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.