A new school year is on its way and I did not get any of the classes I requested. My classroom’s been changed from the second floor to the basement, and my attendance list has another teacher’s name on it. Due to the unstoppable ramifications of mayoral control, my school has been whittled away, hallway by hallway, until all that remains are the building’s leftovers. I used to do early morning paperwork and watch the sunrise. Now I’m staring into a sewer grate just thankful to still have a job.
I’m already frustrated and resentful and I haven’t even met my new students yet. They don’t deserve this. It’s now minutes before class and I need to be inspired, or at least not in such a foul mood. So I shoo away the giant water-bug beside my foot and think of Sanassa’s phone call.
She called over the summer to thank me for a book I’d given her for graduation. She had just become an American citizen and was excited about starting college in the fall. There was a strong, unbroken quality to her voice that was optimistic and hopeful.
Sanassa was my student for three semesters because English was not her first language. One of the main strategies of mayoral control was to inundate a given school with brand new immigrants so that test scores would be low, giving the Department of Education cause to restructure. Yet this had no bearing on Sanassa. She would cheerfully return after each State English exam, vowing that next time would be different.
I recall her dutifully translating sentences from French to English and back again, never once complaining that the test might be biased toward new English speakers.
Sanassa was tall, with rich brown eyes and wide, elegant cheekbones. She wore colorful garbs from her native Guinea and was a bit of a fashion plate, donning elaborate sandals and headdresses nearly every day. She came to embody the diversity I sought when I came to New York to teach.
In a school comprised mostly of students from the West Indies, her small country in Africa was exotic even to them. Occasionally, though, their good natured rivalries would turn typically American. Sanassa’s response was to enlighten them, arriving to class with large stacks of bootleg DVDs from a budding African film industry and handing them out to classmates.
It was during her final semester that her attendance became erratic. She would be absent for several days, reemerge, and vanish again. One day she called me over to sign a medical excuse, her eyes huge and saucer-like, a note crumpled tightly in her hand. “Please,” she whispered. “You can never tell anyone...”
In a nation where my morning paper continues to shrink, and the magazines I read are mostly stuffed with glossy ads, imagine the still frightening power of plainly written words on a wrinkled slip of paper: "The above patient was recently examined in this office to monitor the effects of female circumcision."
Sanassa was absent the next day, leaving me to deal with waves of sadness and regret. It shames me now to admit how intensely curious I was about the details, how old she may have been when it occurred and the simple question of ‘why?’ I wanted to tell her that it wasn’t her fault. I wanted to tell her so many things yet all I did was sign the note she gave me, as if it were on fire, and quickly hand it back.»
“Alright,” I said, “just you and me…I promise.” She was never the same after this.
As the semester progressed I realized the situation’s enormity. Because I had Sanassa for a student so often we covered quite a bit of literature together. It dawned on me that we had studied The Color Purple just a year before, where a minor character suffers female circumcision. I can recall my American male interpretation, while Sanassa sat quietly in the front row. To this day it still makes me wince.
Then last winter I posted a Playbill in the classroom. I simply wanted a beautiful woman of color framed on the wall to reflect the school’s population. Now all I saw was the Pulitzer Prize winning play’s sledgehammer of a title stamped across the actress’ forehead: RUINED.
Had I discussed the play’s content with Sanassa’s class when they enquired about it? Did I use the word ‘ruined’ to describe what had been done to the actress on stage?
“No, Mister,” she said the only time I broached the subject. “There is nothing you can do.” I never brought it up again.
Then in the spring, a generous benefactor donated a carton of books to my freshmen. There were plenty of extras so I started passing them out to random students in the hallway. The book was a memoir by Senator and Presidential hopeful Barack Obama called Dreams From My Father. Each time I handed one out, the student would stop cold and beam down at it. A small crowd would gather and a jumble of hands would shoot out, everyone demanding their own copy. So began the most unique experience of my teaching career. I was stopped in stairways and flagged down in halls. There were knocks at my door from kids I didn’t know. “Are you the teacher with the Obama books?”
I became this strange vessel of hope and all I had to do was make the proper hand off. “He’s speaking directly to us, you know,” this tall boy said after scoring my last copy. I rushed off to the bookstore after school that day, a cupid in search of more arrows. Only this time I made sure to save one for the girl in the front row.
“Sanassa, do you think this is something you might like?”
“Oh, yes, Mister, I will read every last word...”
And she did, calling to thank me over the summer. Sanassa was going to be just fine, although I strongly suspect it had nothing to do with me or my instruction in the classroom. Looking back, it seems I did almost everything wrong when it came to her. Teaching is not a profession that comes natural to me. Often times I find myself standing before a class with nothing more than a thin layer of jangled nerves and compassion between me and them.
Nevertheless, my new students are currently pouring in, these pop-eyed freshmen peering into my doorway.
“Yes,” I tell each and every one of them, “I understand another teacher’s name is on your program... Don’t worry. We’re both in the right place.”
JB McGeever teaches writing and literature in New York City Public Schools. His stories and essays have appeared in Newsday, The New York Times, City Limits, The Southampton Review, Confrontation, and Hampton Shorts. The student in this essay appears under a pseudonym.