The first time I saw the classroom that was later to become mine, none of the children was in it, and so it was empty of what made it unusual. I looked around that bright, sunny room with its blocks and alphabet charts, small chairs and washed blackboards, and smelling the old familiar smells of chalk dust and tempera paints, I let myself be towed away by a wash of nostalgic reverie. There, at one side, near the sink, the teacher, in a bright blue smock (imagine! remember? elementary-school teachers wear smocks!), was pouring out cups of slightly sour-smelling orange juice and opening up packs of graham crackers, preparing for the class’s mid-morning snack (neatly printed on the blackboard as snack), and opposite her, on the center wall, was a bulletin board jumping with free-form multicolored animals headed “Our Trip to the Zoo.” It all increased my feeling of heady unreality, and in the clear, airy, early-morning quiet of the room, surrounded by the appealing clarity of half-forgotten children’s things, I looked out the window, and with dreamy bittersweetness, began thinking of the Schumann piano pieces I had once played: Scenes from Childhood. It could not have been more out of place. Luckily, the teacher, who was busy, had no idea of how I was indulging myself. There were noises filtering in from the corridor, noises that meant the beginning of her working day. “They’re here,” she said, and as the door was pushed back and forth with terrible force, there they were. First, a blonde heavyset boy who walked slowly and half bent-over; he made animal-like moans, moved his head strangely, and kept biting at the bandages that covered his wrists. He did not sit down. The two boys behind him did—one a darkly handsome child with an intense expression and a painful darting squint. With his tortoise-shell glasses and keyed-up appearance he looked like a nervous, Times-reading subway rider, but once in his seat, he began banging his head on the desk, rocking back and forth, and in a high-pitched rhythmic frenzy, repeated, “Rockaway Beach, Rockaway Beach, 1963 Chewy, 1964 Lincoln Convertible, Hungarian Rhapsody, Hungarian Rhapsody.” The boy next to him, a slight, pleasant, ordinary-looking boy, looked at him and doubtfully, tentatively called out his name. “Steven Wolf.1 Steven Wolf. Steven Wolf? Steven Fox? Steven Lion, maybe? Steven Kangaroo?” These parallel monologues continued and a fourth child entered the room. He too walked with a stoop, his expression was disdainful if not contemptuous, he had a yarmulke and Hasidic sidecurls, and as he twirled his sidecurls with his fingers, peered briefly at these two classmates and yelled at the top of his lungs, “Meshuga! Meshuga! The doctors, too, and nobody’s Jewish.”
There was a fifth child in the group—a tall, gawky Negro girl whose gaze was obviously askew, she had been told that someone from the Department of Sanitation was coming to speak to the class that day, and so, in expectation, she came up to me, touched my hair and my face saying, “Where’s the garbage? The man is coming to give us free garbage.”
“He’ll be here later, Darlene,” the teacher said, with what I then thought of as amazing equanimity. “That’s Miss Kaplan, she’s going to help you with reading. Show her your reading book.”
“No garbage?” Darlene said. She was clearly disappointed and puzzled, and though still stroking my arm, she kept looking away from me. “Did I see you before and you had different hair in the rain? Did I see you yesterday? Did I see you tomorrow?”
“Miss Kaplan’s going to work with you in the library. Show her where it is, she doesn’t know.”
That was the least of what I didn’t know, and in the years since then, what I’ve become familiar with, what I’ve come to expect and assume as ordinary occurrences, makes it hard for me to recall for myself how overwhelmingly strange, dramatic, and moving I first found the children, their classroom, and that whole new world.
That classroom, one of five in this very small school, is in a large general hospital in Manhattan, and the children are in-patients in its Child Psychiatry Unit. They live in the hospital for a period of about three months—this length of time determined not by psychiatric considerations but by finances: it is as long as the city, state, or insurance companies are willing to pay for, and only rare, very wealthy children are able to remain longer. When they come in, they get psychiatric, psychological, and medical evaluations, and during their stay they receive individual psychotherapy, group therapy, milieu therapy, and their parents are seen by psychiatric social workers. Their diagnoses are as varied as their socio-economic and educational backgrounds: from childhood schizophrenia to impulse disorders to psychosomatic illnesses; from Westport, Connecticut, to Flatbush to the South Bronx; from parochial schools, prep schools, progressive schools, public schools, and sometimes no schools at all. In this school, funded and staffed by the New York City Board of Education, there are rarely more than five in a class, but for some children even that’s overcrowded, so what their educational lives are like on the “outside,” or their teachers’ lives, for that matter, I don’t even like to imagine.
