I AM A SCIENCE TEACHER. My students are every color, from white to brown and the rainbow in ink. Lunchtime is Princess tattooed on necks, Hmong in crowds, and peacocks and feathers and me cawing the loudest.
“Mr. Mac, is abortion murder?”
Most are my students. Some are here because I gave them detention as an excuse to continue class with 30 minutes of food and problem solving. They are here because someone has an amp and is rocking out to Pink Floyd’s the Wall, some are battling pokemon and others are break dancing by table 6 and it’s too loud.
“Mr. Mac, why do we hiccup?”
I like big questions. They make class interesting for everybody. I encourage the students to ask them, I ask them, I start lecture and labs and hellos with them.
“Better than that, why can some people grow vestigial gills?”
Weird is being everything interesting and that's what I want from my class.
“Let’s talk about hiccups, you and your grandfather the fish.”
“Mr. Mac, is abortion murder?”
A counselor once told me to never ask a student how they are doing. Where an adult sees a social courtesy, teenagers see an honest question.
Never respond – who does that?
I walk the room giving out problems, answering questions. Textbooks surround the room, a ward against ignorance. Some are out, flopped to pages with consternation-brows on the faces of students gorging themselves on meat-object and vegetable-thing served at the cafeteria.
The sophomores, as usual, have commandeered the lab tables in the back of the room, closest to the ceiling-high windows that show Broadway Avenue. Today they sit in a semi-circle around a single table, their food piled upon each other’s.
They sit too close for my comfort.
I throw down a stoichiometry problem like I am break dancing in front of them. They tell me to back off, like I might be harmed in the explosion of knowledge that it is about to be broughtn’. A seminar begins at a whiteboard. A student pulls out a marker from a sock dangling from the back of the board, “Mr. Mac, is this right?”
Thirty more victories to go.
“Mr. Mac, I have a question.”
Finally comfortable with their station in the high school stratum, sophomores ask the biggest of the big questions. Their naivety lets them unabashedly ask the most stubborn of humanity’s great mysteries, and they expect a cogent and correct answer immediately. “What is the meaning of life?” “How can I live forever?” “When and how will this class allow me to commune with the spirits of the trees?”
Hmong kids have a spiritual connection with the arboreal, and it has made the plant unit an existential amalgam of conflicting emotions and life changing events.
By the door, two of my students sit on the edge of nearby tables, leaning into one another for close whispering. Each of them is as tall as two toy terriers standing atop one another, and marathon runner thin.
They don’t look nearly busy enough.
I two-step and shimmy my way in their direction while giving exaggerated smiles, high fives and corny jokes.
Ericka is a sophomore in my second period Biology class and attends school at her leisure. She grins whenever she walks into my room, embarrassed to be caught on campus. She hides her face with a large sweatshirt sleeve, peaking out to see if I have lost sight of her as she walks to her seat. More often than not, Ericka comes to lunch instead of class. If I am not in my room she will write on the board that she was ‘here’. If I am lucky enough to be in the room at the appointed time, I give her the day’s notes and she leaves, having attended no classes but enjoying the daily lunch break nonetheless. I take it as high praise that she has chosen me as her lone connection to secondary education.
The other girl is Shatila, also a sophomore, who is in my first period chemistry class and attends school only a little more often than Ericka. She is skinny from her ankles to her ears and her smile goes from lobe to lobe. She has a voice that can only be heard with a raised hand. When the vent fan is on during laboratory assignments I cannot hear her unless I sit nearby with my eyes shut.
I bow from the waist upon reaching Shatila and Ericka, with my arms on the small of my back, a bow tie prominent below a large Adam’s apple.
"How are we doing today?"
Shatila, “Fine. Mr. Mac, is it murder to have an abortion?”
Watch out for sophomores with big questions.
I haven’t moved yet. Neither have they, and we are all still staring, our eyes trained in a Mexican standoff.
