The New Jordan
By Lisa Piazza
I miss the old Jordan.
The new Jordan is a dud.
A stoner. Lump in the back row, left corner.
The old Jordan used to sit in the front of the room. A twelfth-grader, a reader, one of those cool kids with long bangs half-covering his thick, black-rimmed glasses like some kind of K-pop philosopher; a boy on the edge of deciding which way to go: girls, boys, both, neither. He never tried to claim it. He knew he was about to slide right out of this small-town high school and into another life – and he couldn’t wait to get there. He only got wistful toward June, when his poems and stories dipped into the deep stuff: duplicity and loss and the careful ways we avoid threading ourselves with others. He stopped making eye contact with me then. Stopped looking at all of us, really. Sights set on something too far out or, more likely, too far in.
The new Jordan is a ninth grader. A decent poet for someone who never carries a pencil, but I still can’t take him seriously. He slumps in late to class every day with an empty backpack and a half-full Big Gulp. Lately he’s been coming in so high his eyes are like little half-smirks. Not open but not totally closed either. Today he can barely lift his head. I’m worried he drank a whole bottle of cough medicine or something at lunch but everyone tells me kids don’t do that anymore.
When the new Jordan gets to his corner desk, he immediately puts his head down. I walk over and tap gently on his shoulder.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
“You can’t sleep in class.”
Next to him Chloe is on her phone and Izzy has her pack of colorful Sharpies out. We’re supposed to be practicing how poets use repetition but so far I’m the only one repeating anything: journals out! pick a prepositional phrase!
Jordan puts his head back down. “Do you need to go to the nurse?” I ask him. He doesn’t look up.
Journals out! Pick a prepositional phrase!
I tap on Jordan’s shoulder again but he only shrugs, then slumps.
I ignore his closed journal, closed eyes but the next day it’s the same thing again: the slump and slide, head down. I call the office for a campus supervisor to come and take him to the nurse or the office or something. They send the young one. The guy with the ZZ Top beard. He’s wearing sunglasses and a trucker hat. I heard him tell one of the other teachers how much he loves his job. It’s like I’m back in high school! He gushed. Only older. Only sadder. Only stop sidling up to those girls in the tube tops.
“Jordan. You’re coming with me.” He says now and stands there, looming, until Jordan looks up, gathers his stuff. He doesn’t have much. He leaves his journal on the desk next to his writing folder. Everything he writes has the same flow: his characters move through violence toward sex and then on to drugs, dragging their heels around the page from gun to knife to bed to bottle, Juuling in between. The boys in his stories all want one thing and the girls are happy to oblige. Fantasy.
I pick up his journal and try to hand it to him but he just looks at me and says fuck off.
“You should write him a referral,” Chloe says.
“Oh, I’ll handle it.” I say – but I know I won’t.
The sample poem I’ve given the class has a line repeated four times throughout the twelve line poem: In the west….In the west….In the west…it reads, with gorgeous descriptions of mountains and rivers in between. When the kids pick their own phrases to repeat, they can’t get past their own bodies:
… in my mind
... in my heart
…in my eyes
Theirs is the only geography that matters.
I sit down and look out at them, finally focused, heads down and scribbling. I write: in the basement…in the basement…in the basement…because that’s where my classroom is.
The new Jordan doesn’t come to class the next day. Or the next. On Friday I rush out for the weekend and don’t think about him at all. When I get to school on Monday, his mom is there, standing in the hallway next to my door. Of course, I don’t know it’s his mom at first. But then she says, “You have my son in your class.”
“Jordan,” she says, “You know, he’s not a bad kid.”
I unlock the door and show her in. The room is a haphazard mess, covered in piles of papers and books I should have taken home over the weekend. I point to a student desk and tell her she can sit down, but she doesn’t.
“I don’t have a lot of time. But I wanted to see you.”
She is older than I would have guessed, with thinning blond hair and light grey eyes. Jordan looks nothing like her. He is angular and bony with messy black hair and deep-set dark eyes. She is soft and round, red in the face. Maybe she’s been crying.
“How is Jordan? I haven’t seen him for a few days.”
“You haven’t heard?’
