By Sara Hendery
A group of boys. Group—meaning, powerful. Young like first breath, like new morning, like unlearned words. They gather, circling around an old beat-up shed; I sit and watch from an Amtrak train paused on the outskirts of a neighborhood in North Carolina. The boys are spray-painting diligently, as in, These words must be perfect; they must make us look dangerous, masculine, like men. I watch them congratulate each other with heavy high-fives and hawks of spit on the ground.
A woman, the owner of the shed, I assume, walks out of her trailer, finds the group of boys vandalizing her property. Hey, that’s mine. That belongs to me, she must think. She’s yelling, hands swinging as if swatting flies; she doesn’t yet see what they have written. I cannot stand the thought that she will see what they have written.
The boys run, dispersing like excited cockroaches, and I see the large red lettering through the sparse trees. They have written the N-word, followed by the word DIE.
What if the boys stayed? What would the woman say to the white boys, sweaty and creamy-skinned and young? What does she need to say? What is she expected to say?
She is the only one left now. Just a woman and her shed.
I stare at the words. How dangerous, language. The boys have decided this is the woman’s destiny, these words in a place where people will see them, stop, and move forward. See them, stop, and move forward.
Words stay in the body the way lead is still visible after being erased.
The boys are the same age as my students, I think. Those boys could be my students.
The train begins to pull away. Slow, like churning butter. I do not see the woman’s reaction to the words, only her approach to the shed, to the stain left on it.
Able or likely to cause harm or injury;
likely to cause problems or to have adverse consequences.
I spend most of my days waiting. For my students to sit down. For boys to return what they have stolen from my desk. For girls to cover their exposed cleavage after having been told to by guidance counselors and teachers. For students to do what they are told. It is fall, I am twenty-two, and at my new job as a middle school journalism teacher, I am given a lot of advice about how to handle children—mostly, they are not called students, but children, boys and girls. The teachers in the lounge sometimes tell me, Boys will be boys, but never, Girls will be girls. I think about the distinction a lot that year.
I start every class with my seventh graders by playing music, often a “Top Hits” station that students beg me to play. I hear the words whore and slut in the chorus of a song, though, and turn down the volume. I hope they didn’t hear it. I think of the girls in the class; I think of the boys in the class. I am always thinking of the boys and girls in the class.
The leader of the boys in the class says, You a white lady who don’t understand black boy music. I know this boy is the leader because other students look to him before they laugh, and I look at him, too, sometimes; he’s smart, quick. The alpha of the pack. The class roars at his comment.
I’m afraid it is the students who don’t understand. I talk to the boy openly about why I turned down the music. How it is not about my race, not about my gender. It is about you, I say, my student. I don’t want you to believe in those words. But he doesn’t buy what I say, and I’m afraid I don’t either.
Later, I see the alpha in the hallway, and he calls me my white lady when he passes me, when he is with his group of followers. That’s my white lady, he says. When I turn, he is already walking away, being pushed forward by the others in the hallway. I’m gone; he’s gone. The group of people is gone, and without my saying anything, he now has me. I am taller, older, paid a salary, and I am afraid of the alpha, afraid of what he thinks, of what he will continue to think. I want, deeply and profoundly, to understand him. But to him, I have been made, not a woman, but a certain kind of lady.
A woman who behaves in a polite way;
a woman of high social position;
a man’s girlfriend.
If you were invisible for a day, what is one fun thing you would do?
It is the middle of the year. I ask a question while I take attendance every day. I look forward to this part—when my students re-become students.
A boy raises his hand. He sits in the back of the room, slumped in his chair, like an old jacket. He never volunteers, but he has a noticeable presence; I often admire his boldness. Please say something, I think. In my head, I tend to name him man because his voice is deep and he towers over me in a way that makes me feel small. The other students rarely question him. He looks like a man. Talks like a man. Technically, he is a boy.
If I were invisible for a day, I would rape any woman I wanted, he says.
The class laughs, like frozen peas rolling around in a fat bag.
I want to vomit. I notice a girl in the center row snapping a rubber band on her wrist. Somehow I know someone hurt her once. She doesn’t laugh; she looks like a picture of herself.
I ask the boy to step outside, and I realize I now think of him as predator in a way that does not make me proud. I am asking myself questions on the journey to the door—how do I raise a boy? I think of what to say to him, what a woman should say to a boy who looks like a man, who says he wants to rape women. He smirks.
I thought it was funny, he says.
I have nightmares about him that night. He follows me to my car after school, like some kind of starving thing. (Was he panting? I think he was panting.) He brings his friends. (Are they panting?) So hungry, all of them. He takes me by the hand, rubs it like I am his, and forces me into the car, a dark place, a deep wound, and it is done. I wake up.
After I speak with the boy by the classroom door, after I tell him the danger of what he said in class, he walks back to his seat, avoiding my eyes. To everyone, almost everyone, he is a hero, the big man. Later, I go to tell the guidance counselor what happened. I feel like a child, knocking on her door, demanding something be done, trying, in my head, to rename the boy yet again, something more innocent. He is, in fact, a boy.