My right eyebrow is the first to betray my internal unrest. Ericka and Shatila’s eyes follow its slow march to my hairline.
Shatila covers her midriff with a sweatshirt and breaks eye contact and Ericka peers beneath her voluminous sleeve, hoping for invisibility.
“Come with me. I have a PowerPoint that might help.”
I have one of those because I am a man.
In the 21st century I am supposed to be more understanding of the female condition. Being raised in Berkeley made me an ardent feminist, with the presumption that I could check my gender at the door and feel whatever I want.
Becoming an adult made that explode all over my face.
I am not a woman.
I am admittedly more comfortable with boys. I understand them better.
They can’t have an abortion and neither can I.
I have been asked big questions before. Terrible questions.
“What happens when you’re shot in the head?”
“How can someone be beaten to death?”
Are they asking as a hypothetical? No, my brother…
These questions have sent me crying under a toilet bowl, curled, my head jammed between the door and the wall.
But I could empathize with them. Their questions could be broken down into the physiology and the anatomy of a wound.
Abortion has moral ramifications. It has moms.
“Why don’t you both stand to either side of me so that you can see the screen.”
I am their science teacher and from me they expect answers, they expect the truth.
When you teach science, bias always comes up.
“Why should we trust you Teacherman?!”
“What I say isn’t about what you or I want to believe, it is about what we can use to make predictions. If gravity works as it is supposed to, then when I jump up, I should correspondingly fall.”
“Anyone want to bet I can fly?”
I may not be a woman, but I understand that these two girls have come to me in confidence with an issue, that they, or a friend, needs a science teacher’s help with.
I load my sex-ed lecture, with Shatila and Ericka on either side of me.
The PowerPoint begins with how the zygote is formed.
Teachers have no time. It’s not a luxury, it’s not even a staple. We are overwhelmed and degrade into a multitasking automatons from the 150 unique voices clamoring for attention. We dullify, we answer automatically. Shatila’s parents are not here, where is a counselor? It doesn’t matter anymore. I answer questions. Thinking about who is right or wrong is over. I help, we help, must help.
Shatila, “That doesn’t look like a baby?”
“That is a zygote.”
“I always thought we looked like babies from the beginning, just smaller.”
I am going through the developing embryo, one, two, four cells. At five weeks Shatila brings her fingers past me, stopping just in front of the image. She moves them through the air, following the contours of the embryo wrapped in red and pink gauze.
“What is that?”
“It is what develops inside of you [Error!] or any young woman’s womb [Save!], after the egg has been fertilized by a sperm. We call it an embryo. Say M-Bree-oh.”
“M-Bree-oh. Mr. Mac, what’s wrong with it?”
I try to hold back a smile. Teenagers have yet to separate themselves from their inner kid, no matter how tight, low, cut, crinkled or stained their jeans are.
“There is nothing wrong with it. That is how the embryo looks. It is the same for the embryo of chickens and lizards, they look this way at this stage too.”
Ericka’s eyes have lost their lids.
Shatila, “Does it have a heartbeat?”
“Why is that important? The heart is pumping nutrients. I imagine that you want to know if it’s alive.”
She gives an emphatic nod.
“Is that why you asked whether abortion is murder?”
At this question she makes no movement. She says nothing at all.
I continue on without waiting.
In Teacher-Voice, “As we discussed last year in biology, the embryo could not maintain homeostasis without the help of the mother. Homo:same, stasis:unchanging. Say it back. Good. The embryo we are currently looking at would not be able to keep itself alive and would die if taken out of the mother. At this stage not even modern technology could help. It is at this point not alive. The brain is not formed, and it is no bigger than a fingernail.”
Shatila leaps into her question, her body moving with her words, “So it can’t feel?”
“Feelings are created by the brain. The brain of this embryo is not developed enough to have them.”
She pauses to consider.
“I’m not saying you care, but if you did, an abortion would not cause this embryo to feel pain."
