The Light: On Teaching, Childhood, and a School Shooting -The Toast

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“Keep your hands to yourself,” I say to Alma, one of the pre-K students at my school. Alma narrows her eyes and gives me a look that says Go to hell. She is holding a sharpened pencil, readying it to poke another student. “I’m watching you. Put it away.”

I see my former student, Claudia, running from the sidewalk into the street. Why aren’t the teachers stopping her? I look around for the music teacher who usually monitors the buses and notice that everyone else is looking the same way. There are other students behind Claudia, also running, toward something behind a bus that I could not see. I realize that while I was talking to Alma I had heard several loud bangs, BAM BAM BAM, like a bus had crashed, and the noise is still echoing in my head as I watch the children run. I am still registering the noise, the running, when I see Ms. Viola gesture wildly in the street and yell something incomprehensible into the walkie-talkie.

I immediately look at Jorge. The youngest pre-kindergartner, I am convinced his parents lied about his age so he could attend school. He is barely big enough to carry the backpack hugging his bony shoulders. He punches someone on the leg and the student cries out; I reach for Jorge’s hand and am moving him to sit on a patch of grass next to me when I hear screaming.

“It’s a mother,” I hear someone say on the walkie-talkie, the voice echoing. “Dear God,” I think I hear them say; I can’t tell. I have been highly sensitive since I was fired from my fourth-grade class. Am I imagining a catastrophe?

I look back at the students sitting along the low-slung school wall, waiting for their parents, making sure to watch them and not get distracted again. Probably it’s just some accident.

Later I will find out that, fifteen feet away from where I stood, a group of children — including Claudia — surrounded a woman’s body on the sidewalk. Her head was in a pool of blood, her palms facing the sky, fingers curled, as if she had simply dropped a note on the way to pick up her daughter from school. It was 3:10 when she was shot, walking to pick up her daughter from school, walking past the apartments where many of our students live.

I always wonder if Kareem was one of the students who saw her.

In a vocabulary lesson, my fourth-grade class sits on the carpet reviewing the word “resilient.” We are looking at a picture of a runner jumping over a hurdle on a piece of cardstock. I hold it up for everyone to see, and ask the class of an example of a time they were resilient.

Kareem raises his hand. “What does it matter,” he says, picking a piece of lint off the carpet and rubbing it between his fingers. “If a man can go up to another man and break his neck, leave him dead in a pool of water, what does it matter, this ‘resilient’ word?”

I am wearing a bright blue dress I bought from Target the week before. It is already tight around the waist. I have not been able to exercise since July, and that morning when I weighed myself, I noted I had gained fifteen pounds since August.

It is October. What had once been a 40-hour work week for me is now a 60- or 70-hour week. I look at my shoes, from which Rosa is quietly pulling a long black string. She is sitting so close to me I can smell her shampoo, powdery and heavy. I spent $200 on these shoes from Clarks to save my poor feet; already they are starting to fall apart from nine hours a day on my feet.

I look at my shoes, how the decorative edges are unraveling into Rosa’s hand. The students are all staring at me, waiting.

It is after recess and the children smell like sweat. I have isolated Mohammed in one corner of the classroom, where he turns his pencil over and over in a clenched fist. Today Kareem is in my small group and I help him write the first paragraph of his story. “Thank you. I am not the best teacher,” I said. “But I am happy to help you. Now let’s look at this sentence. You don’t say, ‘He make run,’ you say ‘He made me run.’”

We continue. For fifteen minutes, I lose him because his pencils have gotten out of order. I thought he had addressed this at the beginning of class, but apparently not. There is nothing I can do about the lost time, since I am helping ten-year-old Esther again learn the alphabet, D-G, and how to write these letters forwards. She is scratching her legs frantically, and stops often. I push a hand through my hair, which has risen into a dark puff and looks unkempt. “Try again,” I tell her.