That I might one day automatically be filling out census forms and income-tax returns with the word “teacher” had never really been a particular plan of mine. Not that I actually had a plan or a goal in that sense: with the typical amorphous snobbery of an English major, I didn’t know what I would do, and remember once while still in college, wandering around the aisles of a West Side clothing store, aimlessly taking things off the rack and putting them back. A middle-aged saleswoman, watching me, must have decided that what I needed was a little first-class persuasion, and noticing that I had actually, finally tried on a coat, she went through the ritual of her job, telling me first how well the coat looked on me, second, that it was made for me, and seeing that I was still hesitant, pulled out her ultimate convincer. “Other girls come in here and snap up that coat you’ve got on. Lots of girls come in here, believe me. Young girls—they teach.” Young girls they teach, young girls they teach: I did not buy the coat. So the fact that I have been a teacher for nearly five years now, I at least partially owe to Darlene, who on that day, when I was an undecided volunteer tutor, would have preferred me to be the garbageman. All I knew about her, when we went off down the hall to the library, was that her mother, who had abandoned her, was blind, and that Darlene did not connect looking with seeing. “My mother’s eyes are like coals,” she said, and later, explaining a picture she had drawn: “The clouds are chasing the sun and the sun is hiding. But the clouds are hunters and they just swallow her up.” I had never heard anyone speak that way, and so, drawn to her, I was immediately, if naively, hooked. I went back to school to get an M.A. in Special Education, and at the end of the year, found out that the teacher whose class had first fascinated me so much was now leaving so that the classroom—small chairs, colored chalk, and all the rest—was available, and that if I wanted it, the job was mine. I wanted it, and though I was very uncertain about what I would do once I got into that classroom, I had no doubts about the things I would not do. Remembering always the fragility of the children and their special needs, I would never yell or forget anything I had told them, not let calm or even-nature leave me because consistency and stability were what they had to have. I wouldn’t let myself make small mistakes out of fatigue or slacking because no mistake was small for them, and anyway, years of mistakes and omissions were what their lives were made up of.
When I go to work in the morning, the bus is often crowded with children who go to the Lycée Français. Always dressed in blue, with European bookbags strapped over their shoulders, they chatter amiably in French, get up to give their seats to old ladies, recite aloud to each other from books they apparently memorize, and when they reach their stop, hold the door open for one another as they file out onto the windy corner. Soon, with their blue coats hung on hooks, they will take out their cahiers filled with leçons, and standing stiffly behind their chairs will look up expectantly with European gravity, and start off their morning: Bonjour, Madame.
“Where the teachers? Where the fuck are you, you flicking teachers? It’s school time! Come on, you lazy Miss Kaplan! You drinking coffee with the principal. And you smoking cigarettes—you bad!” To all the other children now walking through the corridor on this, a Monday morning (harder because it means that many kids have just come back from a weekend pass), Ralphie, nine years old, so vastly overweight that he is clownishly elephantine in his movements, announces: “Miss Kaplan smoking Marlboros! Gimme some, I know how to smoke cigarettes. You smoke cigarettes and uh oh! You could be dead! You better stop it, teacher. My teacher smoking cigarettes!”
“So?” says Diane, a girl from the older class, whose face and body are covered with bandages from where she has cut, picked, and bit at her skin. “So? She could drop dead right now as far as I’m concerned. And you, too, you disgusting retardo.”
From the doorway of his room, Diane’s teacher Mr. Lehrer calls out, “Hi, Diane.”
“Drop dead, Lehrer. You only have one ball. And Kaplan makes me sick. With her little kids that she kisses! Phony bitch! And Ralphie Robles retardo!”
Ralphie, who has been hanging onto me so that it’s begun to hurt, lets go, and lurches with all his weight onto my feet (“Ralphie! My new suede shoes!” “Yeah,” he says, laughing in his discouragingly idiot-like abandon, “they blue.” “Not any more,” I tell him, “now they’re black and blue”), and runs off. “Don’t worry, teacher, I be right back. I just gotta do one thing. I just gotta kill Diane.”
“Kill me! Kill me!” Diane begins to wail histrionically, and throws herself down in the middle of the corridor. “They won’t let me kill myself. I wish somebody would kill me.”
Mr. Lehrer catches Ralphie who’s begun a lunge at Diane.
“Kill me! Kill me! I don’t even care if a retardo kills me. Go ahead! Kill me!”
But because he’s locked in Mr. Lehrer’s arms, Ralphie can’t move, so he spits at her long distance, yelling, “Puta! Maricon!”