Her eyes relax and she both breathes and blinks for the first time since seeing the embryo. She looks up at the clock, then at me, scowls and then harrumphs stamping her feet and punching the air by her hips.
“Mr. Mac, I had so many questions, but it’s like I can’t remember any of them now that I am here!” She throws her hands back and forth, a little here-you-are-and-now-you’re-gone with her hands spread wide to show how much nothing is there.
Her pouting makes her seem more the child and less the young adult. The change is so sudden I can’t tell if our discussion happened or was just another hypothetical imagined.
Lunch is over.
Though I have a flight to catch I tell her, “How about you come by after school and we’ll talk about it.”
Shatila agrees and reminds me, “You had better be here. We’re going to be on time, and so should you.” Ericka points too, adding emphasis.
The other students, food and all come running through the door after Shatila and Ericka. I have five minutes before the next class begins. I rummage through the lunch debris trying to clean before 5th period starts.
I have no time to reflect or consult on what happened. Cells, essays and the scientific establishment are on the docket and I begin as students arrive.
Like nothing happened.
So much of teaching is that way. Five, six or seven periods in a day, and all but one is a restart. We can’t bring weighty emotional baggage from the previous class period into the next, it wouldn’t be fair. We can only do better, have more energy, do more. We have society to give back to. You want pressure - how about the future.
“It’s good to see ya Tou. Good afternoon David. How are we doing Tay?”
I have got to stop asking that question.
“Fine? That's terrible.”
Tay is a 9th grade girl who is half as tall as me, and for the most part always seems lost.
“It's not terrible?!”
“Well, why isn't it?”
Slack jawed contemplation shows unwashed teeth. Like most freshmen, Tay has yet to find reason to care about her appearance.
"I don't know."
“And neither do I, thus I stand by my previous statement. I hope your day improves to great and even, EVEN better than great.” My arms are spread wide above my head.
“Alright class, we learned this yesterday, where do cells come from?”
[in unison] “Other cells!”
“If cells come from other cells, then there must have been an original one, so where did it come from?”
“Are you going to answer?”
[In unison] “Mr. Mac!!”
The period ends after more Mac! and questions fill a rushed hour.
“Take care Andrew, see ya Jamila, eat chocolate Rachel.”
I close the door.
I lay down on table # 3.
My TA’s tip toe in for my 6th period prep. They are used to the laying down and don’t want to disturb me. They pick up chairs, cleaning up after a 150 mess-monsters. Table # 3 is left alone. At about this time I visit Ms. G, a counselor who is charged with most of my students. The prospect of trained, legal advice is enough to get me up and forgo my daily 10-minute nap.
Ms. G’s downstairs room is dark. Advice will have to wait.
I need to make sure the substitute isn't left to his or her own devices while I am gone, so I head off to the copy room to prepare material.
There is one other teacher. We stand in silence as our machines rattle off copies.
Under the din of repeated, whiz-piffs of the copy machine I relax, I am no longer dull to the day, and I can reflect with sentience that automatons lack.
She probably wanted to have an abortion…? What advice did she want? Shit, shit, shit. Did I do the right thing? Am I the person who should be having this conversation with these students?
Above the din I say in a heavy voice, "Ya know when a student tells you something important, and you miss it?"
I think the other guy is an English teacher, it’s impossible to keep us all sorted.
Without looking away from the control panel of his copier he says, "Yeah, ya have to let it go. Its gonna keep happening. You have to let it go." He gives me the side-tilt-head-sign for it's OK.
It sounds like he has given ‘this conversation’ some thought. Most of us care too much, the students know it and we become a passing partner to their problems. "Yeah. But what if it’s pretty big?" I tap my head with a stapler, trying to emphasize the severity of the situation.
