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Photo courtesy of Ivan Aleksic

Creative Nonfiction

Ten, Almost Eleven

By Sarah Starr Murphy

It is May and my daughter is ten, almost eleven.  We live on a winding rural road with one line down the center and infrequent traffic.  I won’t let her cross the road alone; I make her hold my hand.  

*

It was May and my student was ten, almost eleven.  My daughter was not yet conceived.  My student lived in the city on an avenue notorious for speeding and street racing.  One night she walked with her mother and brother to the laundromat.  She stepped off the curb and was gone. 

*

I remember the delicate vein in her forehead that throbbed when she was animated, the pouf of her hair in a ponytail, the anxious excitement in her eyes on the first day of school. 

*

I never wanted to teach fifth grade; eighth graders are my forte.  I agreed to teach one section of fifth grade reading skills because I was brand new to the school and in awe of my principal.

*

Fifth grade challenges were logistical, not behavioral.  Their bodies bubbled over with enthusiasm and delight.  One girl was so tiny that she fell into the toilet bowl at lunch and required rescue.  To get their attention, I shouted out songs about reading and grammar that I made up on the spot.  They squealed and laughed.  Fifth graders took everything I said seriously, an unnerving change from the dubious squints of my older students.  I always felt relieved to return to the upper school hallway, but by May I was in love with my fifth-grade class.  

*

My student was beautiful.  She danced with a friend in the back of the classroom, hopping and spinning, gulping air like forever was right now. 

*

Despite different cultures, races, and experiences, my student and my daughter are so alike.  Gangly limbs, passionate readers, full of a desire to please that makes me worry.  Possessed of a certainty in the world and its goodness. Comfortable in their bodies on the cusp of change.  If they had known each other, they would have been friends.

*

Racism cannot drive a car, but it might make you decide to keep going when you hit someone as if their life matters less than yours.  Redlining is illegal, but most of the country lives in segregated, inherently unequal neighborhoods.  It’s against the law to discriminate in education and hiring, but it’s still common.  The parents of my students were less likely to have college degrees, a decent-paying job with regular hours, or a reliable car.  Much more likely to need to take kids to the laundromat, late on an evening in May.  Racism fuels poverty and magnifies its complicated fallout.  

*

Racism killed my student.   Like the driver of the car it vanished into the night.  Impossible to punish but still out there, still guilty. 

*

In my daughter’s public school, racial diversity is growing but the school remains majority white.  Sixty miles away in the same small state, the school where I taught was composed entirely of students of color.  Several of my daughter’s schoolmates are living in generational poverty, but there is a galaxy of difference between several and all.  

*

When I sign my daughter out of school, children run across the jammed parking lot to manure-splattered farm trucks, workhorse minivans and glittering SUVs.  Loaded with backpacks and soccer gear, small bodies slide between moving vehicles.  Horns sound as children laugh and parents are distracted by conversation.  I grip my ten-year-old’s hand and march her to the car, not letting go until she’s safely inside.  

*

My student is not an object lesson.  She was not here to teach me anything.  Yet it takes a willful ignorance to not learn what’s right in front of you. 

*

I couldn’t save my student from racism, couldn’t pull her out of the path of that car.  All I could do was teach her, love her, and make her laugh.  I catch echoes of my student in the turn of my daughter’s head, in the set of her shoulders when she’s nervous.  I teach my daughter, love her, and try to make her laugh.   

*

None of this will vanquish racism, and none of it will stop a speeding car.  

*

It is May and my daughter is ten, almost eleven.  I think of my student, of her pink sneakers and the way her ears jutted out a little, like my daughter’s.  I feel the coming heat of summer, the heavy press of the next set of worries.  How much the world has changed and how much it hasn’t since I watched my student twirling in the back of the classroom, sunshine streaming through the tall windows just to light her up. 

***

Sarah Starr Murphy is a writer and teacher in rural Connecticut. She’s an editor for The Forge Literary Magazine. Her writing has appeared in The Baltimore Review, Atticus Review, Pithead Chapel, and other lovely places. She taught English in Baltimore and New Haven and is always inspired by middle schoolers. 

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