It’s the first day of school, and I’m terrified. I stand at the door of my classroom, holding a clipboard and watching the sea of kids shove their way down the dimly-lit hall. Some of them saunter into my room, looking me up and down and sucking their teeth.
When the bell rings, I walk to the front of the room and take a deep breath. My hands are shaking, and I hope they can’t tell.
“Good morning,” I say. “My name is Ms. Carson.”
Someone whistles, and all the kids laugh.
I give them the look I’ve been practicing in the mirror. “I will not tolerate disrespect,” I say. “I didn’t at my old school, and I won’t tolerate it here.”
My principal recommended that I lie — tell the students it’s not my first year teaching. “You gotta show ’em you’re tough,” he said. In training, too, we heard it over and over: if you don’t have their respect, you’ll never be able to teach them.
“This is a hand-out on my class rules and procedures.” I pick up a stack of papers from my desk and try to count out enough for each row. My fingers feel fat and clumsy, and my hands are shaking visibly.
I’ve just started reading rule one out loud – respect yourself and others – when there’s a commotion at the back of the room.
“Quit kicking my chair!” a tall boy yells.
“I ain’t kicking your chair.” The other boy is heavy-set with angry, slitted eyes.
“Excuse me,” I say loudly, but they ignore me and continue to shout. The tall one stands up and grabs the other boy’s desk with both hands. He picks it up and slams it back down on the floor.
“What are their names?” I ask a girl in the front row.
“Danny,” she says. “And Gerrell’s the big one.” Gold teeth flash inside her mouth.
“Danny,” I say. “Gerrell. Settle down.” My heart is beating fast. “Danny, come sit up here.” I point to an empty desk.
“Be happy to get away from his fat ass.” He swaggers towards the front of the room.
“What’d you say?” Gerrell stands up, shoving his desk so hard that it topples over and crashes to the floor. Gerrell’s voice is strangely high, and his face looks babyish despite his enormous size. Some of the kids laugh, and I can tell they’re laughing at Gerrell, not Danny.
“I said you’re a fat ass.”
Gerrell lumbers towards him, scowling. “Try me, nigger,” he says. “Try me.”
They’re standing face to face now, and I can see Gerrell’s nostrils flaring. “You wanna fight?” he asks, his voice even higher. “I’ll take you right now.”
The other kids shout and pound on their desks with glee.
“Hey, hey!” I yell. I can’t let this happen. I can’t let them think they can walk all over me. I march towards them and stand between the two boys, putting my hands on their chests. They push against me, shouting and cursing at each other over my head, as if I’m not even there.
I don’t know what to do, but I have to do something or I’ll never live this down. For the rest of the year I’ll be that white lady who lets kids fight in her room.
Through the boys’ shirts, I can feel both of their hearts beating wildly.
“I’ll kill you,” Gerell says.
“I’ll kill you first, bitch.”
“That’s enough!” I shout. “Danny, go outside and cool off.” I push him towards the door, and to my surprise, he goes, muttering something about how that fat ass ain’t worth his time.
Gerrell stays put, and I take my hand away from his chest.
“Gerrell, have a seat,” I say. But he doesn’t sit down. Instead he pushes past me towards the door. By the time I reach the hallway, Danny is already on the floor, and Gerell is on top of him, smashing his fist into Danny’s face.
Students errupt from my doorway and swarm around the boys.
I run back inside the classroom and push the intercom button. “Security,” I yell into the speaker. “I need security.” My voice wavers, and I feel tears stinging the back of my throat. I swallow hard. I can’t let them see me cry.
Out in the hallway, my students cheer.