“Big deal if he curses me in Spanish. I don’t even speak Spanish. Kill me! Kill me!”
“Liar! Bullshit fucking liar! She do too know what puta means. I tell her lotsa times!”
“It means ‘your mother,’” says Randi, an eight-year-old girl in my class, who is herself often the butt of other children’s attacks. “Your mother, your mother, your mother,” Randi directs her whiny, singsong taunt toward everyone but Ralphie, for whom she reserves the specialty: “And you don’t even have a mother. Motherless bitch! Motherless bastard!”
“Randi! You fucking Randi!” Ralphie screams, really upset now, crying bitterly and struggling so forcibly that one of the male nursing aides comes over to help Mr. Lehrer. “You smell, you disgusting, and all you ever do is writing pussy in your notebook. And they special notebooks. Not for writing pussy.”
“Santiago! Santiago! Eladio Santiago!” Randi screams, thinking that by yelling out another child’s Spanish name she can qualify as a Spanish curser.
Ralphie is still struggling, flailing and kicking, and since he’s a boy who has hurled desks, chairs, and the piano bench over much smaller provocations, the feeling in the narrow hallway is very tense, and for the adults, already weary. We have been through it so many times before, and after all it’s just the beginning of a new week, the very first few minutes of Monday morning. I am about to attempt to get the rest of my class inside the room, when Andy, a seven-year-old autistic boy from the youngest class, whose angelic, remote expression and pure, bell-like voice I can by this time sadly and immediately associate not with childhood purity but with childhood schizophrenia, walks through the fracas, and typically oblivious to it, fixes on something else entirely.
“A black boy with a green yo-yo,” he says. “The black boy has a green yo-yo.” Andy’s eyes, focused on the yo-yo, are following it up and down, up and down, while Clifford, a slight Negro boy in my class, who is quick to anger and quick to strike out, has, in a move unusual for him, been keeping to himself on the fringes of the action.
“You call me a black nigger? You calling me a black nigger? I’ll beat your ass in, you dummy. I’ll train you right.”
I can usually get through to Clifford, especially if it’s before he’s worked himself up to a crescendo, so putting my arm around him I say, “Come on, Cliff, that’s not what Andy means and you know it. There are things he doesn’t understand and beating him up won’t teach him anything.”
“Oh yeah? Then how come that’s how they teach it to me? He gotta be trained!”
“Crush, kill, destroy! Crush, kill, destroy!”: it’s Randi again, jumping in with a chant that she knows the other kids almost always pick up on.
“Randi,” I scream, and this time the anger and distaste in my voice are genuine, not the mock severity I sometimes put on, “We are going into class. But I don’t want to see you in there until you can figure out how to be a little nicer to other people. You know exactly what you did, Randi. You picked on people who were already feeling upset.”
“Hah!” says Cliff, “I bet I know what she’ll do. She’ll say she has a stomach ache.”
Not me, though, I don’t have a stomach ache. What I have is the familiar frenzied feeling inside my head, as if a million telephones are ringing separately, and I will have to answer them simultaneously and keep on answering them, too, because there’s no chance that they’ll stop. In fact, this isn’t so far from the truth: even though this is a day whose beginning has been more than usually hectic (and predicting how days or children will turn out is something I’ve generally stopped doing, having so often come up against the suddenness of undreamed of improvements or equally inexplicable, unrelieved, crashing chaos)—there is almost never a time when I can mentally, emotionally slacken, feel private. That is not to say there is no job-slacking: once a week, all three classes watch films together. I am not teaching, the focus of the children is not on me, but if I begin to pay attention to the film (and I often do), Hector may decide that Timmy has taken his pencil, Donald that Carol has “touched” his chair, and Stuart, in the corner by himself in the dark, will very likely begin to hallucinate. At least two fights, and one child in such terrified, remote inaccessibility that I will not be able to get through to him for the rest of the day.
“My monster comes back when you go out of the room,” said a ten-year-old boy in my class, who could draw this particular recurring hallucination—a Bosch-like devil—with uncanny artistic power and skill. A sad testament to his illness, though, and at least temporarily, an apparent cul-de-sac for his remarkable talent, this hallucination, his “monster” was the only thing he could draw, so that even when Mark tried to draw other things, the familiar, hideously frightening, cloven-hoofed nightmare figure was always what turned up on the page. Once, after a current-events discussion to which Mark had seemingly given scant attention, he decided to make a peace poster. Working with his characteristic slow, scrupulous, painfully perfectionistic intensity (“It’s lugubrious, Miss Kaplan, I’m afraid there’s too much cross-hatching”), days later Mark came up with his peace poster: holding up a peace sign and garlanded with love beads, there he was, with his pig snout and malevolent eyes, Mark’s monster. “I’ve done it again,” he said, and there was no question about it.
