Sunday, February 9, 2014

A Private Education

     Mrs. Volkov doesn’t even bother to look at me. Instead, my principal presses the sharp end of a pen cap into her desk calendar and examines the tooth marks it leaves. "Well, I'm sure she'll turn up." 

     "Yeah, she probably just got bored." My conversation with Dana isn’t worth mentioning, as far as I’m concerned. Saying too much to Volkov is never a good thing. I have a general distrust of her—we all do—the way she careens down the hallway, shaking hands like a politician, repeating the same thing to each one of us as we dutifully man our classroom doors between periods. So different than the woman in her office, by turns dismissive and suspicious. If a parent ever comes in to complain, her son with an F on his report card, Volkov takes the parent’s side without fail, an accusation of the teacher unsaid, but permanently knit into the crease that forms between her thick eyebrows. Never mind that the boy’s been skipping class, or worse, showing up high as a kite.

     "I'll let you know if I hear anything," Volkov says, shifting in her seat, her eyes focusing on the hallway behind me so she can see who’s walking past her office. 

     Dana had needed guidance. I first spoke to her when I found her crying in the hall by her locker last year. She eventually confessed that her mom was moving back to Tennessee, without her. What kind of a mother? I hugged her then, told her things would be all right. When she turned up in my class the following year, she seemed glad to see me. And I was glad, too. She had promise, and we developed a genuine relationship. Dana would stop into my room to talk during lunch, and she became the student I trusted to retrieve an overhead projector from the library or to fetch books from another classroom. A responsible girl. I wasn't going to let her slip through the cracks. 

     Yesterday I pulled her out into the hallway, alone, while the rest of the students wrote in their journals. "I know," I said. 

     "Know what?"

     "I know that you took money from my purse." I figured it out when she asked to go to the restroom the day before and came back with a bag of chips and a candy bar bought from a teacher running a side business pushing junk food in the name of fundraising—a new habit of hers that I’d been meaning to talk to her about anyway, but had put off until I realized that it only started after the money went missing.

     "No, I didn’t." Her hair looked unwashed and there was a slight purpling beneath her eyes, like overripe fruit. But she did. My purse had been stashed under my desk, and after I closed the door when the bell rang, I circulated up and down the rows, nudging the kids toward pocketing their phones and starting their daily journal entry so I could take attendance. Dana was the only one who would help herself to my seat behind my desk. I didn’t mind. I wasn't using it, and she'd go to her own seat easily enough, after the journaling was over. But that day she’d returned from the restroom with snacks.

     "That's bullshit, and you know it." I was intentionally harsh. Without a mother at home, she needed an adult in her life to set some boundaries. 

     She stepped back. "OK," she said. "OK." Her eyes filled and her nose reddened. This was what I'd wanted. My own mother had been tough with me, and it had kept me from being irresponsible. It would do her good, and it served her right. 

     "Get back inside and get to work." I opened the door for her. 

     The rest of my day carries on with a maddening familiarity: Tom and Gary with their heads on their desks, pretending to be asleep. Carrie texting in her lap, glancing up at me as she awaits the reply. Briana, pretending to follow along, but forgetting to turn the page. As I read to class after class, I find myself brushing my book’s back pages with the pad of my thumb, a deck of cards falling into place, time closing in on itself.

     On my drive home, gray clouds rolling through the sky like smoke, I think about Dana’s hesitation before she trudged back into my class. I want to say to myself, "This too shall pass," but it’s not right. So instead I say,  "I'm sure it's nothing."

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