Once his pencils are lined up, Kareem looks at me and says loudly, “I ready for my lollipop,” and begins laughing wildly. I smile because I can’t help it; he looks likes a baby with his wide-open eyes, dark pools of brown. I look at his paper. It is a story about the time his kindergarten teacher in Syria beat him brutally for a small infraction in class – was it speaking? – and Kareem ran four miles home and refused to go back to school. He was five.

“Please come back, your pencil is sharp enough.”

I stop reading as the electric pencil-sharpener purrs for the eighth consecutive time in five minutes.

He is suddenly five inches from my face. “You like it, Miss Shartz? I write good, no?” His teeth are extremely white, ghostly against his dark face. His smile is gentle at the corners, like his mother’s. He is still bleeding from his lip from head-butting Mohammed on the playground. He thrashes his head and lets out a loud cry.

“Shut up!” Mohammed yells from the corner. “Everyone hates you.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Dr. Gutierrez standing with his arms folded at the classroom window. How long has he been standing there? “Freak,” I said under my breath, despite myself. Eighty-percent passing on the standardized exam, he said. Or I’m fired.

“Go outside,” I say to Mohammed. “Go get a drink of water or something.”

“He is your favorite,” Mohammed says as he exits the room. He says this loud enough for Dr. Gutierrez to hear, then slams the door.

Why do I remember Mohammad slamming the door when an hour later I find out what happened? I am standing in the copy room with two other teachers, stunned. “Whatever,” a teacher says. “This happens all the time in my country.” He walks out with a stack of papers and gets ready to leave for the day.

I drive home gripping the steering wheel like it’s a raft, a buoy keeping me afloat.

When I enter my house, I hear the chords of piano music coming from the den. My father-in-law is playing a lively nursery rhyme. I can’t. An hour before, a woman was shot in the head, laid fifteen feet from me in a pool of her own blood. I can’t. There isn’t time to explain fully, but I say to my husband and my father-in-law, spelling it out so my daughters can’t understand: “A woman was k-i-l-l-e-d during dismissal.”

“What?” my husband says.

I walk to the bedroom and lock the door. Nothing on the news. I call CNN, MSNBC, local stations, the newspaper. A person answers the line at a local station, asks me: “Isn’t that a bad neighborhood?” Fuck you. I hang up.

Gang violence, the news speculates that night. Drugs. A picture of the woman is posted, a Latina with full lips and long shiny hair. Money, bad neighborhood, her native country, killer at large. Nothing to explain that a daughter’s mother was shot point blank, that hardly anyone cared, even the teachers at the school.

The news interviews one student, and actually shows her crying face. “I saw her and I was sad,” she says.

The woman’s body laid for hours on the sidewalk as the children walked home that day. Dismissal was almost over by the time we were told to pull the remaining students inside. On the bed, I laid back with my hands on my chest. I imagine her hands falling away from her body by the blow, her body face-up, open.

The light was strong earlier that day, still summer-like. Everything wrong with this school, this place that treated students like prisoners, could be seen in that full bright light shining on the woman’s body, on her long splayed-out hair, her carefully kohl-lined eyes and red lips, the dark stain of her death seeping underneath her.

I realize I am breathing heavily, in shallow spurts. I am still lying on the bed with my eyes staring at the ceiling, the television still droning on, fixed on the news station. I never escaped, I think. I am back in that place of my childhood, of poverty, of riding my bike along a dirty bayou, hoping for something better that never comes.

Between the ages of eleven and thirteen, I had one pair of shoes: a pair of white Nike sneakers with a black swoosh and a thick Velcro band of red. They were named after some basketball player I’d never heard of and I’d begged my father to buy them for me. A few years later, I learned that he’d sold some of his guitar equipment so he could.

I never felt poor, but looking back now I realize I was for my entire adolescence. After my father lost his job at a large corporate bank, we lost our house and our car. My Nikes carried me and all of my possessions as my parents, sister, brother and I walked across the street to a neighbor’s house, where we would live for several years.