Probably because of Mark’s outstanding artistic ability, his hallucination had a visual vividness which is unusual for the children I’ve taught; the instructions (or message) of his monster weren’t. Typically, such children’s “voices” tell them to hurt themselves, to run in front of cars, to jump out windows, and unsurprisingly, they feel terrified and powerless. Often, if you can make a child feel that you, in your own person, are stronger than the voices, can promise protection against the voices, it helps. I always feel vaguely dishonest when I do this: what am I stronger than after all? What am I promising, and how can my voice and my face and my expression provide the absolute, doubt-free certainty that is so essential for these kids when they’re caught in their times of terror? So, caught myself by the immediate pressure of their needs, I suddenly become an actress. When Julio came into my class, it was already June, and because my mind was elsewhere—on my own upcoming summer vacation—I did not make much effort to get to know him, to get a feeling for myself of what he was really like. He spoke very little English, in fact spoke very little, and I couldn’t even figure out how much he could understand. (Many children, when they first come in, prefer to dissemble, having found that safer.) But Julio was tough, feisty, militantly remote, and apparently uncomprehending; every so often, he’d get up from his seat and unpredictably, intently, violently, begin punching someone. What I was told about Julio was that he had made several attempts to jump off roofs or high window ledges in response to voices, and what I noticed about him was that he always managed to get his fingers caught in drawers or doors, and would sit or stand in places that made other people trip him or knock against him “accidentally.” Once, in trying to get at his pencil, he emptied out his pocket: out came clips, thumbtacks, staples, scissors, and enormous safety pins. It was lethal enough for me to know that it was definitely time to make my “speech”—“speech” because it is more or less set, “speech” because I’d made it so many times before.
“Julio, here nobody is going to let you hurt yourself, I won’t let you hurt yourself. You’re a good, smart, and lovable boy, and we’re going to try to see that you have good things happen to you. Not things that hurt you.” My arm was around him as I spoke, I felt my own voice rise with belief as the rest of the class’s noises went on as usual, and suddenly Julio was crying. Grabbing my hand, he led me over to his desk where he had stashed away a veritable arsenal. “You don’t need these,” I said, and pushed all his thumbtacks and sharpened pick-up sticks into the pocket of my smock. I was moved, but somehow felt very cheap: all this for and from a boy I barely knew. Was he good? Was he smart? Was he lovable? And was it possible that no one had ever said this to him before, genuinely knowing it to be so and meaning it?
Often, our responses to children in extremis have an impatient, crude practicality. Jacob, a twelve-year-old from a European, ultra-Orthodox Jewish family, had been told by his voices not to eat and not to leave the house. Scandalized by his sudden peculiarity, his parents kept him locked in a closet for a few days. This was in fact how his father had spent the better part of his own adolescence: hiding out in a closet somewhere in Central Europe. When Jacob first came to the hospital, the voices seemed to go away, but they, too, apparently were only hiding out. After a while, Jacob, with naggy stubbornness, was refusing to go into the classroom at certain times: the voices told him not to. “Jacob,” the head teacher said to him finally, “yesterday the voices told you not to go to math, today that you can’t go to English. What’ll they tell you tomorrow? No social studies? I’m stronger than the voices and I’m telling you right now—you can go to school.”
The voice I hear right now, though, on this particular Monday morning, is Randi’s. Sitting outside in the hall with a nurse, just as the door closes, she yells out for last licks, “Goddamn you, Kaplan, you bitch! How come you let him have the yo-yo and you won’t let me have it? It’s my yo-yo, anyway. Give it back to me! Stealer!”
It’s a touchy point, this: Cliff often has taken things belonging to other kids, and insisted that they were his with convincing, aggrieved assertion. I choose to believe him this time (as I have often mistakenly done in the past), and for a change find out that I’m right. “My foster mother gave it to me,” Cliff explains. “My real mother didn’t call me up. She knows the phone number, she just still losted.”
“She don’t know where she at? Or you don’t know where she at?” Ralphie asks. He has been turning the lights on and off, pulling the shades up and down, and turning the thermostat back and forth, staring down into it.
“What are you looking for down there, Ralphie?” I once asked him.
“Quarters. They got quarters down there.”
