By Sarah Farbman
Tonight She’s not asking what you’re gonna tell your daughter, She’s asking what you’re going to teach your son –– Andrea Gibson
The Tuesday After
I’m waiting for a bus outside the school where I work, though it will be late, I think. The city buses usually are. The day has the kind of grey-skied humidity that I have only ever experienced in DC. It feels like walking around in a cloud of somebody’s hot breath. I slip my phone out of my pocket and impatiently illuminate the screen then click it dark and slip it back into my pocket. I’m hungry.
A few kids are still milling around. When I see them outside of school, I like to pretend that I don’t. Less awkward for everyone. But when we’re so close to the school that we’re practically still in it, I don’t think I can avoid saying hi.
I brush my fingers over my pocketed phone again. Butterflies begin to blossom like bruises in my stomach. I’m not sure where they’re coming from, until I realize that I’ve just glimpsed Jerome across the street, sitting on the wide steps of the church. I guess he didn’t go too far this morning.
I really wasn’t expecting it this morning, because I was only supervising five kids. And even when they are all ninth graders, their egos swollen from being the oldest in the school, five is usually a manageable number. So even when I’m by myself out there, on the narrow blacktop out back, where the fence is crooked and contorted from kids slipping under it so many times, if there are only five kids, five young adults, I usually don’t feel too tense.
But this morning when it was time to go in and I blew the whistle, my eyes were momentarily drawn to Henry, the lone kid in the corner scuffing his way back inside. The asymmetrical click of his one untied shoelace.
And then shouts yanked my eyes back to the others. Suddenly they weren’t five boys but one shouting, writhing mass. Then one boy was on the ground, fiercely hugging a red and white basketball. Another was on top of him, has his hands around his neck.
Gimme the ball! Gimme the fucking ball!
You gay, man! Get away from me!
Gimme the fucking ball! Get yo’ gay ass away from me!
Then the boys were standing, pushing, shoving, swinging. One was crying. Jerome. I jogged toward them to break up the fight, but when I said stop! it sounded like a question, and I thought maybe they wouldn’t stop at all, maybe they would break bones and draw blood, right there in front of me. Out of nowhere, Henry descended onto the scene. Henry with his girth and his one untied shoelace. He grabbed one of the boys in a bear hug — the non-Jerome one — ending the fight. Jerome rolled under the fence and vanished from the property.
But he must not have gone far, because now he’s across the street. He looks okay, from what I can tell. I slip my phone out of my pocket again. The bus will be here in three minutes. Apparently.
The Saturday Before
Everything was bright. Everything was loud. Everything was rainbow and drag makeup and oily six-packs and a lot of skin. This was my first Pride Parade, and I tried to take small sips of the carnivalesque atmosphere in the jam-packed park.
The Tuesday After
I wonder where he went this morning, Jerome. Maybe he’s been sitting on the swing at the park across the street all day, swaying slightly back and forth and ignoring the younger children clamoring for their turn. I pull out my phone again so that I have an excuse to drop my eyes.
Jekyll’s alter ego, four letters. Hyde. Easy. Sloth in the “Ice Age movies,” three letters. Sid. Syd? “The Big Bang Theory” network, three letters. I never get the TV clues. Where the hell is the bus?
Who’s he talking to? Only three clues in and Jerome has already drawn my eyes away from my crossword puzzle app. Someone has sat down next to him. Khaki pants and long braids, every other one blue. It’s Victoria. On recognizing her, I bristle protectively, for her sake. But he’ll behave. Old for her 13 years, 5’10” and very much a woman, Victoria’s tough.
In class last week we had the kids playing softball. A few boys were trading off pitching, calling to each other for the ball and making a huge show whenever they didn’t get it. And then a girl stepped up. Victoria. She wanted to try. Despite her power, her presence, the don’t-fuck-with-me blue braids cascading down her back, despite the fact that she’s taller than any of them, they wouldn’t give her the ball. They teased and taunted. Only when I stepped in did they allow her to pitch, but even then they mocked her throws until she stomped off the mound. And though after a pep talk, woman to woman, I managed to get her to pitch again, I couldn’t make the boys stop teasing.
But she and Jerome appear to be doing okay over there. She holds a bag of chips and he dips his hand in, rustles it around. I glance down and refresh my bus app. Two minutes. That’s what it said two minutes ago.
The Monday After
And then, just forty-eight hours later, it was dark and cool and everything was hushed and black and candles and tears and subdued, somber rainbows, with the same people in the same jam-packed park.
Earlier that day I had climbed up onto my favorite spot on the roof of my apartment building to watch the street and cry. And I asked myself the same questions we’re all asking ourselves, about gun control and mental health. About living in a culture that weans its children on hate and hypermasculinity.
