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Michael Copperman teaches writing to low-income, at-risk students of colour at the University of Oregon, where he received his MFA in fiction. He also has a BA in English with Creative Writing from Stanford, where he was a Presidential Scholar. His nonfiction has appeared in The Oxford American, Guernica, Anderbo, Brevity, The Best Creative Nonfiction (Norton Anthology, vol. III), Teachers and Writers, Intermat, The Oregonian, The Register-Guard, and The Eugene Weekly, and is forthcoming from Post Road and Stanford Magazine. His fiction has been published in The Arkansas Review, Third Reader, and 34th Parallel, and is forthcoming from Unsaid and Copper Nickel. From 2002-04, he taught fourth grade in the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta with Teach For America. This story is an excerpt from his novel Gone, which is based in that experience
The first week of the Mississippi school year, I didn’t know Tyrone would be a problem. Amid the tumult and clamor of my classroom, he was easily lost: a slim, handsome boy with long arms and a careful, almost elegant manner. It was his silence that first made me notice him: I asked him a direct question the second day, and he turned and pretended not to have heard. When I pressed, he smiled, bowed his head. When I called roll he would raise his hand but say nothing, just flash his strange smile, which showed no teeth—the corners of his mouth turned up, but his gray eyes remained implacable and wary. He could speak, and sometimes would answer a question with a few words, but mostly he smiled and looked away. It wasn’t nervousness, but indirect disobedience: if he didn’t care to do something, he ignored what was said, glanced away and kept on as he liked.
In the second week he started to do exactly as he wanted. He wanted to throw spitballs, take other children’s pencils and break them, and mock me behind my back. He liked to flick other children behind the ear, pinch them on the soft flesh of the upper arm, to gleek saliva onto the back of an unsuspecting neck. He liked to make animal noises, to hoot and whistle and bark. He wrote the word fuck a hundred times when asked to write a five sentence paragraph—complete with five periods and capitals to satisfy the assignment. “This isn’t ok,” I said, standing above him at his desk with the paper as he grinned unsettlingly and stared at the ceiling. Whenever I caught him and tried to discipline him, he turned his head and smiled infuriatingly and refused to respond. The first time I sent him to the office, he returned tear-streaked, and I knew the Reverend Wilson, our assistant Principal, had given him licks. He stared at me through the rest of class with a disarming intensity.
I called the number for Tyrone’s home that night. “I’m Dontavious Johnson,” a gravely, black voice said. “The boy stays with me and my daughter Lizy—we foster kids for the state. I’ll come on in and speak to you.”
The next morning, Tyrone walked through the door before the bell, smiling.
“Good morning, Tyrone,” I said.
He walked to the nearest empty desk and tipped it to the floor with a crash.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
He tipped the next desk in the row, then the next. Children in his path fled as he tipped their desks with their papers and folders as well.
“Stop!” I yelled. He met my eyes for a moment and began on the next row. I started for him across the room, and he upended desks in my path and moved toward the door. I pushed desks aside, running now, but he was out the door and down the hall. “Go to the office!”
He turned, his face hard, and closed on me, brought his face so near I could feel his warm breath on my face. Then he jumped toward me. I flinched and stepped back. He grinned, nodded once, and made his way down the hall with a swaggering step. I started after him, remembered the other children and thought better of it. In the classroom, the children were all talking at once. Half the desks lay on the floor, tipped on their sides and corners, some upside down with their legs in the air, and folders and papers were scattered across the floor. I quieted the children, set them to putting the desks upright, and called the office on the intercom. “Tyrone Downs just turned my classroom upside down,” I said when the secretary answered. “Then he ran out.”
There was a long, static-filled pause, and the secretary said, “Tyrone Downs is here, Mr. Kato. He just come through the door.”
I stood at the intercom. “Huh.”
Two hours later, I received a note telling me Tyrone had been sent home. On my free period, I went to the office and knocked at his door, but the Reverend was out. The secretary called me over with a crooked finger and leaned in. “That boy was wearing two pairs of pants,” she whispered. “Guess he was grinning at the Reverend while he was getting whupped. The Reverend, he got worked up. Stomped out of here after Mr. Johnson come in to get the boy.”
After school, I sat in the empty classroom, the dull sun of September filtering through the back windows in blocks of heatless light. The Reverend still hadn’t returned. When there was a knock, I thought it might be him, and hurried to the door. Outside was a black man of about sixty, his hair grey and white. He leaned to a cane that was too short, his shoulders rounded and bent. “Must be you Mr. Kato,” he said. “Mr. Johnson. Tyrone stay with me. You had called yesterday for me to come in, and I thought with what-all today I’d better come in all the same.” He smiled, revealing gapped teeth, and extended his free right hand. His grip was firm.
“Sir,” I said.
Placing the tip of the cane with each step, he made his way to my desk.
I hurried to pull my chair around so he could sit. Thanking me, he settled to the seat. I went about the desk.
“So,” I said.