“No quarters,” I said. “There’s not one single quarter in that whole thermostat.”
“Nickels, then. You look hard enough, teacher, and you see a nickel over there. No lie, teacher, no lie.”
“Where?” I said, squinting down the thermostat with him, practically believing.
“Snag, Miss Kaplan! Snag! I snagged you, teacher! They don’t got no nickels down there. Unless you wanna put some down there for me. You gonna do it? Come on—I bring you over your purse and all you gotta do is throw them in.”
But this morning Ralphie is not looking for quarters or nickels; he seems drained from all his battles. “I’m sleepy,” he says. “I’m not doing no work,” and dragging his chair up to my desk, he puts his head down on it.
Cliff is still involved with the question about his mother. “She knows where she’s at, she’s looking for my father.”
“Which father?” Ralphie says, logily raising his head.
“None of your fucking b. i. business, Robles. You’re not my doctor and you’re not my social worker.” At almost any other time, this would be the beginning of a fight, but Ralphie just isn’t tuned in enough.
“Teacher, I’m hungry,” he says. “Gimme a cookie, gimme around twelve cookies.”
“Ralphie, suppose we get the day started before we go into the restaurant business. OK? Where’s Nidia?”
“She in section,” Ralphie says.
“Session,” Cliff corrects him.
“Session. Session, you dummy!”
“OK,” I say in an over-loud voice, “Nidia’s with her doctor, Randi’s in the hall, and we’re in here. Let’s get started.”
The first things to do are changing the charts: the day, the date, the weather, and the class jobs. Often these are angled for and squabbled over, too (it’s no small thing knowing which day comes after another, and figuring out the date after a weekend is, for some children, an accomplishment to be truly prized). This morning, only Cliff wants to change the cards indicating the day of the week and the date. He is about to fix the weather chart, too, when Ralphie shakes himself up, saying, “I gonna do the weather. It’s cloudy!” and stuporously dragging himself out of his chair, he reaches out for the “cloudy” card. Cliff, in the meantime, has run over to the window, flinging up the already precarious shade.
“You say it’s cloudy, Robles? You say it’s cloudy? Dare me it’s cloudy, Goddamn you! Just dare me!”
We are on a very high floor and there is, in fact, a tiny piece of sun—about a nickel or even a quarter’s worth—it’s an inert, glazed, ugly sun hanging somewhere over the bridge and the water towers, the construction sites, the railroad tracks, and, closest to us, the projects.
“That’s my house,” new children often say when they first look out the classroom windows and see the projects. And even if I know from their admissions slips that they actually live in Brooklyn or the Bronx, I have a hard time convincing them. “That’s my aunt’s house, then,” they usually say. Or “My mother’s friend, she lives there.”
It’s a lucky thing for all of us that I like looking out the windows, too, so that I rarely feel it as an interruption when, in the midst of working with one child on math, I hear, “Look, teacher, look ! Two junkies down there having a fight! In the how you call it—telephone blocks.”
“Telephone booth,” I say, but I’m out of my seat in a second.
This time, though, what’s in question is the weather. I walk over to the windows with the two boys and say, “It’s cloudy now, but there’s a little bit of sun up there, and maybe it’ll get really sunny later on.” So Ralphie can put up his “cloudy” card and Cliff is promised that he’s the one who can change the chart if the weather changes. Done. On to changing the “jobs”: each different group has its own hierarchy of preferences, and though these jobs rotate daily, it’s not uncommon for a child who doesn’t like his job of the day to charge me angrily with being unfair—“See! He got Snack! He always gets what he wants!”—and either sulkily threaten to do “no work all day and if you think you can make me, I’ll smash you,” or begin hurling books, games, chairs, and once in a while an entire desk. Many groups have considered “Helper” the most prestigious job: the Helper goes on errands, and best of all, gets to open doors and closets with the teacher’s keys.
“What you got in there, Miss Kaplan?” Ralphie often asks over and over again, opening up my coat closet for the pure joy of it.
“What does it look like I have in there?”
“Your coat. Your winter coat. It made of rabbits. You got the rabbits? You caught them?”
“Ralphie, did I catch the rabbits? Did I make the coat?”
He looks up at my face and catches the tone in my voice. “No,” he says, and starts laughing, but I’m never sure if he’s sure.
The favored job in this group is Snack: as far as they’re concerned, the only way you can be sure of not being cheated at snacktime is if you’re the one who gives out the snack yourself, and Ralphie, who grabs at any and all food, endlessly, compulsively, has discovered that the snack monitor, if he’s so inclined, can have the quickest and easiest access to fringe benefits. Today, it’s Ralphie’s turn to do Snack, but back with his head down on my desk, he barely acknowledges what he would ordinarily celebrate.