I’d been desperate for the shoes, which arrived oversized and pristine in a crisp box. They smelled of new rubber and cost more than a week’s worth of groceries, but came with a guarantee: that I would belong. As happy as I was to strap my father’s gift on my feet, I started to feel bad almost immediately. As bad as I’d felt when my friend Angela stole weeks’ worth of my father’s food money from his wallet. She denied it, but I knew it was her, based on the mounds of cash hidden in her closet, profits she’d similarly pilfered from our school fundraisers. My dad looked grief-stricken when he opened his empty wallet. I ran off in my new shoes, afraid to share the truth. I was trapped by my own needs, just like my friend.

My Nikes took me to the library and bookstore, where I’d sit in the stacks and devour series by V.C. Andrews about girls who dug their way out of dangerous situations, stories about the Holocaust and survival and science fiction, where the world is surreal and unexpected. They took me on solitary bike rides along Greens Bayou, a small tributary of the bigger Buffalo Bayou in Houston. The banks were overgrown with weeds, littered with Coke bottles and trash. The bayou was topped by industrial-sized pipes that loomed overhead, letting heat escape from it in steamy curls. But the stream itself held promise, after a rain especially, when it flowed wild, unkempt and oblivious to its ugliness.

I’d ride my bike on the rocky path along the bayou behind my house, pedaling so fast it felt like I was flying. The wind would whip my long hair. The bayou was potent with the smell of sewage and mud, but that didn’t stop me. I’d crossed the path toward the orange sky beaming behind our neighborhood of low-slung houses.

The urge to keep going was palpable; the urge to avoid the situations that I, like many of my classmates, seemed to be headed for: gangs, violence, early pregnancy, dropping out of school. In the evening, I would feverishly read and write, working late into the night on homework, promising myself that I would escape this fate.

It was the bayou that saved me, I’d realize later. At the time, I felt just like it: ugly, deformed, sluggish. At five feet tall, I weighed only 65 pounds and wore baggy clothes, both as a way to hide my severely skinny body and to try to fit in with the uniform of my peers. But walking in the hallway in middle school was a dangerous event. I’d leave the classroom enshrouded in a big black sweater, and still I’d hear the kids’ taunts: “Look at that skeleton, man. What an ugly girl.”

Was it a trick of the light, that brilliant rose-colored cascade of hope as the sun shone down on the dingy shore, which made me believe that there was ever anything else? Or was I realizing that it was just a sign of some power that shone upon everything horrific and blessed without regard, everything equally worthy of being seen?

On the day of the shooting, I felt as if it had happened without judgment. I wanted a judge. Would I have to be that judge?

What, in God’s name, qualified me to speak?

The police never found the shooter. It was suggested that the murder was a targeted hit, so the story of the ambushed mother was quickly forgotten. But I couldn’t forget, and neither could the children I taught. The next week during class, a child in first grade asked me what it was like to get shot in the head. What does it feel like?

I thought carefully before I spoke, and said something that I can’t remember and mattered little when I said it.

I had so little to offer these children, I thought on the day I resigned. As I walked out of the building, escorted by the assistant principal, I knew that the shooting would not mark the last time many of these children experienced such violence firsthand. I wasn’t anyone’s hero, nor did I ever want to be. I had simply wanted to be a teacher to the kind of students with whom I could identify — in whom I could see myself.

That suffocating feeling of poverty and the violence that often accompanies it had followed me all my life. I was forced to face the fact that, as a person of color, a woman, and someone who still wants to work with those who are disadvantaged, there is a feeling of desperation I will never escape; a kind of hopelessness, a dread, a washed-over color to the day. Somehow it finds you, no matter how far you’ve come.


Names of children have been changed. –Ed.

Leslie Contreras Schwartz is a writer in Houston, Texas. Her work has appeared in Dame Magazine, the Houston Chronicle, and Pebble Lake Review.

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