Wendy C. Ortiz
THE CLASSROOM WAS not his when he first arrived; it was the domain of substitute teachers for the first few weeks until he walked into the room.
I slid into my seat and stifled a groan. There was always the silent exasperation that came with new teachers; the need to learn their likes and dislikes, their mannerisms, and what one had to do for extra credit.
My back pushed into the plastic cradle of the chair. The clock arms twitched in micro-movement. I winced.
The teacher’s desk was at an angle that faced our neat rows of desks. A cream-colored built-in cupboard behind the desk stood empty and anonymous, but contained the essence of privacy, space that the teacher would fill with teacherly possessions.
Out the window, across the narrow courtyard, was my homeroom teacher’s classroom. Mr. Connell was someone I labeled a spaz,whose wackiness and unpredictability was what kept our attention during class. I wrinkled my nose at the assignments Mr. Connell conjured up, but I avidly participated, figuring I’d trust his method of teaching to get me an A, or at the very least, a B.
In front of us, though, was the new guy who’d been hired to take the reins and lead us, the advanced eighth grade English class. I could already imagine the assignments: mundane essays about summer vacation, or what we might do with a million dollars won in the California state lottery. Pen-drawn spirals multiplied on my notebook covers, scribbles in my hardcover textbooks, the middle section pages cluttered with my tiny handwriting, messages for the student who would open it next.
This teacher wore slacks and a collared shirt and tie, with a dark cardigan sweater in place of a blazer. His burgundy loafers, with tassels, gleamed. Only one of my other male teachers dressed this way, and I was reminded that these kinds of clothes didn’t occupy a place in my father’s closet.
While I walked between classrooms at junior high, my father was in a warehouse, doing math problems, his pencil scratching graph paper before he cut sheets of metal to form ducts and casings. This work didn’t require more than t-shirts, corduroys or blue jeans, sometimes a denim apron. My mother, on the other hand, worked with and for suited men. She pushed paper, answered phones with the words, “Data processing, this is Dee,” and took smoke breaks off of Sunset Boulevard where she worked on the seventh floor of a city office building.
This teacher started talking to us in a fast and easy fashion, as though we were all old friends and he’d just returned from a weekend jaunt. I watched from my desk, noting his easy demeanor, how he was already joking with Brian, the class jester, and how he made eye contact with Veronica, whose attention I craved from the tip of my black boots to the top of my hair-sprayed bangs.
“Mr. Ivers,” he introduced himself, his eyes meeting ours resolutely as he spoke.
His voice boomed as his thick hand composed on the blackboard: IVERS. ENGLISH. Chalk dust scattered away from him like an aura. I coolly looked down at my wood-top desk when he turned his attention to us, asked questions about the school, how we were doing this fine afternoon. He offered information about himself, smiling, knocking on desks with his fist, inhaling loudly. I wondered whether I wanted to look up again and watch what was suddenly sounding like fun, kids letting go of their fragile teenage seriousness—the laughter catching, the banter baiting.
I decided to display a disinterest I was learning to perfect. This air of disinterest took the place of thinking about school, or how life with my parents felt raw, wounded. My preferred setting was the Sherman Oaks Galleria, which felt wild and thick with the comings and goings of high school dropouts-turned-punks, their colored hair stiffened with spray, hands outstretched awaiting change. Placing myself just outside their unpredictable orbits, I aligned myself with them, and any group that was already drifting against, or outside of, the margins. This way I would not be central to anything, but could simply observe, absorb.
Mr. Ivers, the man with a tie at the head of the class, joked with us, shared that we were his first real teaching job, but that he was onto us, that he could hone in on the teenage mind better than we thought. No one challenged this; it seemed plausible. His entrance to the classroom felt like instant habitation: his very being emitted energy, energy that pushed into the corners of the room, high up into the ceiling, up against the windows, daring us to take our eyes off him and look outside.
As soon as I found myself on the edge of my seat, searching the faces of Jennifer, or Tammy, both of whom were laughing and answering Mr. Ivers’s questions, I remembered: Not interested. I leaned back into the hard frame of the chair and let my knees splay out just enough to suggest a hint of the “unladylike,” as my mother would call such a pose. I twirled my pencil around on the desk and kicked Abigail’s desk in front of me, wanting her to join me in an active atmosphere of supreme disinterest.
