An Unsentimental Education



Neighborhood: Bronx

An Unsentimental Education
Photo by Na Rae Kim

In a school full of hard cases, Theresa Fulife was the hardest. She looked like the oldest kid in the eighth grade because at 16 she was. Her scarred, nearly six-foot muscular frame looked like it had been tattooed by a drunken sailor. Her face resembled the pitted surface of some foreign planet. Her hair rose knotted and wild above her head and clearly it had rarely been visited by a comb or brush. Her large breasts dangled bra-less beneath the string strap men’s t-shirts she wore. Each day she arrived in school wearing the same dirt-smeared, torn khakis. By looking at her you knew Theresa had spent more time in an alley scrapping for her life than on a dance floor enticing a prospective beau. Theresa was a hard case.

I met Theresa during my first year of teaching. I graduated from college in the turbulent spring of 1969. Like so many other young adults of my generation, I yearned to make a difference. I took a job teaching English at Junior High School 123 in the Bronx. It was a tough job in a tough neighborhood. Each morning and afternoon I walked the gray littered streets between the subway and school and observed firsthand a dangerous world of broken promises. Decaying tenements, abandoned cars, garbage-strewn sidewalks, burned out buildings, and stray animals educated me to the raw lives of the students I taught. In this neighborhood students did not consider teachers as the saviors some of us thought ourselves to be. Many of these school kids perceived teachers to be the same as militant police officers, demanding prison wardens, or unforgiving drill sergeants. They looked upon us as interlopers and enemies. Even if some of the students showed a willingness to learn, the danger in the streets and the chaos in the classroom limited the educational possibilities. By the time I reached school each morning, I was on edge.

I should have known from my first day at JHS 123 that I was in for more of an education than my students. As I entered the first formal class I ever taught, the students ran around the classroom shouting, harassing each other and, in general, going crazy. None of my entreaties or threats could quiet them. One boisterous girl seemed to be the ring leader of this riot. I focused on her. I demanded that she quiet down and take her seat. She ignored me. Lacking the finesse or not knowing the secrets of a more seasoned teacher to calm the class, I did what I thought would best capture the student’s attention. With all the force my young lungs could gather I screamed at the girl, “Young lady, come up here!” Not knowing, of course, what I would do or say once she stood in front of me.

When the students heard me address her so thunderously they calmed down. A kid standing in front of me muttered, “Uh-oh.” The kids knew something I didn’t. The girl raised an eyebrow and gave me a look reminiscent of Robert Dinero in Taxi Driver menacingly staring into a mirror questioning, “You talking to me?” She did not move.

At the top of my lungs, thinking loudness equaled unquestionable authority, I yelled at her again to come to the front of the room. In response, she looked directly at me. She took a step forward and with an uncompromising magisterial certainty declared, “My monkeys comes to me; I don’t come to them.”

I was shocked. Given my middle class suburban upbringing and an education from a top-tier college, I never heard a student address a teacher in such fashion. In high school, I had witnessed bad behavior, but never so blatantly directed at a teacher. To me, whether or not I agreed with them, teachers were the good guys. Teachers became teachers because they wanted to inform, serve, help, and befriend students. They wanted to make students’ lives better.

I didn’t know what to say to this girl, but I knew I had to say something quickly. I mobilized all my cranial neurons, thought swiftly, and remembered you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. In the gentlest, sweetest, calmest voice I requested, “Young lady, would you kindly please take a seat.”

She was quick and sure with her response: “I’ll have this seat,” she said pointing to the one closest to her. With that, she mounted the chair, shot up the middle finger of both hands (two for effect, I guess), uttered a few words the FCC will not allow to be broadcast and a few they probably never heard, and proceeded to spurn me. The class watched this little drama unfold with no visible sign of surprise. No one seemed as flabbergasted or humiliated as I. The moment passed and the students went back to doing what, as I learned throughout the course of the school year, they did best; they went wild. Just another day at the plant for them. But not even this student prepared me for Theresa Fulife.

Theresa kept the school on its toes. No teacher or administrator could control her. Within the first week of school I learned about Theresa. Early one Tuesday morning, outside my homeroom Theresa was kicking the living daylights out of another student. God only knows what the kid did or said to upset Theresa.  Upon hearing the ruckus, Mrs. Josephs peeked out of her doorway and sized up the disturbance. She understood immediately if Theresa were not stopped, she might maim the poor kid for life. So the usually proper Mrs. Josephs did what she knew she had to do. Like a possessed roller derby queen, she flew down the hall to inform an administrator to call the police. It seems no school official, teacher, or student dared to stop Theresa from delivering a beating for fear they would be attacked, too. The police arrived quickly, and they separated Theresa from her victim. As they hauled her away, through short heavy breaths, I heard Theresa grunt, “but he be my friend.” That’s what I thought I heard.

Theresa was so disruptive and out of control that even suspending her intermittently could not tame her. After each suspension, Theresa returned to school as morose and defiant as ever. No one could fathom what she was thinking or what set her off. She always looked as if she had just lost her best friend, and she seemed to have only one friend. He was a small sallow fellow named Juan Dominguez. What they had in common, who knew. Juan was half Theresa’s size. He was quiet and attentive in class, and the students knew not to mess with Juan. Or else Theresa would do something about it. I could figure only one reason Theresa befriended Juan. She needed a human punching bag, and Juan was her guy.