“Yes, Lord,” he said, and chuckled from the belly, deep laugh lines crinkling at his eyes. He had a kind face. “Guess you wasn’t figuring on no boy like this one.”
“So—there have been issues before?”
He shook his head. “I only had the boy three weeks—sixth foster placement in a year. And I tell you the truth, Mr. Kato—I don’t know how long I can hold on. The boy been nothing but trouble at home, and he too fast for me, what with my leg. I can’t catch him for to whup him.”
I took all this in. “What do you know about him, his—history?”
Mr. Johnson leaned back in his chair and frowned. “That lady from the district, the behavioral specialist, she ain’t been to see you? She ain’t told you nothing?”
I shook my head.
“Well. I don’t know where to start. You better contact them folks. I just need you to know—I told the Reverend this too, when he was telling me I had better not let the boy wear two pants or whatever all—I can’t do nothing with him. I done what I can. I tell him this way ain’t no way but a bad end. But he don’t respect me. He don’t respect nothing but a good whupping, and I can’t catch him to lay a proper hand on him. He just smile at me and keep on.”
I tried to think what to say about ‘laying a hand on him.’ “Did his social worker suggest any – other – methods for discipline?”
Mr. Johnson grinned. “Mr. Barker was the one told me a good whupping the only thing the boy respect. You should’ve seen that man make the boy jump.”
I wanted to demand more, looked at him with his hands folded earnestly over the head of his cane. “Thank you for the information,” I said.
When I called the District Central Office, they told me the behavioral specialist was on maternity leave. I grilled the secretary until she connected me finally with the Assistant to the Superintendent, who admitted they had no-one to replace her or fill her duties. “We can’t do what we can’t do,” the woman said, exasperated with my persistence. “We can allow you to examine the materials she had on the boy. Maybe you can make something of it—yourself.”
The file took three hours to make sense of. It was without order, cobbled from a dozen sources—the behaviorist’s looping cursive, a psychometrist’s test scores, reports by counselors, social workers, juvenile courts, the police. What emerged strained credulity. Tyrone Downs had been born to an alcoholic, crack-addicted mother in Midnight, Mississippi, where he spent the first eight years of his life in shelters and tents and boxes on the streets or in the cotton fields. His mother had been unable to identify a father on his birth certificate. He begged and stole to survive, knew no personal hygiene, and had never celebrated a birthday—he did not know how old he was when he was taken as ward of the state. The experts felt fine starting him in school from the beginning: his physical development had been so stunted by malnourishment that he was still smaller at eight than the average kindergartener. As for his mental status and development, tests proved consistently inconclusive. One report indicated he had all the signs of fetal alcohol syndrome, and retained a number of ‘permanent, complicating behavioral accommodations to his early environment.’ The sole IQ test had concluded that his IQ was well above average. His academic records were limited—it seemed he hadn’t, in fact, ever completed a full grade due to disciplinary issues at each school and foster placement, though the state had continued to move him up each year because of his age and lack of evident mental retardation. He was a thirteen year old fourth grader.
All of this was revealing, but it was not what stunned me. Tucked in back was the report of the forensic psychologist assigned to the incident that had made Tyrone a ward of the state. The psychologist, after a dozen interviews, had regressed the eight-year old to the night in question at the apartment of man named Dejonson Jones, who’d evidently been her dealer and pimp and (the psychologist speculated) boyfriend.
The transcript read:
“Was walking and my legs be tired. It be eight, like. Sundown, streets was nobody out, time to find mama. Got a dollar and quarter and that old cracker lady give me some hot chips so I good. DJ place have they door open and I say something and nobody say nothing and I go on in cause DJ say I can only come in when he ain’t there and I do what DJ say. Dark but they a light in the backroom. Mama? Mama? Nobody say nothing. Nobody in the backroom, but that light from under that washroom door. I knock. It feel wrong and I scared. I knock. Nothing. I push that door. It bright, like, all white, and red red red. It mama in the tub, all blood on all that white. Run and shake her, mama, mama, she don’t move. Her neck tore open and I beg her and she don’t say nothing, and there ain’t nobody, no mama. No nothing.”
I sat with the file for a long time, read the transcript over and over, imagining Tyrone in the washroom, hands covered in blood—just him now. Alone.
The next week, Tyrone was back. He walked through the door moments before the bell and sat, his face blank, his grey eyes wary, waiting to see what I’d do. I kept an eye on him and taught the morning’s lessons. Tyrone never lifted his pencil, just sat there slouched. After a time, he began tapping the edge of the desk, less rhythmic than nervous, and I didn’t ask him to stop. He began to whistle, a tuneless twittering, and I didn’t say a word in the name of quiet. By the time the children were headed to PE, he was visibly worked up. When Terence let out a shout, crying “Tyrone pinch my neck,” I pulled Terence to the back of the line without comment, and walked beside Tyrone the rest of the way. As I sent the children into the gym, I took Tyrone’s sleeve. “Come on.”