In the meantime, I write the morning plans on the board: English (this includes any academic activity outside math, and because both the age and grade levels are often so varied, it usually means that each child is doing something entirely different), Word Game, Snack—anticipated not only because of the food, but because at its best, Snack has an intimate, peaceful quality, and fights, desk-throwing, and accusations are a million miles away. Often, during Snack, listening to a child’s story of something that happened to him when he was “little”—a gift he got that broke, a trip on a train to a place whose name he doesn’t know (“they got a funeral house there across the street and they give you calendars”), I am given the momentary illusion of entering into a life that is really quite alien from my own. After Snack, there is Gym, and then it’s time for lunch.
Where we are in this day is English. Cliff, of all the kids in this group, has come closest to having made a seemingly magical, dramatic gain. In math, he still bangs his head on the desk, whimpers, tears up papers, and writhes on the floor. When he first came, he used to do that in reading, too, but it tapered off and he began reading books on a first- and second-grade level, though he is ten. He was very proud of finishing so many books, and one day, looking through the shelves for a new one, picked out a fourth-grade history text.
“That might be hard,” I said, honestly believing it to be, “but if you like that book, I can read it to you.”
“That’s hard? You daring me that it’s hard? You daring me?” And having been attracted by a picture of Christopher Columbus, he began hesitantly, but accurately enough, to read the chapter. I felt that I couldn’t praise him enough; hugging me and then the book, he danced around the room and ran out into the hall to tell his news to anyone who was passing through. I had never seen Cliff so happy, but only fifteen minutes later, he got up from his chair and systematically tipped over all the other kids’ juice cups, and knocked down everything else that was on their desks.
Still, that history book became Cliff’s new book, its thickness adds to the prestige (fat books are better); during this Monday morning’s English time, he takes the book out, and with a kind of touching, theatrical diligence begins looking at the questions I’ve written out for the chapter on Andrew Jackson.
“I can’t do it,” he begins whimpering. “It’s too hard.”
“You can do it. You do hard work all the time.”
“I can’t,” his whimper gets louder, his speech more discernibly infantile: this is the stuff that head-banging and self-mutilating tantrums grow out of.
“Cliff,” I say very sternly, “what happens to people who pretend that they’re dumb?”
“They get dumb,” he says. He knows the answer-mine admittedly, and whether it’s true or not, this simple exchange will often get him over the awful hurdle of beginning.
What happens to people who pretend that they’re dumb? Who try it on, improve on it, and seeing nothing else around, keep it? It’s something I’ve had cause to think about much too often. Look at Ralphie over there, lying slumped down on my desk. Called “retardo” by the other kids, considered to be “within the retarded range” by careful psychological testing, lie’s a boy who at ten can barely read or do the most elementary arithmetic, can often not give you the names of ordinary, everyday objects in either English or Spanish, can stick his head into a hot oven and apparently not feel the difference or understand the reason for other people’s alarm (“OK, OK teacher, sweetheart, I won’t do nothing bad again. Why you gotta look so serious? Man, you look ugly when you look like that! Right, she look ugly? Right, she look like a witch?”). Yet, there are things that Ralphie understands and remembers that keep me wondering. A discussion about Christmas, for example, which was begun by Nidia who is Pentecostal and very fervent about it.
Nidia: “Christmas is the birthday of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Randi: “How could God have a son? God doesn’t have a dick.”
Me: “Many people believe—”
Nidia (screaming): “Miss Kaplan! You don’t believe in Jesus Christ? You don’t believe in Jesus?”
“You think she believe in Jesus?” said Ralphie, awake suddenly, and laughing loudly. “Miss Kaplan don’t believe in God, she don’t believe in hell, she don’t believe in nothing!”
“How do you know whether or not I believe in God, Ralphie?”
“You said it. Remember? You said some people do and some people don’t. You said it, right?”
I’m sure I did say it, but when or under what circumstances, I do not at all remember. Not Ralphie, though. Not Ralphie, who, if I ask him right now to tell me the color of his shirt, will probably say, “It blue, I mean it red. I forgot, teacher. How you call it?”