"Gotta move on. "
I want different advice from him. I want to know if by not calling her parents immediately after Shatila came to me that I won’t be fired. I want to make sure my record isn’t liable to be permanently burnt. I want to know that Shatila and I will be OK. "Last year someone gave me a suicide note, and it took reading it three times to realize what I had in my hand. Now this kid wants an abortion and I want to make sure I didn't screw it all up." I again tap my head with my brick of plastic for emphasis.
"Gotta move on." The tapping is having no effect. What is wrong with this guy?!
I pick up my copies, the machine still sputtering and rush back to find any counselor with ears - the bigger the better.
Ms. G still has a locked door with the light out in a room – her timing is terrible. I look in the adjoining rooms, no one's around. I shuffle into a gallop down the counselor’s wing, pushing my face against the glass windows of their doors, smudging and running.
A room is lit.
He is a Latin ex-marine with a Brad Pitt lip that students will fake, make or break appointments to see.
He is our most popular girls soccer coach… ever.
His favorite beer has his name on it.
I knock on his door, and he waves me in.
“What up, MAC!”
I tell him about Shatila and her hypothetical issues, while pacing back and forth the two steps it takes me to go from wall to wall in his office.
I don’t breathe, I talk with air while I have it, and continue on when I am without. Done, I stand still in the center of his room and I am not at all prepared for his asymmetric grin.
We share information. All faculty do. We are the worst gossips and that's good for the students. Students don’t have the same rights as adults. We all need to know about gang activity, suicidal tendencies, emotion disorders and abusive parents. We are overseers. We must know. That doesn’t mean we share with those who don’t need the information. Our spouses, friends and colleagues at other schools don’t know. All the terrible stays with us – or at least its supposed to.
“Mac, I wish you had come to me first. Shatila is one of my students. Ms. G doesn’t even know her. So it’s good that you came to me. In fact, I have already talked with the mother and Shatila and they have a plan. Shatila will be having an abortion soon. All is well. Your problem was solved before you ever walked in. I had your back before you even knew you needed me to.”
He spreads his arms like a victory lap.
I fall into a chair by his desk. I don’t move from my spot until the bell rings, and he leaves me be.
Oh thank goodness. Oh thank goodness because everything is OK and no one is committing suicide and the parents have already been called and I am off the hook.
I leave Sierra’s room.
I don’t wave goodbye.
As I climb to the second floor my steps slow, until I stop midway up.
You don’t ask your science teacher if an abortion is murder if you made the decision yourself. You figure out if its murder first, then you decide. Either Shatila’s mom, or Sierra, or both made the decision for her.
At the top of the stairs I see a mountain of students waiting outside my door. The yearly science fair is coming up soon and the kids are in a panic. They huddle, peering through my window like I might materialize if they think hard enough. At the outer edge are Shatila and Ericka.
I stand still.
As one the students turn. A hundred perched crows eyeing a field mouse take flight. Shatila and Ericka spring towards me, ahead of the avalanche of yelling body parts and feathers.
“Mac, we need to talk. Now.”
I look from them to the sea of students. Everyone is shorter than me, like hedges cut to a maze keeping me from my room.
Rather than make a break for it, I move us to the nearest door.
It feels cool and quiet compared to the warm fog of panting students clogging the hallway. We take a seat in the back near the science tables and solar system display. Earth rotates above our heads, with the sun nearest to me. We are in desks instead of at tables. I dislike desks.
I glance at the clock.
“Were you able to come up with any questions?”
“No, I still don’t have ‘em. It’s so … frustrating!”
Shatila is smacking her crossed legs and trying to think of questions that are almost as hard to come up with as the answers that go with them.
“Would you like me to guess what you want to know and help you to understand?”
She nods with emphatic relief and inches to the edge of her seat.
If I am going to help Shatila, she has to be willing to acknowledge her situation fully. I don’t have the time and neither does she for hypotheticals.
“First, I am assuming that you are pregnant, and you are asking for advice.”
Ericka pulls her arms into her sleeves and covers her face like the question was directed at her.
