I am sitting on a blue chair in a New York City public school classroom in The Bronx staring at a Chromebook screen on a student desk caught in the chilly cross-breeze between the ceiling-high open windows and the open classroom door and I am waiting for my students to show up online and I am trying not to die.
My mom, a retired New York City teacher, texts me, “Good morning.” She is at home in Queens in bed and watching Gail King’s Morning Show. I text her back a screenshot of the test results from the random Coronavirus tests of teachers in the building. Negative. Behind me the blonde teacher from Westchester said that her tests results are negative. Behind her the dirty-blonde teacher from Poughkeepsie said that his test results were negative too.
We get an email from the elementary school on the fourth floor of the building. One person tested positive for Coronavirus in their school. They closed the classroom. They traced the students and teachers who came into close contact with the undisclosed positive person. We wait three or four minutes for the follow up email from our brunette principal from Ronkonkoma. Our school will remain open. If one more person tests positive, then maybe their classroom will close. If two more persons test positive, then maybe the school will close. I stare at my laptop screen and I will my students to show up to class online. I believe my mask keeps me safe. I believe social-distancing keeps me safe. I believe open windows on chilly October days keep me safe from catching Coronavirus.
My students arrive to virtual Spanish class. I instruct them in Spanish and then in English because some complain that they don’t speak Spanish. I tell them to do the Do Now exercise posted on Google Classroom under Classwork. I tell them to watch the short Spanish video and then complete the Google Doc. I hear the paraprofessional say in the back of the classroom: “Javier! You don’t have Spanish class right now! Log in to Test Prep class! I know your voice anywhere!”
Javier says, “What’s that miss? I can’t hear you.”
The special-ed teacher in the back of the classroom says, “Log in to Test Prep!”
Javier says, “I can’t hear you.”
I say, “Javier, are you a comedian?”
He says, “Naw.” Then he leaves the Google Meet video class.
The para says, “They’re all showing up for Spanish class and not for Test Prep.”
“That’s cause it’s easy.” The special-ed teacher says, “No offense, Maria.”
Angelica says from a black box on my screen with her name in caps, “Miss! We really gotta go to gym?”
“Yes!” The para yells from the back of the classroom.
I lean out of the way so that the para can see my screen of names in white ink on black squares.
“Why?” Angelica asks.
“To get some exercise.” The special-ed teacher says.
“This is dumb. We don’t turn our screens on. How’s the teacher gonna know if we’re doing the exercises or not?” Angelica asks.
I make eye contact with the special-ed teacher briefly. I have been avoiding eye contact with him since his students dissed my pink Geox sneakers from three seasons ago and they said that I looked like I was going to church in my NY&Co black dress and matching cardigan. My sister always said I looked like I was converting to Judaism when I wore black knee-length dresses with black stockings. I looked out the 8th grade classroom doorway into the hallway. I made eye contact with the special-ed teacher. He looked at me. I looked away. I felt unconfident. Inadequate. Insecure.
I tell you this not because I want your pity. I am not a blonde woman from Connecticut teaching in The Bronx for the first time. I am not a white man from Staten Island teaching in The Bronx for the first time. I am a brown woman from Queens teaching in The Bronx for the first time. I tell you this because I want you to understand who I am and what the students are getting. They are getting the daughter of a public school teacher. A daughter who played school with her dolls when she was five years old. They are getting the granddaughter of a Jamaican school teacher who passed away when I graduated from an ivy league boarding school in Connecticut where I lost my Queens accent. They are getting the great granddaughter of a freed slave who taught the children of freed slaves in a little school house in Jamaica how to read and write when segregated education was separate but unequal. They are getting a middle-aged teacher who says the Serenity Prayer hourly and calls her therapist daily and overeats vegan desserts weekly to cope with the unmanageability of waking up at 4am and taking the 6am train to reach The Bronx at 7:30am only to be disrespected by brown-skinned special-ed students and Spanish-speaking parents who want to know “How the fuck to log in to the fucking Google classroom.”
My life is unmanageable.
Why did I take an in-person job during a pandemic which has killed millions of people worldwide and hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S?