At the moment, I’m not calling it anything, but trying to ease, tease, coax, pinch him out of his stupor and into his schoolwork. With the help of some cookies, he makes it: he is going to write a story for the class newspaper. It’s a topic he’s already decided on—“What I Want to Be When I Grow Up.” The system is this: he talks, I write, he copies it onto rexograph paper which gets cranked through a machine, and soon, miraculous as God’s dick, turns Ralphie’s hilly, uneven letters into official purple print on white paper. “When I grow up I want to be a cop. Because I like guns. And I would help children cross the street. And I would get robbers and put them in jail. If somebody fell in the street I would take them to the hospital.”
While Ralphie is slowly, painfully copying out his story and Cliff is nervously, repetitively calling out, “How did Andrew Jackson get the name Old Hickory?” Randi returns to the room.
“I’m sorry, Miss Kaplan,” she says with a simper. “I won’t provoke anyone anymore,” and instantly sensing the concentration of the two boys, stands in front of Ralphie and says, “King Kong plays ping pong with his ding dong.” King Kong because of Ralphie’s size and weight—a name, incidentally, he’s proud of; the rest because of his frequent, open masturbation. Genuinely engrossed in his schoolwork, Ralphie only giggles, but Cliff immediately gets up, and unbuttoning his clothes and undulating, sings out, “Suck my dick, it’s so soft, I don’t need any vaseline, suck my dick.”
Who won’t provoke anyone anymore? “Randi,” I say, “your work is on your desk.” And most likely, that’s exactly where it will stay: on her desk and untouched. Although Randi is bright, and despite all her difficulties not behind in any subject, she’s a child I’ve gotten absolutely no place with. If I give her specific assignments, she simply refuses to do them; if I tell her she may choose what she wants from the various books and materials around the room, she wanders aimlessly, nervously, announcing with disdainful bravado that she’s interested in nothing.
“Reading sucks, science sucks, math sucks, social studies sucks, art sucks, puzzles suck. And music sucks, too.”
Cliff has now buttoned his clothes and is sitting down again. “Snack time?” he wants to know.
The mention of food rouses Ralphie: “We bake this afternoon, Miss Kaplan? We got baking? What we gonna bake?”
“You voted on it Ralphie. You tell me—what are we going to bake?”
“Pizza!” yells out Cliff. “Yay, pizza! We eat all that pizza ourself and give the other classes little skinny mini baby pieces.”
“Pizza, yuch!” says Randi. “Pizza is vomit. It looks like vomit and it smells like vomit. It is vomit.”
“It look like vomit and it smell like vomit but it taste good,” Ralphie says. “You don’t want your piece, I eat it. OK?”
Randi is beginning to answer when Nidia, returned from session, walks in. She is wearing a lovely yellow lacy dress and a yellow poncho that she crocheted herself—her church outfit—but walking slowly, her eyes to the floor, she looks sullen, angry, and absolutely miserable. This is in great contrast to her usual style: she has a lively theatricality, that often, uncontrolled, passes over into the purely manic. She walks and moves in a way that prompted Cliff to say when she first came, “She supposed to be ten? Shit, that girl’s no ten. She a little woman.” In fact, Nidia never admits that she’s ten; she tells everyone that she’s thirteen, “a teen-ager,” and closes her eyes and throws her head back suggestively when she talks about what she “does” with her boyfriends. With her eyes similarly closed, her hips moving and her lips parted, in perfect imitation of a nightclub singer, she croons Spanish lovesongs whenever she sees the high-school students. Her special focus among them is a very fragile-looking, undersized heroin addict who pays her almost no attention and on whom she does not give up. To me, she has often said, “I know why you’re not married, Miss Kaplan. You wanna stay free—you know what I mean. If you get married or you get babies, you can’t do what you want anymore. With your boyfriends.”
Right now Nidia looks neither like a teen-ager nor a nightclub singer: wheezing (she has asthma) and sad-eyed, her knowing, street-child ways made all the more poignant by her little-girl-dressed-up-for-church look, she suddenly reminds me of the child in Forbidden Games—stunned by the bombs and just sitting by the road. Probably she’s just had a difficult session, a bad weekend pass, or both.
“Nidia,” I say, catching her around the waist, “that’s a beautiful dress.”
“It’s not,” she says tearily. “It’s ugly.”
“That’s right!” Cliff yells out, jumping up. “It’s ugly. Ugly like you, you ugly cunt. You walk like a cunt, you act like a cunt, and that’s what you are one—a nasty, ugly cunt!”
