing and spitting, I shot up out of my chair. Frantically, my eyes darted from wall to ceiling to floor. I stuck out my tongue to scrape off the taste.

Unscrewing the lid, I saw it. Globs of Purell, recently popularized by Swine Flu. I nearly rushed out the door to find the perps, but stopped myself. I stared at the wood grain and thought of all I had just lost. I began to weep. Letting go of the knob, I could not find refuge in the hallway now, red-faced, eyes spewing tears, scratched voice unable to speak between sobs. There’s no way I could face The Hallway.

They had stolen another victory late in the ninth inning. My win column empty. Still.

A few periods later, the “legal” proceedings unfolded, I learned that the girls were expelled. That day, the principal suggested I visit a doctor. When I returned the next morning, teachers thanked me for continuing to show up. Kids asked me if I was okay.

“I heard you went to the hospital, Ms. Doran. You still here?”

“I thought you was dead, Ms. Doran.”

I later found out that one of the girls, Daprea, also known as “Pre Pre,” wrote me an apology. “Ima start off saying that I didn’t mean no harm.” Said she wished she could take it back. Each exclamation point dotted with a small heart. This was not the way I set out to forever alter lives.


Three years later, while pondering deli nitrates it registers who I’ve just locked eyes with. I can’t say, “How are you?” I can’t tell her good luck. We will not meet in the dairy aisle and repeat a series of cliché exchanges. She won’t follow me to the checkout and ask how teaching is going.

We just look.

I know that her life changed with me. She probably does not realize that mine changed with her, too, or that I hated that they expelled her. Or that I wished I could have written back to her apology. That I didn’t get sick. That I didn’t throw up. That I didn’t have the allergic reaction she mentioned in her note. That yea, I cried, but I always cry. That I knew I could have taught her a lot. That I’m older now. That I can control a class. That people do my homework, and some of them can read. That we all do stupid things to other people even when we like them. That really, she gave me a compelling war story. That the poisoning made my coworkers finally, truly respect me. That I forgave her the day I read her letter.

And I hope that my look portrays some of what I feel because I can’t say it out loud. They order ham. I order turkey. And I get the hell out of the grocery store.