Every time I saw them together, Theresa was talking Juan’s ear off and slugging him in the shoulder, smacking him on the head, or clapping him on the back. He carried welts all over his face and arms to testify to his friendship with Theresa.   Once I saw Theresa shove Juan so hard his head snapped back, hit a wall, and emitted a sharp crack. His eyes spun like pinwheels whirring on a blustery afternoon. Later that day I pulled Juan aside. I asked him why Theresa shoved and hit him so often. Juan smiled at me and said, “She like me. Me’s Theresa’s amigo.” Whew, I thought, with friends like that…and didn’t pursue the matter further.

In March, at the beginning of the last grading period Theresa committed an act so outrageous or dangerous (I never learned what it was) the administration removed her from her homeroom and some of her classes. Using the logic I later learned only administrators understand, they placed Theresa in my homeroom and English class. I was an inexperienced teacher and had little know-how in dealing with someone like Theresa. That’s when I got to know her up close and personal, as the saying goes. 

After a few weeks of causing general chaos in my homeroom and English class, after she warmed up to me I guess, each morning and afternoon Theresa entered the classroom and hailed me with what became her signature greeting. She approached me with a swagger that could clear a street. She looked at me sideways from the corners of rheumy eyes. Eyes too what? I wondered. Too ashamed, too afraid, or too shy to look at me straight; who knew for sure? Then with a grin sneaking across her pockmarked face, enough of a grin so I could see broken, smoke-stained teeth and a gaping hole where a front tooth should have been, she balled her hand into a fist. She stood there momentarily holding that grin. Long enough for me to take it in. Long enough for me to understand this was a grin that only a person like Theresa whoever she was, wherever she had been, could grin. Long enough for me to remember it years later, and probably forever. Then she said, “Mr. S., you be my teacher,” and slugged me.

Did I tell her to stop? Sure. Did I try to move out of the way? Sure. Did I send her to the principal? Sure. Did I ask her why she did this? Sure. Did it ever do any good? No. Every day I was the lucky recipient of this same routine. Theresa walked in, and I got whacked.

By the last week of March I was exhausted. I had experienced enough of testosterone filled junior high students. Throughout the time she’d been in my class Theresa remained a daily irritation, but she no longer infuriated me. I had come to recognize Theresa for the sad young woman she was, a kid from a broken, abusive home, friendless, and probably more scared than dangerous; and most sadly, an adolescent without a future. I thought she would be dead before she turned 20.

The last Friday in March arrived. At the end of the day I waited for the late stragglers to enter homeroom. A severe case of bronchitis racked my already weary body. I couldn’t wait to take attendance, release the students, and head home. I wasn’t thinking of Theresa and her imposing presence as I often did at the end of each day. I just wanted out of there. The class was wired for the weekend. I hushed and shushed them as best as I could with my wheezy pleadings when suddenly Theresa approached with the same dark gloom of the overcast, snowy March day outside. Knowing what was coming, I snapped.

I turned towards her and stood my ground. My reaction was unusual. Usually Theresa entered the room, grinned her sad, sly grin, and unloaded on me. Since nothing– no reasoning, coddling, or threatening– stayed her, I settled into accepting the abuse. But today was to be different. I was too tired and too sick. Not today Theresa, I thought.

Watching her fingers tighten into a fist, I uttered the first thought that entered my mind. “Theresa,” I said, “if you hit me…” I stopped. I had no idea what to say. “Theresa, if you hit me…” I balked again. My brain was as frozen as the ice-slicked streets outside. Finally, in desperation, I lunged for the first words that squeezed themselves into consciousness. ”Theresa,” I said, “if you hit me, I’m not going to be your friend anymore.” As quickly as the words flew from my mouth through the open space between Theresa and me, I thought, oh brother, some threat.

Oddly, with that utterance Theresa showed a look I’d never seen before. Her eyes seemed to dim like the eyes of a boxer who just took a stinging blow to the temple. They had that “lights out” look. The expression was strange, so not Theresa.  Whatever I saw or thought I saw didn’t keep Theresa from doing what she always did. Her eyes focused and she slugged me. But the punch was off. She didn’t rear back and tag me with the usual abandon. The hit was definitely not the ordinary Theresa wallop. I marked it at the time because of its oddness, but forgot it almost immediately. As usual, after she hit me Theresa swaggered back to her seat, and I went about my business collecting papers, taking roll, and packing up. I dismissed the kids and dragged myself home to sleep away the weekend.

Monday morning came too soon. I returned to school but my bronchitis lingered leaving me weak and sluggish. Occupied with all the things that keep a teacher busy, it wasn’t until Wednesday that I noticed Theresa had not shown up all week. She wasn’t in school Thursday, either. She finally returned Friday, but something was amiss. When she entered the room she did not slug me. She came in, took her seat, and put her head down on the worn wooden desk. She looked drained, like she’d gone too many rounds and was ready to throw in the towel. The days passed and Theresa continued to mope. I didn’t think much about her uncharacteristic behavior. When I did, I thought she might be ill. Or I chalked it up to her dysfunctional home life, or the violence she encountered each day in the neighborhood streets.