Instantly, all of Nidia’s waiflike, pathetic teariness is gone, and the two of them are at each other punching, kicking, pulling, tearing, scratching, throwing things; trying to separate them, I, too, get kicked and scratched (“Just stay out of this, bitch!” Nidia shrieks), while Randi, somewhat cautious but still pleased, comes up with an uncertain “Pussy! Dick! Pussy!—I’m only saying the name of a cat,” and Ralphie, confused and overwhelmed by this terrible agitated excitement he cannot understand but cannot stay out of, stumbles forward laughing and begins hurling chairs and desks. I am able to stop Ralphie and Randi, but Cliff and Nidia are way beyond anything I can do: in their small furious world, no one else now exists, and besides I’ve never learned judo. The male nursing aide comes in; he, too, gets clawed and mauled, and with unearthly cries sounding down the hallway, Cliff is dragged out, still kicking and screaming. Nidia, hysterical, folds in my arms, sobbing, “It’s because of him I’ll never get better. See that? Now I’ll never get well.”
But in a few minutes, she begins to get herself together, and I, feeling like Muriel Spark’s Miss Brodie, say, “Nidia, it’s been a hard morning for all of us. Why don’t you give us a song?”
“Without a tambourine? It’s no good. Only if you play the piano.”
So I go over to the piano, and Nidia, rehearsing to herself, decides on her “best” song: “This Little Light of Mine.” For me, the song brings back something very different—the spirit of hopeful civil-rights marches long gone, but Nidia, being Pentecostal, knows it from church, and even without a tambourine, she sings, claps, and gestures with mounting, hypnotic, evangelical urgency.
Hide it under a bushel, oh no!
I’m gonna let it shine
Hide it under a bushel, oh no!
I’m gonna let it shine
Hide it under a bushel, oh no!
I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!
Under the bushels: Cliff has lived in several foster homes and has been found unmanageable by each of them because of his frequent screaming attacks, temper tantrums, fights, and consistent day and night soiling. He began to make suicide attempts: climbing on roofs and high window ledges, he believed he was Superman and was caught by a neighbor just as he was ready to “fly.”
Ralphie, who lives with his aunt and uncle and their five children, was always threatening to kill his younger cousins. Recently, he hurled the TV set at the three-year-old, injuring him badly. Ralphie has both visual and auditory hallucinations.
Nidia’s earliest memory is of being locked in the refrigerator by her mother. Most likely, this did not happen, but enough other things did: she was sexually molested and often beaten by her stepfather. Nidia has very severe asthma, which has not responded to medical treatment, and is considered, in her case, to be a psychosomatic illness.
Randi was adopted on the “gray” market, and her adoptive parents were displeased with her almost from the beginning. She kept breaking things in the house, twice set fire to her room, and has frequently run away. During her most recent disappearance, she was hit by a car as she was running wildly, blindly across a massive suburban highway.
Much later that afternoon, way after Snack and Gym, after lunch and math, and after the pizza has been baked and eaten we go to the library—a smallish room at the end of the hall. Randi is pulling out books and making faces and noises at each of them, Ralphie, with the uneasy help of the librarian, is looking for a cookbook that will tell Miss Kaplan how to make “big pizza, giant pizza, pizza—you know—not like you buying in a store, but real big, real fat,” and Nidia has taken out a picture book about France, looking up frequently and excitedly: she’s hoping some teen-agers will come in. I am sitting at a small table with Cliff and a new boy, Eric, who has recently moved to New York from a ranch in Arizona. The two of them, both so small and so absurdly poster-charming in their differences—Cliff with his burgeoning Afro, and Eric with his Boy Scout-blonde hair and invisible eyebrows—are sitting together in one large chair, turning the pages of a National Geographic. I am doing absolutely nothing: staring into space.
“Miss Kaplan, what’s this?” Cliff asks, pointing to a picture in the magazine. “What are they doing?”
The photograph is of a South American Indian tribe who have evolved an apparently unusual method for trapping animals. It seems to consist of camouflaged nets strung across the upper branches of high trees; there are also connecting ground traps amid the brush, and tribesmen with pointed sticks and fierce expressions who are swaying, climbing, and jumping. Woozily, I read the accompanying print, trying to figure out exactly what it is they are doing, but before I can answer, Eric does.
“Probably they’re trying to die, most people want to.”
“Most people do,” Cliff nods. “Probably everyone.”
On my way home, the bus I take is once again filled up with school-children. They push, scream, discuss homework, suck candies, and giggle continuously. Their noise is intolerable; I feel that I hate them, and watching them get off the bus, licking up their Milky Ways and Yankee Doodles, I cannot help wondering, envying, what they all so giddily step off to.
1 Except for that of the author, the names of all characters appearing in this piece are fictitious.