The rest of the story... (started on Monday's post)
Fatima looks down at her paper, and she looks like she might be ready to try it. She looks at Andre, at Nancy, and then at the audience. Then she buries her face in her hands and says, “No—I can’t do it. Can Andre PLEASE read it for me?” she pleads.
I look at Nancy. The girl is clearly in pain. I am ready to cave, but this isn’t my call. Fatima has written this story as a grade for Nancy’s class, and even though I am here with my class as an observer, she makes the decision.
“Nope. But let’s try this. I want everyone in this room who is willing to be supportive of Fatima in this situation to raise your hand.” Hands start to shoot up, but Nancy motions them down. “Wait—this is serious, and I don’t want you to raise your hand unless you can really commit to it. Being supportive means you will sit silently through her story, and you will remember how hard it was for you to present your story in front of the class. You will think about how hard it would be to present your story in a language that was not your native one. Now, who can raise your hand?”
Hands shoot up—every single one in the room. There is James Hughes-Morales, who has two parents in prison, but comes to class each day beaming. He’s smiling widely at Fatima even though he’s just been messing around with a friend at the back corner of the room. There is Janice White, who took some convincing to read her poem during second hour, but she finally went through with it. As she raises her hand, she says loudly (she does everything loudly), “I didn’t want to read mine either, Fatima, but it all turned out okay.” There is Marissa Davis, who isn’t a mean girl at heart, but for some reason has all the social capital to be that way when she wants to. She’s the girl who has the right clothes, but you always wonder how she got so popular until she stays after school three days in a row helping organize our fundraiser for AIDS orphans. Marissa stands up and raises her hand, even though she doesn’t have to.
Fatima is gaining confidence, and her eyes are smiling even though her mouth is still scared. “Okay, Fatima,” says Nancy, “Andre is going to sit up there with you, and he’s totally got your back. He’s going to follow along with you, and if there’s a word you come to that you don’t know, he’s going to say it for you. Got it? He’s there for you, and we are all going to be supportive.”
The room is quiet. Without any reminders, it is quieter than it has been all afternoon. You can hear small breaths—the students are even trying to breath quietly.
“You got this. Gimme a pound,” says Andre quietly. He holds out his fist in solidarity. It takes a couple beats for Fatima to know what to do. Pounding a fist isn’t second nature to her, it’s a reaction that is filed away in her dictionary of cultural references that will eventually become more like second nature.
She looks down at the table, at her story, at Andre’s face, and then she reaches her hand over and weakly taps the edges of her knuckes against his. The class continues to wait and watch. I still haven’t caught Nancy’s eye.
Fatima reads the first word, then Andre backs her up by reading the second. As they continue, the story is impossible to understand—the fluency of the story is broken by the changes in voice; plus, Fatima is speaking so quietly you can barely hear her. I can actually see students straining forward in chairs, their ears pressed toward the air at the front of the room, trying to understand. I keep a special eye on my especially loud students: Janice, Alex, Jasper, ready to pull my index finder to my lips with stern eyes to remind them to be quiet. As I glance around the room, though, I realize this won’t be necessary, and I can keep focusing my energy on understanding the story as well. My eyes fill up with tears. I glance sideways at Nancy sitting next to me, and realize that her eyes look the same way. If we make eye contact now, they will spill over and the kids will know how touched we both are. I don’t really care, because if that happens, they deserve to know how amazing they are.
As the story comes to a close, Fatima says, “The end.” It is said with satisfaction, but not with pride. She is still ashamed of how her words came out. Andre gives Fatima a pat on the back, and says, “Nice job, dawg,” but you can’t hear it over the applause in the room. The students, silent as stones moments before, have jumped to their feet and giving Fatima thunderous applause for her strength and her effort. I manage to suck my tears back inside by looking at the light, even though I don’t need to, and I sit back down to watch them.
Louis Johnson has said twice throughout the day, “That should be published in a book,” after his peers read stories he thought were particularly writerly-sounding. He doesn’t say this to Fatima. There are no patronizing comments about the quality of her work, but there is solid applause for her. Andre stands near her, but does not make this moment about him, which would be easy for him to do. He is a ham, a popular one, and if he wanted to break into a dance, it would probably be cheered for and encouraged. He bows quietly and returns to his seat. Fatima follows. The next student comes up to the front of the room, ready to share her poem, which will be interrupted by a string of announcements—superficial ones about good and bad behavioral choices that students have made, accompanied both by gaudy prizes from the Cougar Closet and threats that people will be sent home, and won’t come back. I watch the students squirm through these words, and each time the intercom beeps in the middle of Emily’s poem, groan. They refocus at the end of each announcement, with varying degrees of encouraging reminders from Nancy and me. They will not receive orange Cougar cards for what they just displayed, and they will not need them. After Emily’s poem is complete and the bell rings, they will herd out to the hallways, yelling and flicking each other. They may not remember this scene, ever again. Seventh graders are impulsive beings. They were just doing what seemed right at the moment.
This is why I teach.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I'll return on Monday with real-time stories.