A wave of sniggers rippled through the classroom as the new teacher introduced herself, “I am Ms. Cherian and I am here to teach you English and Social Studies.” “What kind of a name is Cherry Ann?” sniggered one of the boys. Elisa smiled and simply said, “I am Indian, South Asian Indian.” “You’re Hindu?” questioned a male voice, loudly from the back of the class. “Shut up! Moron! You don’t even know what you’re talking about,” snapped a female voice in response. “And you do!” retorted the male voice. “Shut the fuck up you two! Have some respect!” cried out another female voice. Choosing to ignore the little exchange, Elisa continued to address the class with a calm front while waves of trepidation crashed within her. She had to discreetly cling to the side of her desk for support.
She knew it was going to be tough, the principal had warned her sufficiently. “But I think you can make it,’ he had said, his eyes smiling kindly. Elisa would remember him to have the kindest eyes she had ever seen. At that time, she simply took his word for it and accepted the job despite the fact that Steven had been scornful about her decision. “You begin to stammer and stutter when the apartment manager speaks to you loudly. How are you going to teach kids who have been in trouble with the law?” he had asked sarcastically.
Unfortunately, Steven was right. Elisa hated confrontations and did everything in her power to avoid them. The students that she had met in the school when she had gone for the interview, had looked a little intimidating but she needed the job because she needed the money, and more importantly, she needed to keep her sanity. She was tired of staying home and being the good homemaker. In retrospect, the kids had proven to be much more comforting than Steven. She had felt more threatened when she was alone with him than she had ever felt with a classroom full of students at the Community Day School.
Soon after she had arrived, Steven, her husband, had made it clear that he wanted her to stop dancing. “Good Christian women don’t exhibit themselves shamelessly,” he had said decidedly, her pleas and cries falling on deaf ears. Her parents had tried to intervene as delicately as they could, reasoning with him that she had dedicated so many years of her life to the art because of her love for it. His parents had dismissed them saying that the decision was their son’s now since Elisa was married to him. “If he decides she will dance, she can, but if he feels she shouldn’t, then as decent Indian parents you should advise her to follow his instructions and not otherwise,” they had said evasively.
This had been enough to make Dharmishton and Lalitha recede, with just a reassuring pat on their daughter’s shoulder. The thought of a divorced daughter was still not something they could envision nor accept. “You learned dance because you loved the art. But you are a wife now and that is most important. You need to compromise or even give up some things if that is the only way you can be happy,” Savithri had advised, and Elisa had accepted with a heavy heart.
Luckily for Elisa, she had obtained a college degree in English while working on her dance. She had managed to use that to persuade Steven into allowing her to get her teaching credentials in California. “Go ahead. At least it is useful,” he had said derisively although he himself had just lost his fourth job in five years. “I can’t be the only one to work all the time. You need to contribute as well. You’ll get used it.” As soon as Elisa started her job, Steven had stopped even looking for one, preferring instead to spend the day either watching television or just being out all day. Elisa never found out where he went or what he did but the newly found economic independence was giving her the courage to stop wondering. In fact, as the kids in the school warmed to her little by little, she slowly but surely began to appreciate and even like her job.
The school was a small school with just two classrooms and thirty students. She had fifteen, while her colleague Valerie Brown, the Math and Science teacher, had the other fifteen, for half a day. They then switched for the second half. All their students had at some point been in trouble with the law. Some had brought weapons to school, while others had got into fights because of gang affiliations, while some had been caught for theft or arson or for dealing in drugs. Occasionally, they would get a student who had not been in any kind of real trouble but had just not gone to school enough to graduate. Initially, the kids shocked Elisa as nothing in her background or nurturing had prepared her for the kind of behavior that she saw or the language that she heard. In the first few months of her job, she cringed every time she heard the f_word. But that was just at the beginning.
