“Listenere,” the man said, beginning to cough, “what you want? Quit just looking at me. Say what you want.”
—Wise Blood, by Flannery O’Connor
Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen-ninety two and we got a day off from school.
Does that rhyme? Sort of?
Let’s try this one … Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen-ninety two and because he did we got a three-day weekend. Yes. Much better.
I have bus duty this week. That means this afternoon and the rest of the week after school is over I have to stand around and look authoritative while the seventh and eighth graders who ride the bus home wait for the buses in the great room. Everybody else is out front with Lurlene waiting for their mother or father or babysitter or older brother or older sister or au pair or life coach or grandmother or maid or grandfather or chauffeur to pull up. I’ve done bus duty before and have always found that they’re too tired to raise any more hell so they sit at the round tables and listen to music or quietly jibber jabber and some of them work on homework.
I’m standing at the double doors leading to the front of the building, leaning on the window with a heavy shoulder, watching the pulling up of the various wheelmen and the backpack akimbo dance of their hustling riders lurching toward the door. There’s something soothing about this flow of activity. In the late afternoon bright sunshine. Lurlene’s yelling of her good-byes and of her see you tomorrows. Her waving at the drivers. Then Petal walks up and says something I don’t understand. She seems nervous. I ask her to say it again.
She says it again.
I said, Slow down.
Petal said … that she was going to stay after school … with me and where … should she wait … in here or in my … classroom.
I said anywhere she wanted to. I told her I’m glad she’s making a renewed effort. I remember how glad her parents were last week in her conference when they discovered that you could stay after school with a teacher and get insights, tips, techniques, personal attention. All in an effort to perform better in class and on the various examinations that will never end … this year or next year and for however long you want to be in school. I always thought that was understood. The asking for our time. Happily given. Usually productive.
Somebody screamed BUSES! The great room instantly cleared out.
It was 3:30.
In The Cozy Room of Learning I said we’ve got to cover some stuff quickly. I’m happy you’re doing this. Instead of sitting at the desk in the front I sat down in the desk next to her.
She seemed unnerved. Petal asked if she could have another handout that explained the essay project.
Where’s the one I gave to you?
I lost it, she said
But she had her textbook, at least. I asked her if I could look through her two folders, packed with paper. Papers from all of her classes, including mine. Everything but the handout that explained the essay project. I jumped up and grabbed one off of the desk in the front, where I keep plenty of extras. I took out all of the papers in the two folders and made one folder the exclusive repository for all of her Georgia history stuff. The study guides in chronological orders. Her quizzes. Her handouts. All hers, now neatly in order by the quick hand of her teacher … and now with the name of the class written in huge letters on the front of the folder and on the back. I always keep a large Sharpie close by.
Petal does not say thank you much.
I asked her what were the two things she needed to be thinking about and doing for me in Georgia history right now.
The essay project and studying chapter eight.
That’s right. I smiled. That’s exactly right. I asked her if she was overwhelmed with eighth grade.
She said no.
I asked her if being organized … like this ... like what I just did … was too much for her to do.
You just saw what I did … so could you do this for each one of your classes? This would eliminate some of your worries about where important things are.
Okay, she said. She fiddled with her hair.
She constantly fiddles with her hair.
I told her that if and when she was ever overwhelmed or had any questions that she could come to her homeroom teacher or the teacher of the class she was worried about or to me. Any time. We are happy to help you. We all want to help you. I can’t stress that enough.
Under the forearm of her left arm Petal had drawn, very recently, a multi-color tattoo, with felt markers. It was pretty good. I asked her when she drew it today. I was thinking she might have drawn it during a class. That would have not been a nice thing to do. A disorganized decision.
During break, she said.
Morning. She looked out the window at the pick-up area.
I didn’t look at my watch. I asked her, Is your ride here?
No. But I have to go.
You just said your ride wasn’t here.
I’ve got basketball practice.
Okay. Fine. Change of story. Petal was on the basketball team. That’s true. I know that.
Petal gathers her stuff and hustles out without saying anything. All of a sudden I have that gawking feeling you get when the electricity goes out. Left lurching for something, maybe. I’m thinking … sometimes you don’t get thanked for doing your job. I know that. But sometimes, I think, students don’t know what your job really is.
Next Entry ... October 20: Sneaky Snakes