She turns and looks at one of the desks like maybe she is going to sit down after all, but then she changes her mind. I look over at the desk too – as if Jordan might be waiting there. Sneering, slumped over with his Big Gulp. But when I blink, it’s the old Jordan I see, with his books and his glasses and his future, shaking his head at me.
“They sent him home early last week, after you had him taken out of your class. They told him they would deal with him later.”
This would make a good story, the old Jordan mouths to me. I want to listen to him instead of to the new Jordan’s mother.
I mean, look at it: you’ve got your mother, he says, parsing out the tale. And you’ve got your teacher, dreading the details.
The mother sucks in her breath: He was crossing Pacific when it happened. Came out of nowhere he says, but I know how he can be. It’s those phones. He was probably looking down… A pick-up truck hit him.”
I gasp: oh no! The old Jordan just smiles. A cocky smile with an ironic twist. He’s got his notebook open and his pen out. I shake my head at him but he keeps going:
See? So, now you’ve got your teacher fumbling around for a response: “Oh my god. I…they didn’t…..no one sent an email or anything….”
Then you’ve got the mother, frantic and full of blame: “Luckily, he’s going to be okay. The truck stopped. 911 and everything. Broke his left leg and fractured his wrist. It could have been much worse.”
The teacher, still at a loss for words: “But still, my god…”
The mother, trying to normalize a situation that was never normal: “Anyway, he won’t be doing any writing anytime soon, that’s for sure. If you can give me his missing assignments, I’ll have him dictate them and I’ll send them to you.”
The teacher unable to find anything on her desk – jots down a list of what she thinks Jordan is missing. Wants to ask the mother about the cough syrup, the Juuling, if she knows where Jordan goes to get high at lunch.
The old Jordan isn’t about to stop. He points to a manila folder on my desk and says: give her this. It’s the new Jordan’s writing folder. Everything he’s written all year.
“No teenage boy wants his mother to see this.” I say out loud. The new Jordan’s mom stops talking. What was she saying?
“I’m sorry.” I repeat. “Wait. I mean …here.”
I hand her the folder.
The new Jordan slumps in late to class the next day. I am surprised to see him. He doesn’t look banged up one bit.
I walk over to him – smiling, shocked. “You’re okay!?”
He doesn’t look up. He has his black backpack on his desk. It looks even more empty than usual.
“Why’d you give it her?”
“She read everything. Out loud. To me. My dad laughed his ass off. My mom is pissed at both of us now.
“He what? Why?” It’s a copout – throwing out a question when you don’t like the answer.
I turn toward the class and try to get them started on the Skeltonic poetry lesson. Each kid is supposed to pick a sound and push the rhyme as far as they can: speak, seek, leak, peek, peak, reek, meek…Grace is good at this kind of stuff, Zyrus, too. They are the true writers in this class. Grace with her way of turning everything into an angry slam poem and Zyrus with his Sonic fan fiction. He’s a ninth grader of the best sort: open and wild and pensive and funny. Wears big, dark rimmed glasses and laughs with a snort.
Chloe gets us on track with the Skeltonic. She starts off with class, pass, sass, lass, crass….
“Ass!” Jordan shouts and then storms out. He’s out the door before I can stop him. When I look back at his desk, the old Jordan is there again, arms folded, laughing.
“What are you…?”
“Oh, he’s gone…” Chloe tells me.
“I’m not talking to….” I start but then I stop because
The old Jordan looks at me like the rest of the class. He’s part of this space again. Summoned by my memory, he’s someone else entirely. Old and new combined. True/untrue. Who knew?
Back to the Skeltonic, I guess. Fifteen minutes later, the new Jordan slinks in. I don’t call anyone this time. He’s got a fresh Slurpee in each hand. Chloe busts up.
“Oh my god! You didn’t!”
The new Jordan puts one of the Slurpees on her desk and slouches next to her, watching as she takes a long sip. But what I see is the old Jordan, sitting in her place now, sighing like aaaaaaah long after the last bell rings.
Lisa Piazza is a writer, educator and mother from Oakland, Ca. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cordella Magazine, Quip Literary Review, and Porter House Review among others. Her short stories have received nominations for Best Small Fictions, Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. Her novella was a finalist for Split Lip Press in 2020. She currently reads for Fractured Lit.