I am warned well before Heaven arrives.
“Repeat,” another English teacher nods. I am headed to obligatory pre-teacher training, as though anyone could take sixty minutes to prepare me for one hundred forty days covering another’s classes. “Julie had her. It was a hard year.”
“Troubled home life,” announces our guidance counselor at the first team meeting. “She spent most of last year in the halls, when she wasn’t in detention.”
I file this away with other tidbits – students with learning disabilities, students with older siblings, students with long hair or green eyes or one leg longer than the other – whatever turns this list of eighty names into individual people. So that I may know them; teach them, guide them, fret on them, and three months later, give them back.
Heaven walks in as I announce that yes, I am covering Mrs. Rivers’ classes for the first semester. I send her to the office for a late pass, internally cringing in expectation of the angry outburst to come. But Heaven only blinks, shrugs, and walks back out. I am all the more relieved when she returns, purple slip in her outstretched hand.
I want to tell her, “I had to let you know I will be an adult in your life who keeps to the rules.” I want to tell her, “Actually, I don’t care if you are late to homeroom.” I want to tell her, “This will be a safe space for you.” But I nod, and take the note. She shrugs and takes her seat.
In the questionnaire I make them complete (“What name do you prefer?” “What language(s) is/are spoken in your home?” “Name one person you respect.”) Heaven writes:
Two years ago on May 28th, 2008 my brother John Arthur Nunez died. He was only a little older than me. It was the worst day of my life and I really, really miss him every day. So, I guess that’s something you should know.
This explains the tee shirt, a young man’s silhouette and the letters R.I.P. partially obscured by her dark braided hair. This explains the dreams I overhear her describing to her friends, dreams where “Johnny is there, but he just stands and says nothing.” This explains why last year she might have been focused on something other than her English grade.
In October I sit with my department head, discussing students with problems and my responsive pedagogical maneuverings. “No, no counseling,” she says, to the question of Heaven. “Her parents wouldn’t allow.” She pauses, then asks, “Well, how is she doing, for you?”
I want to tell her, “She gets a lot of work done in detention; it’s quiet, and she feels safe.” I want to tell her, “She spends more time helping struggling students than doing her work.” I want to tell her, “She’s nice to the teachers she respects.” But I am new, and young. So I just nod. “She always participates in class,” I say, “the days when she shows up.”
As winter approaches our team counselor warns us that Heaven’s family has moved to another temporary home. “On the upside,” she adds as the bell signals an end to our prep period and reminds us of the students waiting outside our doors, as eager at this point in the semester to see us as we are to see them, “her mom was given some money to buy jackets.”
Friday we are in the library, ostensibly doing research. I circle, reminding students that a blog is not necessarily a factual source, that their brainstorms are due at the end of the period, that solitaire is not an appropriate use of their time. Over Heaven’s shoulder I see an article on new regulations hindering local fishermen. Her father works on a boat, she told me once. I notice that her arms are pulled through her sweatshirt sleeves.
“Is that new?” I ask.
“Yeah. Feel it, Ms. Gettlin!” She turns, one arm proudly outstretched. “It’s so soft!”
I touch it, nod. She grins again.
“But Heaven,” I add, “It’s awfully thin. Aren’t you cold?”
She shrugs, grin faded, and turns back to her computer, arms tightly recrossed against her chest.
In December I warn the students that Mrs. Rivera is coming back. They want to know if she will make them do all those self-reflections – probably not. They want to know if she is nice – if you do your homework. They want to know where I am going – Alaska. They want to know why – I have friends there, and I can find more work. They want to know if it is cold, if I will see bears, if I will have to shoot a gun. Yes, probably, and I hope not but imagine so.
The team throws a party for me and lures the students to the cafeteria with the promise of cake. I want to tell them, “I have tried to prepare you for the inequalities of life.” I want to tell them, “I have tried to teach you to seize your education for yourself.” I want to tell them, “I have to give you back now, but I will carry you with me always.”
Instead I mention each by name and the things they have taught me. Then we eat cake. As I circle, I notice Heaven’s tears. I nod to her, put my hand on her shoulder. She does not shrug me off.
That weekend I go shopping. Monday morning I swing by before the buses arrive, not wanting to ruin the seal of separation that our good-bye cake-eating has forged.
I wanted to tell her, “Life shouldn’t have been this hard for you.” I wanted to tell her, “There are others who can help you, if you let them.” I wanted to tell her, “I can’t go to Alaska and know you’re cold back home.”
This is for you, I write instead. Stay warm this winter.
“Heaven left this in my classroom last week,” I lie to the secretary in the main office. “Can you make sure she gets it?” She nods. I shrug, tuck my scribbled note into the bag, and leave the school.