The guidance counselor is on her way out, so she only half-listens. She tells me he probably just learned the phrase from his brothers and that I need to remember boys will be boys.
The guidance counselor and I do not speak about the incident again. All I think about for hours is the space in which I inhabit as a teacher, a supposed authority even while being so young, with the opportunity to be an example, to be an adult woman in a classroom of children, awkward, unsure of what to do with their own bodies, how to be, who to be. I am an adult woman, no? No, not an adult woman. No, I am an adult woman. I often have trouble understanding what certain words mean.
An adult female human;
a female servant or subordinate;
a female lover or sweetheart.
There is a boy who points guns; at first, only at the door; then, at the other boys in the class, the boys who call him names. He hates to be called names. I watch him the way a cat watches for a quick mouse to move out of a hole. I watch him shape a gun with his hand: three fingers curled under like dehydrated leaves, the other two in the shape of an “L,” angled upward and, then, straight, accusatory. “L” for lousy, loser, lost.
There is a group of male students in the class who call the boy dog—animal, panter of breath, servant to bring what is fetched, you are a dirty dog, you—and he answers to the name sometimes, as if his name is whatever they call him. The boys who use the name have all been given detention, and now they let the words spill more quietly than before, more like slick oil.
Dog, as they call him, talks a lot about bitcoin mining and playing the violin. He walks with a bowl-like hunch, runs instead of walks actually, in a hurry, running from them, the others, the other boys, swirling the air with his body, counting his steps down the hallway. If he goes any slower than this, they will notice; they will know he is not their kind of man.
I often hear the boy whisper under his breath, much like I hear other boys whisper under their breaths—middle school is the space for whispering breaths.
One day, I will get you, he says, quietly, pointing the gun in the direction of the other boys. I wonder what he is thinking, what he must be thinking, something like Don’t, don’t, don’t hurt me.
The boy doesn’t know I listen. He doesn’t know I see the gun. Fake, made of his tiny hands, but a gun; he doesn’t know I see him pulling the imaginary trigger. I watch him holding it underneath his desk; it looks like he’s hiding a pet snake from home. I want to say to him, This is how they want you to react.
I have trouble saying and not saying.
I tell the boy’s mother about the invisible gun he holds with his fingers. She is worried. Her son translates her high-pitched, lyric-sounding, concerned Chinese, and tells me that recently the boy and his family were driving in their car at a time when traffic was building up. Someone behind their car opened his door out of frustration, yelled a name at them (which one? I don’t ask), and pretended to shoot an imaginary gun in their direction.
Their son must’ve picked up the habit, violence the mouth of bad language.
A boy who knows the touch of a gun is, indeed, a man.
A boy who points the right objects is, indeed, a man, right?
Anything that is visible or tangible and is relatively stable in form;
anything that may be apprehended intellectually.
The boy carries it over to her, like carrying a baby bird that has fallen out of a nest. I assume he said something like, here, touch it. The girl is older than other girls in her grade; she has already been held back several times. Just touch it.
A group of students has snuck away to an isolated back room in the corner of the band auditorium. Their usual teacher is sick, and there is a substitute today. I hear about the incident in the teacher’s lounge, where stories are told, stopped, and moved forward, again. Told, again and again.
Everyone in the auditorium is watching a movie, so no one notices when a group of students brings the mature-figured girl into the back room, her voluptuous breasts her consent.
The girl touches it because it is already touching her. She physically cannot back away, the musical instruments digging craters into her back. Afterward, the girl tells the substitute, the substitute who never noticed the students were gone in the first place. But what is done is already done.
Now the girl is walking down the hallway, and the other girls know.
Now the boy is walking down the hallway, and the other boys know.
I am not the boy’s teacher; I only see him in the hallways. But sometimes, it feels like you are teaching all of them, always.
Because the boy has a learning disability, his expulsion is handled differently. The principal gathers his teachers in her office to decide if what he did to the girl is related to his learning disability, if he lured a girl into a dark room to touch all the things that make him masculine because of something he was born with or because of something he was taught.
A female child from birth to adulthood;
a young unmarried woman;
a single or married woman of any age;
a female servant or employee.
It is debate day. Students move to one or the other side of the classroom to signal whether they agree or disagree with a statement I write on the board. Today, we are talking about gender in the media.
On the board, I write, A woman could be the president of the United States.
Agree or Disagree?
Almost unanimously, both boys and girls disagree with the statement.
One girl wants to explain her opinion. I am happy; she rarely talks, but I often like her words, how she speaks with exclamation. No, I don’t think a woman could be president. Think about it. What if a woman had to stop in the middle of her speech to feed her children? What if she’s on her period? She would be so moody, she says.
The class roars.
As a teacher of middle school students, I am told I should not share certain opinions with them. I stand in front of these boys and girls, terrified for them, and I feel I can say nothing but, Be careful with your language.
The system of words or signs that people use to express thoughts and feelings to each other;
any one of the systems of human language that are used and understood by a particular group of people;
words of a particular kind.