My eyes were dry and itchy. I pointedly glared at the clock again, for effect. I considered the money in my book bag, what it might buy me if I went to the Galleria later. I didn’t want to go home. Or, I wanted to go home to parents who didn’t fight, didn’t drink, and were just normal, even though I wanted to be anything but normal. My palms lay flat, motionless against the cool desktop.
English class was in the afternoon.
By that time I had already laughed in homeroom, reapplied eyeliner in front of the bathroom mirror at nutrition break, sulked and scowled at math, and sat slackjawed, taking careless notes through history and science. The catering trucks that served as our only lunch choice if we didn’t bring our own had come and gone. It was time to master grammar, read old books, and/or stare at the chalkboard as I silently sang Depeche Mode songs to myself (People are people, so why should it be, you and I should get along so awfully…), waiting for the final bell to ring.
I worked at perfecting the art of sighing: long, loud and heavy; eyes rolled to emphasize a look of non-commitment. A careful pursing of lips and the tap of one black boot on the floor: I punctuated English class often until the day Mr. Ivers assigned us to write one creative paragraph.
One creative paragraph, he said. “Surely you all have papers, pens? Okay, go to it. Five minutes. Yeah, you can shoot hoops, Brian, but can you write? Yeah, a creative paragraph. Don’t give me summer vacation, or what you’d do with a million bucks. Give me one creative paragraph, on anything your little hearts desire. Yep. Here, paper, pen, do you need a desk? How about a brain? Sorry, can’t help you with that. Okay, then, go. Start it up, start me up…” His voice dissolved into an obnoxious rendition of a song I recognized as the Rolling Stones.
I sighed in exasperation.
I crossed my legs. My black leggings rubbed against each other.
I tugged a little on the long-sleeved white collared shirt wrapped around my waist, its arms embracing my hips, the buttons just touching my thighs. I stared at my notebook page, and tentatively let the pen touch it.
Then the image formed. Fire, hillsides, disaster.
I ground my pen into the blank paper, curving, sloping, across its face, across and back, across and back, until the paragraph appeared on the page.
Five minutes passed.
“Alright, hand ‘em up,” Mr. Ivers said. Abigail turned from her seat in front of me to take my paper and shot me a look of Huh? That’s it? A small sea of papers moved to the front of the class, their surfaces whispering softly against one another. Mr. Ivers collected the papers from the students in the front row, walked back to his desk, and leaned against the edge to read each paper to himself.
There was a titter, then a hush, as we watched him relax into his lean, reading, flipping to the subsequent pages rather swiftly. He grunted, occasionally glancing up to say, “Yeah, right!” looking a bashful student in the eye, or “What the…?” directed at another. There was a strange, bouncy feeling in the air, as if we were forgiven for writing poorly, as if he was amused by our adolescent boredom and our confusion and our young, silly way of life.
When he got to my paper, my throat clenched. I knew it was mine, because I’d starting using recycled paper, a telltale soft brown.
He read my paper and paused, re-reading, until I had to take a breath.
Mr. Ivers looked up at me (He knows my name? I think), and asked in a low voice, as if we were the only ones in the room, “Wendy, can I read this out loud?”
My head tilted, nodded softly. Yes, I thought to myself, too scared to say it aloud. Just get it over with.
The class was quiet. They listened as he read each word slowly, words that formed an image of a fire that charged violently down a hillside to ravage the basin below.
When he finished, he looked up and shook his head.
“Excellent,” he said. “This is great work. This is what I asked for. Thank you.”
My legs untwisted under my desk. I slouched in my seat, hid a smile, looked down at the haggard little etchings on my desk. I tried not to meet his eyes again that day.
Mr. Ivers placed the papers in a corner of his desk, and turned to begin scrawling notes on the blackboard.
The class pressed on.
My palms were wet and I felt unmoored. I wiped my palms on the shirt that encircled my waist with its flimsy, translucent hug.
From the book Excavation: A Memoir by Wendy C. Ortiz. ©2014. Reprinted by arrangement with Future Tense Books.
Wendy C. Ortiz is a native of Los Angeles and the author of Excavation: A Memoir (Future Tense Books, 2014). She has written “On the Trail of Mary Jane,” a monthly column documenting medical marijuana dispensary culture in Los Angeles for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, since 2013. Her essays, fiction, and poetry can be found in The New York Times, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, Mutha Magazine, and many other journals. Wendy runs the Rhapsodomancy Reading Series, a bimonthly event since 2004. Visit: www.wendyortiz.com.