The lights were on when he arrived. Room silent except for scratches and streaks across paper — the sound of compliance. Fumbling with the door latch, he bumbled into the room and was greeted by laughs and shouts.
“What up, Kwamae?”
Shirt untucked and hair beginning to wick, he dapped up Idris* and Ramon* before stopping to chat with two girls at the last table.
My feet hurt. I spun on my patent-leathered toes and met him there.
“Hi. I’m Ms. Martin,” I began with a smile.
They say don’t smile until Christmas. I don’t believe that. I smiled on the first day. Joy is a part of this. Smile even when your feet are screaming.
He looked at me and kept messing with her paper. Her pencil stopped scratching. She chuckled.
“Um. You can sit here. I’ll get you a syllabus and worksheet. We’re reading this part and answering the questions,” I continued.
Rule #1: This is your classroom. You are in charge. Own the space. ‘
The boy, Kwamae, flopped in the seat. His goofy gap-toothed grin made my stomach churn. My stomach knew he was trouble, but I have learned to ignore the trouble when it comes. I eat as much cheese as I want, say yes to more than I can handle, and ride rollercoasters. We are used to trouble.
They said ignore bad behavior. Praise the kids around them for being good. Focus on the right to fix the wrong.
“Jalia* is doing her work.”
“Ryan* is annotating.”
Gap tooth grins that grind my insides are more trouble than I want.
“Kwamae,” I start. “You should be working.”
“I don’t know what to do,” his grin replies.
“The worksheet. Read it. Answer the questions. It’s not that hard,” I say.
“Oh. Aight,” he says as he turns around and plays with his shoe.
“You don’t even have your name on your paper. Where is your pencil?” I ask him, waiting for him to tell me he does not have a pencil. He does not have one. I know it. I want him to ask me. I want him to remember that I am the keeper of what he needs.
“I ain’t got no damn pencil!” he yells. His grin is no longer and his gap now angered by my interruption in its grin.
The room went silent. They stared. He stared. I stared.
Martin don’t send out kids. Kids stay. No matter what — kids stay.
“That’s it. Go to the dean. Tell them the referral is coming.” I snarl back at him, enraged by his gap being angry at my interruption in its grin.
Not all kids stay.
He slams the door. I race behind him and opened the door, staring back at him in the hallway.
“Go,” I point.
Not all kids stay. Some kids leave.
I did not want him.
Three years later, we are sitting at my favorite restaurant in a city I consider home. Oscar is full but he still tries to stuff half a lasagna fritta in his mouth midsentence.
“You hear,” he bites. “About Kwamae?”
“What?” I ask.
Oscar chews. Zahid glances up while he slices cutlets into bite-sizes bits for his spaghetti. “Yeah,” he says. “The police shot him last month. I don’t really know what happened and yeah.”
And yeah hangs in the air like ornaments on dead trees, out of necessity because nothing else makes sense. It is not an invitation to ask more questions. It is a declarative afterthought. Got a tree, need some ornaments. They shot him, and yeah.
Death tastes different when tossed in cheap, chain-restaurant marinara sauce. That sauce at that table tasted like home and now home tastes like death.
There is no body camera footage from that referral. Just my words typed on a form in a system full of words about him: rude, profane, disruptive, obstinate, talking back, unprepared, disruptive, violent.
I hated that he laughed. His laugh, his grin was a disruption. I blamed it on his pencil. He yelled. I snarled. He slammed. I raced. He stared. I stared. I did not want him. He left.
They say he was joy-riding, that he talked back. There is no body camera footage from his murder. Just some words typed on a form in a system full of words about boys like him: dead.
*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of former students.