Three months into her job and she could look at the student in the eye and tell him firmly that his language was inappropriate and that she wouldn’t have any of it in her class. The first time she had said that the student had exploded, “You can kiss my ass!” She had looked at him directly in the eye and said, “I am not doing any of that. You’re just going to leave my classroom, right now and come back when you think you can behave in a more civilized manner.” He had glowered at her while she had stood her ground and stared back without flinching, painfully aware that the class was watching her, just to see if she would back down. If she had backed down or worse, had broken down, that would have been the end of it all. The kids would have lost any iota of respect that they were probably beginning to have for her. “If you cry now, I’ll kill you,” she had screamed at herself in her head, almost not breathing for fear that just breathing would make the tears come streaming down her face.
The student had continued to stare defiantly at her as she had stood watching him with every shred of calm that she had within her. She had raised an eyebrow and said, “Well, are you ready to leave? You can come back when you’re ready to make some right choices.” She had prayed fervently that the students could not hear her heart pounding since she herself had found the sound deafening. She had stood with her arms folded across her chest, and her fingernails were biting into her upper arm. The boy had scowled at her while he had picked up his book and left the classroom. Elisa had begun to breathe slowly, hoping that the other students would not sense the wave of relief that had swept over her, causing her to almost double over.
It wasn’t as if her life in school became completely tension free after that incident but she had made a point with the students. They knew where to draw the line with her. The kids had slowly but surely begun to accept her. They would sometimes hang around her desk just chatting about their lives and asking her about hers while she graded papers or prepared lessons for them. Most of them became comfortable with her, while some actually grew to like her. More often than not, she found it easier to deal with her students who were volatile one day but affectionate the next. Soon the initial nauseating tension that Elisa felt every morning while driving to work wore off and her life generally settled into a sort of uneasy stillness that was sometimes disturbed by students who were having a bad day or her husband who was just plain bad.
Elisa gradually began to like her students and be comfortable with them. But still, there was one student who remained stubbornly aloof and that was Blue. Elisa found Blue antagonistic and rude most of the time and plain catty at other times. When she approached her about work that she had not done or work that could have been completed more competently, Blue would pretend that she was not listening or she would just complete the work in a big rush and hand in work that was far from satisfactory “I am not writing this essay again,” she yelled one morning when Elisa asked her to rewrite an essay that she felt Blue was capable of writing a lot better. “Well, let’s put it this way, you either write it again or I give you a really poor grade,” Elisa reasoned. “You can go ahead and do what you like. I really don’t care what you think. You’re just a bloody Indian anyway,” Blue shot back and stunned the class into absolute silence. Some students’ mouths fell open slightly, in the face of such raw racism. As inappropriate as their behavior could be, there was an unwritten code that the students generally followed; they never crossed the line on race and color. In their minds, there was one thing that they all shared regardless of their race, color and religion; they had all been thrown out of classrooms for their behavior and attitudes and they shared solidarity because of this.
“Shut the fuck up, Blue,” said Jorge angrily. “You shut up, jerk!” Blue yelled back, her brilliant blue eyes darting from him to Elisa. “Yeah! Shut up and sit down Blue!” some others said, sensing that the standoff was getting out of hand. Jorge stepped forward towards Blue. A wave of nausea swept over Elisa before she literally took a gulp of air. One of her deepest fears was that a fight would break out in her class. She stretched out her hand towards Jorge and said, “Jorge! Please sit down. I need you to sit down now, please,” she almost begged him.
Jorge glanced at her quickly before turning back to Blue with a look that seemed to say that she was saved by the bell, before returning to his seat. Elisa took a deep breath before she turned to Blue and said, “Young lady, I need you to step outside now, right now.” There was a warning note in Elisa’s voice that was hard for even Blue to ignore, leave alone dismiss. Just before Elisa left the school, the principal said that one of her talents was that she could make the kids listen to her even if they hated it. “You have a way of willing someone to listen to you with that look in your eyes,” he laughed.
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