The first day of school they assigned me and Cassius with the new seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Broderick, for fifth period, and all I had to do was look him up and down once to tell he was gonna be a mess. White boy with no hair on his chin, smilin at his books.
Walked in his classroom with the kids and he didn’t have no icebreakers, no Imma get to know you. Only suttin written on the board: Steinbeck and Society. No Lesson AIM, no Do Now or nothin. So I push Cassius in his seat and go up to him.
Excuse me, Mister—?
Excuse Mr. Brother Rick, what’s the lesson for—
Sorry—Ms. Battles. I was wonderin what your lesson was so I can get little Cassius situated.
It’s on the board.
Oh. What do they have to do?
Nothing. It’s a talk.
It’ll be fun.
The bell rang and he chopped up his papers. The kids come kinda quiet, kinda loud.
Good morning class, he say.
One kid go, Waddup! and the rest of them is like, Good morning, like they in front of an open casket.
Now that’s a lukewarm greeting. Let’s try that again. Good morning, class.
Then they all wanna climb up on each other and scream.
That’s better, he say.
Then he dive right in, talkin suttin about Depression-era-this and migrant-that. He in a full corduroy suit, his sweat heatin up the whole damn room nearly. The kids is quiet, even Lyeshawn who they call Kowboy cuz of his sideburns, and Mr. Broderick crane his head and catch my eye to make sure I see that. He don’t know his words is goin straight thru they foreheads and hittin nothin on the way out.
For homework, I’d like you to read the first thirty pages in Of Mice and Men. It’s a quick read.
Me, I say nothin, knowin some of these kids couldn’t get thru thirty pages of Cat in the Hat.
The other day, sittin in the teachers lounge, I said, Eighth-grade Quan pistol-whipped an old lady and that’s why he wasn’t in school for three weeks, and someone was like, Ms. Battles, don’t you mean sixth-grade Quan? and I was like, Whichever. When you been in the schools for fifteen years, that stuff happens.
My name is Verona Battles and guess my age. Well, I’m not tellin. I will say I got a twenty-five-year-old son named Swan and a twenty-two-year-old daughter named Jubilation, a fancy word that mean happiness. Nights I work at the airport doin security, and during the day I work at Harriet Tubman Middle School across the street from the projects I’ve lived at ever since I was nineteen.
I’m a paraprofessional. If you a para, they assign you a kid. Either the kid retarded or have ADHD or fight too much, and they pay you peanuts to be with them all day to keep them from flunkin or killin or shittin. This year they put me with this boy named Cassius. Only reason he need a para is cuz his hands go like this, like tremors. But really I do a bit of everything at the school. Put the flowers up for the Pan-African Gala, or sometimes they got me in the office stuffin envelopes, or in the lunchroom guardin the whole thing.
The kids mostly call me Ms., or they confuse me with the other para, Ms. Jones, cuz they think anybody heavyset with orange lipstick don’t care what you call them. Some of them say, Mornin. Ask me if I want some of they bacon-egg-and-cheese. The boys’ll ask if I’m married or if I think they cute, and that’s when I gotta shut it on down.