He glanced at my fingers on his sleeve, smiled and looked away, but he followed me back to the room, whistling so the notes echoed eerily through the empty hall. Back in the room, I straightened desks and wiped the board. It was a bright, humid morning, and though the air conditioning unit spat cool through the room the sun through the windows bounced stars of light from the legs of desks and the glossy posters on the wall. Tyrone leaned uneasily against the door watching me and whistling louder and louder, pounding a beat to the door. I let him be until he stopped making noise and just stood.
Finally he spoke, his voice so quiet I couldn’t make out the words over the mutter of the air conditioning.
“What was that?”
“You ain’t gone beat me,” he said.
He smiled and said nothing. I held his gaze until he glanced away at the ceiling.
“You know, Tyrone,” I said gently, “It must be tough, being on your own. Moving all the time. Not having anyone to trust.”
He was still staring at the ceiling.
I waited. In the hall, a class clattered past with a burst of echoing footfalls, then a broader silence as they were gone.
Suddenly, Tyrone slammed his hands to the door, making me jump. He didn’t smile or look away, but spoke directly to me. “You don’t know me.” He opened the door and walked out, didn’t look back as I ordered him to stop. Finally, I called the office to tell them Tyrone Downs had just left my class—and I didn’t know where he was headed.
That afternoon as I went to sign out in the office, the secretary pointed to the Reverend’s office. “He want to see you,” she said. “Bout that Downs boy.”
I knocked at the heavy oak door, heard a stirring before the door was unlocked and the Reverend was there eyeing me with displeasure. He was a tall, broad, serious man prone to pronouncing judgment. I’d never heard his sermons at Great Faith Unity, but the church itself, with its soaring steeple, unexpected grandeur from a dirt lot hemmed by cotton fields, reminded me of the man: audacious and overstated. I did not trust him, but there was no arguing with his authority.
“Mr. Kato,” he said.
He went around the desk as if keeping it between us. “Tyrone Downs is troubling me,” he said.
I nodded. “Did he leave the school grounds today?”
The Reverend ignored my question. “I cannot discipline the boy. He needs to be put in his place. His guardian tells me he cannot catch the boy to—punish him.”
“Mr. Johnson told me the same thing. But, his history. I saw about his mother, the streets of Midnight—”
“We are not here to deal with his history, son. We are here to educate him. His guardian and his social worker, whom I spoke to today, both concur. The boy needs discipline. The question is simple: is there a man who can teach the boy real respect? Or will he be—unfit—for school here at Carver-Upper, as he is thirteen years old, and by District law, ought to be resourced and at the middle school?”
In the silence that followed, I saw what the Reverend was threatening: he was asking me to beat the boy into shape or lose him forever. I had no adequate response. Finally I cleared my throat. “Yes, sir, that’s the question.”
The Reverend smiled, clapped me on the shoulder. “All right then, Mr. Kato. Glad we have an understanding.”
We do not, I thought, as I shook his hand and fled his office.
The next day the air in the classroom was stale and still and warm—the air conditioning unit had broken. By eight, the classroom was sweltering, and sweat poured down my face, wet circles of sweat on the children’s polo shirts, the scent of body thick through the room. Tyrone’s chair sat empty as I taught, and I couldn’t pretend it wasn’t a relief not to deal with him. I sweated out my undershirt. The sun through the windows made me squint, so that I could hardly see the children, whose papers were spotted with drops of sweat. Around ten, the door opened and Tyrone Downs walked in grinning. He was wearing the wrong color uniform, his Polo red Friday when it was only Wednesday.
“Hi, Tyrone. Have a seat,” I said.
He walked to the front of the room until he stood inches from me. He wasn’t sweating, seemed cool and calm.
“Sit down,” I repeated. “Now.”
He met my eyes and stepped closer still, until his face was inches from mine, and spoke, his breath hot to my cheek. “No.”
“You can’t make me do nothing.”
“You will sit down now.”
He hocked, a throaty sound, and then, as the children gasped, he spit on my face. Some of it was in my eye, the wet, warm mucus sliding down my cheek, and anger and instinct rose in me. I swung from the shoulder, felt the solid impact of the blow as he tumbled to the floor. It felt—good. I wiped the spittle from my face with a sleeve as the children gaped silently. Tyrone sat, astonished, felt his chin where I’d hit him and slowly brushed his shirt clean. I waited for him to rise and come at me, for a sign of resentment, but instead he stood timidly, shuffled to his desk and, his cheek to the desk, began the math worksheet he’d missed earlier in the morning.
As we sweated through the day, I saw in Tyrone’s subdued manner that his respect was authentic. I’d established dominance, the only order Tyrone had ever known. And I felt ill with the knowledge that at the day’s end, I would tell the Reverend to resource the boy, to send him away—what he required, I couldn’t afford to give.
©2009 Michael Copperman
'Hurt to Read', creative non-fiction in Guernica Magazine
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