By MEH (Matthew E. Henry)
I blacked out in class once. When I came to, a student was gasping against the near wall, the toes of his overpriced kicks dancing above the burnt orange carpet, my forearm so firmly pressed into his throat. Behind me, my class broke between shocked silence and screams about a horrible joke. After he collapsed to the ground, scrambled out of the room—his pride crushed more than his raw windpipe—the standing slowly returned to their seats. As did I. From behind my desk—metal hiding my adrenaline shaking hands—I attempted to point their attention to the bell work on the board. But someone couldn’t contain the outburst the rest soon echoed and amen-ed: “yo, you weren’t kidding.”
Weren’t kidding that they were mine. My kids. My family. That a primal instinct dictates that I, without a thought, would put my body between them and anyone, anything, I perceived as a threat. Including a junior I didn’t know, who thought it would be funny to bum-rush into my classroom, hollering how he told this fool he’d catch him slipping, and that his time had come, at a friend whose hands hovered over my taunt shoulders, wondering if it was safe to pull me off his boy, help him to breathe.
And that’s always been the way this works: you send them to school, entrust them to my care, and I get them home to you. By any means necessary. Even when that means staring down the drug dealer your son swindled. Or having abrupt conversations with the abusive ex-boyfriend waiting for your daughter in the cafeteria after school. Or escorting your child between classes—broken wooden bat in hand—daring anyone who thought they’d get revenge on a supposed “snitch” to step up, wake up in the hospital. I have taken their keys and pocket knives. Carried them away from fights and breakups. Held them together after you showed up strung out on meth to Back-to-School Night, or attempted suicide on the floor of their bathroom. I have placed my body between my kids and whatever fuckary would attempt to do them harm. But that was then.
Now I enforce one-way rules and distances that impede the social. I sanitize desks which must remain in unflinchingly straight rows, before, during, and after every class. I attempt to decipher the color codes of air purifiers in under-ventilated rooms.
Now I’m learning to read faces without puckered lips, and wrinkled noses, to say nothing of smirks, smiles, and frowns. To hear more than what’s mumbled behind masks. To perfect the practice of smiling though pupils and an inclined head, side hugging with eyebrows and elbow bumps. To maintain safe spaces through hit and run meetings in single file hallways, without falling into the abyss of eyes.
Now I hold virtual classes amid inequitable and unreliable internet access, a plethora of new apps and platforms, rotating cohorts of hybrid half-days and all-day remote sessions, while you’re always screaming whenever she unmutes her mic, and he will only show his forehead beneath a knit cap on screen, and their space remains a black square hiding that which won’t be named.
Now I hold virtual conferences about compositions, Common App essays, the razor blades under her bed, the reasons he can’t sleep, the alcoholic she locks out every night, his five AP workload, plagiarism, her grandfather two weeks dead from COVID, how little food has passed her lips, his first confession of an ill-fitting body, how the white boys look at her dusky complexion, assignment clarifications, college dreams deferred, the cancelled concert, her need to get back into therapy, the cancelled game, his need to get back into therapy, the cancelled prom, their need to get back into therapy. And still, my hands feel empty. My body gone porous as a cloth mask with worry.
And now, as I watch you fight the school board, argue we aren’t doing enough, my forearms ache with a phantom pain.
Matthew E. Henry (MEH) is the author of the poetry chapbooks Teaching While Black (Main Street Rag, 2020) and Dust and Ashes (Californios Press, 2020), and his full-length collection, the Colored page, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications. The editor-in-chief of The Weight Journal, MEH’s poetry and prose is appearing or forthcoming in Barren Magazine, Bending Genres, Frontier Poetry, Lucky Jefferson, Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly, Ninth Letter, Ploughshares, Porcupine Literary, Shenandoah, and Solstice. MEH’s an educator who received his MFA, yet continued to spend money he didn’t have completing an MA in theology and a PhD in education. You can find him at http://MEHPoeting.com writing about education, race, religion, and burning oppressive systems to the ground.