At the vigil, goose-necked posture and a shaking voice somewhere off to my left caught my attention. His hands shook, this stranger, as he scrolled down the screen to show his phone to the woman next to him.
“Sorry. I’ve just been nervous all day. This text is from my friend. He was in the club, see? See we were chatting just a few weeks ago and then...see it says llamame...he’s in the hospital. He survived, pero, his friends didn’t. Sorry I just...”
The Sunday Morning After
Sunlight saunters through my broken window shade and knocks on my eyelids. My first thought is that it must be about 8am. Disappointed that it’s not Saturday, relieved that it’s not Monday. Dry-mouthed and bleary eyed, I reach for my phone, flick through the alerts on the home screen.
Text from Isaac “Did you call Mom about the...”
Ad from Uber “You’ve scored 50% off rides this week! Slide to...” Breaking News Update from The New York Times “A shooting at a gay club, 35 dead...”
It’s 8:03, actually. I congratulate myself on my instinct for time, click my phone off, and flop down with the top sheet over my eyes.
The Tuesday After
Sometimes I think about my own PE teachers. See how I measure up. I only ever had one female PE teacher, the grandmotherly Mrs. Layton. She is the first person whom I ever remember giving me The Excuse. I distinctly remember that I didn’t know what flirting was that long ago day in the elementary school gymnasium. I was complaining to Mrs. Layton about the boy who sat next to me in class, how he stole pencils from my desk and kicked my ankles during class. I remember nodding sagely when The Excuse glided out of Mrs. Layton’s mouth, well-oiled and ready from years of use, and then blushing when, later, my mother explained the word to me. It means he’s trying to get you to notice him romantically. He likes you. But that’s not why Erik was picking on me, Mrs. Layton, not why he stole pennies out of my desk and spilled Elmer’s glue into the metal wells and ridges inside of it. Why did you put that idea in my head, Mrs. Layton? Why did you excuse him, why did you suggest that it was an honor to be picked to be picked on by some boy? But then, I guess that’s probably just what her teachers and her mother and her older sisters told her, once, when the boys in class pulled her hair and took her prized possessions.
The Tuesday After
Jerome’s holding the chip bag now. He tips his head back and shakes the last few crumbs into his mouth, crumples the bag, and drops it by his feet. Cute.
Once last December I sat down next to him during his lunch. I try to use my lunch duty as a time to actually get to know students, instead of just yelling at them. Honestly, it just makes the time go faster. I asked him what he wanted for Christmas. He said a gun. I decided at the time that he was trying to shock me. In truth he had succeeded, a fact I tried to hide by talking, too fast and too high-pitched, about my own Christmas wishlist.
Once, I noticed Jerome doodling. I asked him what he had drawn. He said a gun. I rolled my eyes.
Once, on the way to the park, I asked Jerome what he was holding. It was a stick. He pretended to shoot me. I told him to put it down.
The Monday After
A man stood in front of the vigil. "I'm a felon,” he declared. “I can't vote in this country, but I can buy a gun."
The Tuesday After
Jerome and Victoria are almost out of sight down the street, and I’m finding it harder and harder to sit here. I like to think of myself as a patient person, but I have an almost physical inability to wait for buses, in grocery store lines, and for the microwave. My quads have that dusty, gotta-move feeling. My seminar is only 2 miles away: I could walk and almost be on time. But I know, though my jumpy legs don’t believe, that I actually will get there faster if I just sit here and focus on my crossword puzzle until that big red monster comes rumbling through the intersection. So okay. Arbor arm. Six letters. Branch.
There are only three clues left in the puzzle when I notice a rustling around me. The other bus-stoppers are gathering their things, fishing for their bus passes, and standing up. Sure enough, I glance at the intersection to my left and see the big red bus first in line on the other side of the red light. Fuckin’ finally. I pick up my backpack –– I’m a PE teacher for Christ’s sake; why the hell is my bag always so heavy? –– and take my place at the back of the line. To my right I see two eighth-graders racing down the block to catch the bus. Michael and Samira. Shouting and grinning like chasing this bus is the modern-day equivalent of frolicking in a meadow. Michael is fast, but Samira is just a little bit ahead of him. And just as they reach the back of the mumbling, shuffling line, when they are sure that the bus doors will stay open for them, Michael puts on a burst of speed, catches up to Samira, puts his hand on her head, and uses the leverage from her body to propel himself as high into the air as he can.
I want to yell at Michael, give him detention or even suspend him. I want to jump on him and see how he likes it. I want to tell the bus driver to close the bus doors with Michael on the other side. But those boys don’t care. They don’t realize that they are teaching their female peers to be pieces of furniture, tumbling horses from which the boys practice vaulting as high as they can.
So I let my gaze go glassy, like I’m actually looking at something behind Michael and Samira. I turn away and dig out my phone. I get on the bus.