Simple. I needed money. I needed money to pay my student loans. I owe $150,000 in student loan debt. The U.S. government loaned me money to get a master’s degree in education. A master’s degree that New York State does not accept. So, I went $50,000 into debt for a degree not good in New York City.
I want to live in New York City. I want to live in Manhattan. I want to live in Harlem. Then I want to live on the west side overlooking the Hudson River. Then I want to live on the east side overlooking the East River. Then I want to live on Park Avenue overlooking Central Park. I want to look out onto the land where an interracial neighborhood of African Americans and Irish Americans were thrown off their land. I want to look out onto the view that eminent domain and racist laws brought me. I want to see history. I want to write about it.
You see that I am a writer with $150,000 in student loan debt. You see that I am working in a New York City public school in The Bronx. You see that I don’t earn enough money to live on Park Avenue. I work Monday through Friday teaching Spanish to first generation Latinx students who speak Spanish at home. I teach Spanish to immigrants from Puerto Rico, The Dominican Republic, and Mexico. I, an African American, teach Spanish to Latin American students. The irony is not lost on any of us.
“Miss,” Joaquin says, “I don’t speak Spanish.”
“Pero, tu te llamas Joaquin.”
“Tu me entiendes.”
“I understand Spanish. I don’t speak it.”
“Miss,” Melisa says, “I speak Spanish, but I don’t read it. What’s that say?”
“Miss,” Inocente says, “I speak Spanish. Read it. Everything. Can I learn Korean?”
“K-pop is lit!” Melisa says.
“Sure. Why not.”
“De veras?” Inocente asks.
“Si. This is a language class. You can learn Korean after you do the Spanish classwork.”
“Bet.” Inocente does the Spanish classwork in 10 minutes. Then he puts on his headphones, signs up for Korean Duolingo lessons, and starts learning Korean.
“Yo puedo aprender japones?” Pablo asks.
“Si. Ya hablas espanol, no?” I ask.
“This is the best class.” Pablo says to no one in particular.
All of the students have on headphones. They are plugged into their Chromebooks. They are learning Spanish or Korean or Japanese.
I am standing beside the window with my blue medical mask on. The chilly October breeze is blowing my dark brown locs. The locs that my Jamaican mother dislikes, but keeps her opinions to herself. The locs that tie me to my Jamaican roots and to my African roots where hair is grown long like Samson’s for strength.
Silently, I pray for strength. In the silence of the classroom I pray to whatever gods may be: “God, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
“Hey Miss!” Darnell waves to me as he passed the classroom door.
“Darnell.” I say.
“Nice kicks.” He laughs and passes by.
I look down at my comfortable pink high tops. I look around the classroom. Either the students don’t hear him or don’t care. I remember the pamphlet I read about detachment from my therapist. I tell myself: “I did not mother Darnell. I cannot manage Darnell. I will not martyr myself to the altar of Darnell. I shall not start the poor-me tantrum.” The tantrum that says:
Poor me, Darnell is making fun of my sneakers. Poor me, I’m not a special-ed teacher. Poor me, I teach special-ed classes in-person during a pandemic. Poor me, I don’t wear designer sneakers. Poor me, I’m not debt-free. Poor me, I have to work for a living. Poor me, I have to work during a pandemic when unemployment is at an all-time high. Poor me, I live in Queens where rent is cheaper than Manhattan. Poor me, I wake up every morning while thousands of people who went to bed last night don’t wake up in the morning. Poor me. Poor me. Pour me a tall hot chocolate with double pumps of dark chocolate and hold the whip cream. Pour me 1,000 calories of sugar. Pour me sugary drinks. Poor me will end up with diabetes if I don’t stop these pity parties at the coffee bar. I am a middle-aged woman with shoulder-length dred locs and black high-waisted curvy-fit jeans from American Eagle and a blue plaid shirt from my retired teacher-mom’s closet and a twitching left eye-lid sitting in a chilly eighth grade classroom in The Bronx waiting for an email that says our school is shut down due to COVID-19 and I can teach Bronx kids from my apartment in Queens. The email does not come.