Be manly. Be more masculine. Be aggressive. Be dominant. Be distant. Be lustful. Be large. Be chivalrous. Be a protector. Be a provider. Be a warrior. Be tough. Be hard. Be the breadwinner. Be cold. Be macho. Be a gentleman. Be expendable. Be physical. Be hetero. Be sexual.
Be womanly. Be more feminine. Be gentle. Be inferior. Be the second-in-command. Be sensitive. Be prudish. Be soft. Be small. Be submissive. Be a prisoner. Be fragile. Be loose. Be a servant. Be warm. Be pretty. Be silent. Be a baby. Be thin. Be curvy. Be expendable. Be physical. Be hetero. Be sexual.
To have an objective existence, or to have reality or actuality;
to have, maintain, or occupy a place, situation, or position;
to remain unmolested, undisturbed, or uninterrupted;
to take place or occur.
As soon as the boys across the street look in our direction, I think of mothers. Their mothers: who are they? Their fathers: who are they? Their teachers: who are they? Where does one begin to raise a person? Where does it end?
The group of boys is running across the street now. They could be my students; they are young like them, male like them. The boys could be my students.
We are walking. There are three of us: two men and myself. It’s late, dark as a locked room.
The boys, now in the middle of the street, yell a slur in our direction. Faggots, they say. Faggots.
There are three boys in their group, a herd. They charge us. My friends and I look forward. We look forward, we look forward, we look forward. They’re closer to us now; no, they’re on top of us. No, they’re all over us. They pull, pull, pull. They are ripping clothes, hitting and hitting and hitting—I am a woman in the center of a group of boys. Men? I am pulled away by one of my friends. It feels like a dream, hazy, like war.
I think of my students, of something to say, to do. The girls, when they’re my age. The boys, when they’re their age.
How do you raise a group? What words, what words, what words?
The police come after I call them, and the men who attacked us are arrested, their faces pressed like dough into the gravel, making permanent indents, I’m sure, into their skin.
An adult male person, as distinguished from a boy or a woman;
a member of the species Homo sapiens or all the members of this species collectively, without regard to sex;
the human individual as representing the species, without reference to sex;
the human race or humankind;
a human being or person.
Where did they put the babies?
We are standing in the center of the hallway. I’m on lunch duty, told to rein them in, rein them all in, keep the kids in their right places. One of the assistant principals asks, Where did they put the babies? I know, after learning these words, after listening closely, that he means the students who are mentally challenged, as this is the word commonly used for them by teachers and others. Boys and girls, boys and girls. Regular boys and girls.
Where did they put the babies? I imagine him searching for them, the babies. He will look only in discreet places—dumpsters, garbage cans, places where people put babies when they don’t want them, when they are afraid to raise them.
I look for them, the babies, and I find them eating lunch in a resource room with a teacher, away from everyone else. I find out they watched movies all day, and some days, that’s all they do.
I leave the room and feel strange, the way I feel when I leave my house in the morning, forgetful, wondering, Did I turn all the lights off? Did I leave the coffee pot on? But also if I could be the type of person who might call certain students babies, making it so they will have to answer to it. Baby—sit. Baby—proof. Baby—doll. Baby—blue.
How do we raise the babies?
A very young child;
a very young animal;
the youngest member of a group.
It is spring, the end of the school year. I plant a garden with my students. I love the idea of raising things. But I do not know how to grow plants, how much soil to use, where to put what, how to make roses into roses. My students and I decide to try it anyway, to raise something. I am proud of them—I feel as close as I have ever felt to being a mother.
We spend weeks tilling the soil, swatting bees, and placing flowers into the holes we dig for them. The flowers fit perfectly. And so they stay there, rooting their roots, letting weeds grow around them, re-blooming. Everything grows, and we—the students, the teacher, the people surrounding the garden—have almost no control over it. No, not really, but yes, a little.
A human being, whether an adult or child;
a human being as distinguished from an animal or a thing;
an individual human being, especially with reference to his or her social relationships and behavioral patterns as conditioned by the culture.
I stare, now, at the faces of students who are mostly freshmen in college. I am their teacher, no longer teaching middle school, but teaching an older age, in a new place. I feel renewed as my students ask me questions like, How would you like us to write? What words do we use? Are we doing this right? What do you suggest? I want to tell them, This way, and, No, you’re not doing this right, and, I really suggest you start over. But, all of a sudden, it doesn’t feel so simple; it feels like maybe the hardest thing I have ever done, like the place where soil ends, like rock. I think of the students I once taught, the young ones. I am suddenly craving, deeply, to know where they are, if they ever think of me, if they ever noticed I was their teacher. Or if they knew I cared for them, too much, not enough. Was it too much? Was it not enough? I wonder, in such a moment, if all of them are even still alive.
You, group—as in powerful, young like fresh breath—how am I supposed to have raised you? How am I supposed to raise a person?
Sara Hendery is from North Carolina but currently resides in Chicago. She is an assistant editor for Hotel Amerika literary magazine and is earning her MFA at Columbia College Chicago.
This essay is excerpted from Creative Nonfiction #60 / Summer 2016 / Childhood