After a week of watching Theresa sulk, I became curious. I approached her repeatedly and questioned: “Are you sick?” “Did you lose something important?” “Is everything okay between you and Juan?” “Did someone beat you up?” She looked so downcast, I considered asking her if she had been raped, but decided against it. If she were, she would never admit it. Theresa responded to all my questions with the same sad silence. But she had too much of a hangdog look for me ignore her. Over the course of the next several days I gently cajoled her to open up to me.

The more she resisted, the more I prodded. Without realizing it, my curiosity had grown into a genuine concern. My persistence to find out what happened to Theresa, this girl who tormented me every day, came as a surprise. I found myself unexpectedly thinking about her while teaching, on the subway ride home, and at odd hours after school. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but poor Theresa had gotten to me. Theresa was rebellious, disruptive, and a bully, and she always fought. Why or for what, I don’t think she could say. I didn’t understand it, either. But beneath her often unprovoked wildness I sensed a tenaciousness and fire in Theresa that finally absorbed me. I did not want to abandon her to whatever demons had decked her. Each day I asked what ailed her, and each day she answered with the same stony silence.

Another Friday afternoon arrived. The snow had melted and my debilitating bronchitis had cleared. Spring was in the air and the end of the school year not far off. My spirits began to lift. Theresa entered class. She sat glumly at her desk. As usual, I took roll, made announcements, reminded the students of their assignments, and dismissed them. At the bell they flew from the room. All except Theresa.  She slumped alone in the back of the room like a lumpy bag of used towels dumped unceremoniously in the corner of a weary gym. I approached her, hopeful today she would talk.

“Theresa, what’s been bothering you these last several weeks?”

Today, Theresa was ready. The demons that assailed her were about to loosen their grip. She could barely lift her head from the desk, but she raised it high enough so I could see her sad, yellow eyes turned inwards like cradles of sorrow. As she opened her mouth to speak, the gray afternoon light coming through the windows covered her face like a mask.

“Mr. S.,” she mumbled, “you said if I hits you again, you wouldn’t be my friend.”

So allowing her to hit me made her my friend, I thought. What kind of crazy is that? Then I thought again. That was it. The logic of it struck me harder than any blow Theresa could land. The upside down sense of what she said shattered my innocence. It opened her world for me. It was what she knew. With each blow, Theresa connected with me, and with the world. With each punch she threw, Theresa was fighting for her life. It finally dawned on me that Theresa interpreted her parents’ beatings as signs of affection. Teachers’ reprimands and reprisals were not condemnations. To Theresa they were acknowledgements of her existence. When Theresa struck out at me, or anyone, she demonstrated in her own warped way her passion for that person, and for life.

With my eyes wide open, I wanted to lean forward and smooth her nasty mess of hair, or wrap her in a cloak of my skinny, inexperienced arms. At that moment I wanted so much to say so much. But her surprising confession clouded my brain, and like some punch drunk fighter all I could do was stand over her and utter, “Okay, Theresa, it’s okay.”

Carl Schinasi, still in spirit a New Yorker, lives and writes in Birmingham, AL.

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§ 4 Responses to “An Unsentimental Education”

  • Bob Waxler says:

    I always look forward to reading a story by Carl Schinasi. Something draws me in, makes me want to know what happens next, opens to something new each step of the way. Part of it has to do with the craftsmanship of his language, the appeal of its rhythm, the balance of the unfolding structure as it moves from one surprise to the next. And some of it has to do with the images, the similes, the rich linguistic texture, never too heavy, always stirring desire and thought. There is always a truth to what Schinasi offers us, and part of the truth here is the truth of Theresa Fulife, from beginning to end. Schinasi makes it our truth, as well.

  • Ken Boyd says:

    Carl Schinasi is an artist. Reading “An Unsentimental Education” is much like admiring the canvas of a classic, elegant painting. His words are as carefully chosen as the brush strokes of a master renaissance painter. From thought provoking modifiers and phrases to beautifully structured sentences and paragraphs, the story flows amid highlights and deep shadows as he depicts the experiences of a young teacher. The language is colorful at times and the tones carry us through a series of evolving enlightenments. As we read, the picture of Theresa unfolds and we can visualize something of her life and the plight of a young person living in this very difficult setting.

  • Simply beautiful, sad and compelling. Thank you!

  • DIANE says:

    This was so much what I experienced in junior high school in the ghetto of Detroit. I found it sad and compelling because this is what students needed is someone to understand and make a difference. This piece shows me exactly what I’ve known all along, that teachers are friends whom I’ve learned so much from. You brought me in to the plight of what it means to be a teacher in a hard district but much more than this I saw my teachers in a different plight one that shows what a teacher goes through in a war that isn’t discussed like it should be. I could feel all five senses in this wonderful story which brings the reader so close to what the writer is trying to do and you did it with such ease.
    Thank you, Carl for showing me what exhibits a great, creative writer.

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