Shatila looks down, her legs stop their movement.
I turn in Ericka’s direction.
Ericka explains that she has been pregnant for two weeks, and is scared, alone and was late to school because she’s living with her aunty and a trash bag five miles away hoofing it.
“Ericka, would you like me to guess what you would like to know too?”
She smiles and nods.
“Since you both are here, it seems you want my advice, and probably my opinions. I am not a counselor, so that gives me the impression that you want what I know as a teacher. I will give you what I know but not my beliefs. Does that sound alright?"
Shatila, “You just seem to know everything. I want what you have.” and points to the side of her head with her index finger.
I nod and give a half grin. We should all be scared of just how much our teachers don’t know.
“Let’s get to it then, whether abortion is murder or not.”
Big eyes grow bigger.
“When were your parents pregnant with you?”
“If either of your mothers had an abortion, you would not be here. That is an important thing to recognize. You’re pretty happy to be here, right?”
We all smile.
We talk about who has a right to their body, which they emphatically respond is theirs.
There is so much they need that I can give, but I don’t have time and I have a flight and I am not their parents.
“I will give you a final viewpoint. If you two could be anything, what would you be?
Shatila says she wants to be a Photographer. I should make a chemistry lesson about photography for my students. The artists in class would probably appreciate science more if I did that.
Good grief, am I lesson planning during all of this?!
I could talk about vocal cords in biology and sound waves in chemistry.
"Will being pregnant now affect your ability to reach those dreams?"
"You both need to understand that it is possible to be happy and be mothers at young ages. Maybe it won't be easy. It depends on you and your situation. In the end this is your decision."
Shatila’s legs are moving again. She is chewing her lower lip. She looks at Ericka, but Erika isn’t looking at anything.
I need to go. I need to leave these two kids behind because I have a brother, and he needs me and I have a fiancé, and she needs me, and if I don’t catch this flight I have chosen someone else’s kids over my family.
I begin to leave and they are scared and I start making up an excuse to my family about how I couldn’t quite make the flight.
"You both are not bad people. You know that right? You are good people, no matter what you decide. Remember that.”
I say it with all the feeling I have left, and if I gave in then I would have curled up under the moon and stars.
I want to give them a hug, but I don’t.
I am their teacher.
Instead I name them as they go.
The other students are still waiting outside. I go through a side door and make a run for the stairs. I am almost to my car when I realize that I left my jacket in the classroom. I turn around and finding Shatila and Ericka hiding behind a pillar at the top of the stairs.
“Come with me.”
Ms. G should be in a meeting with the other counselors. Perfect timing. I ask her to come out. I catch her up in a jumble of words with Shatila and Ericka standing nearby. Ms. G says she’ll talk to them privately in her room. I give them my cell phone number just in case.
They leave for Ms. G’s room.
Their heads dip below the floor above the stairwell and I turn to leave, stepping on a student named Mai.
“What do you need?”
“In one week.”
“What about your other teachers?”
“They all said they can’t, won’t.”
“So why me?”
“You’ll do it even if you don’t have time.”
I start walking to my car and we continue talking.
I pass by Ms. G’s room with Shatila and Ericka inside.
I stop too suddenly and Mai head butts me with an “ack!”.
I drop my bags, jacket and barge in.
“Stand up, Stand up!”
I motion with quick irritated hands.
“Stand next to each other.”
They look make eye contact confusedly. Too late, as I give them a bear hug that nearly wraps around myself.
I whisper over my Adam’s apple, “Everything is going to be OK. You gotta believe that.”
I pick up my things and walk quickly to the front door, with Mai trying to keep pace and get in recommendation forms and formatting through puffs of air.
I am finally to my car when my brother calls, “You ready?”
“Yeah. No problem.”
It’s all gonna work out.
Kerry Mackel teaches from table tops at high schools in and out of the city. Jumping from desk to desk, he inspires as much as breathes the life of modern American education from which he writes.
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