When I was nine a neighbor boy said something about my grandmother, an Issei who spoke only a word or two of English. When I think of it maybe the boy hadn’t meant to be rude, just curious. “Why does she look like that?” But he made a kind of face as though smelling something bad, and I took offense. In bed that night I couldn’t help thinking about the boy and what he had said, and I got angry because I had just stood there looking at him; I had even smiled as though appreciating his comment.
That next morning I woke early and got dressed and sneaked out of the house. It was summer, and the sun was just rising. I’d never before been outside alone so early, and I felt this odd, empty feeling that comes every time I wake before dawn. Like being in a tourist trap off-season. Anyway, I took a brick of charcoal from the bag in our garage and cut through our backyard to the neighbor’s. I remember how wet and cold the grass was against my ankles; my shoes were soon soaked with dew. I leaned over the small prickly hedge and scribbled graffiti all over the back of the boy’s white frame garage. Silly now that I think of it. I didn’t write any curse words, or scathing indictments; the charcoal was too hard. The most I could manage were faint loopy lines like some kind of Palmer penmanship practice. But that evening when Mr. Bachmeier saw the damage he assumed his son was to blame. “Get over here.” The man was famous in the neighborhood for his loud voice and quick temper. “What did you do? What the hell did you do?” I stood with my father in our driveway and watched as the man grabbed his son by the arm and began to beat the kid. “Old Henry sure gets mad,” my father said. I don’t know if Mr. Bachmeier ever realized his son was innocent. I don’t know if I was ever suspected. I certainly never felt guilty, and after a while I just forgot about it.
Then there was this other time I did the same thing only I was an adult, not some stupid, timid kid so maybe that’s proof I am that stereotype. Anyway, it was during my first teaching job in a tiny Alaskan village. The bush. The village was on a beautiful, remote island with rocky beaches beneath steep dark cliffs, and the mountains, those that hadn’t been clear cut, were covered with pine. This was pre-Internet when there wasn’t any television reception, and the radio signals were often weak and filled with static. People gathered in each other’s homes and socialized for hours to pass the time. The small group of teachers I was part of met for dinner almost every night in one of our shabby, low-ceilinged homes. After a while most stopped knocking and just came right on in. “May we visit?” It was strange that we rarely talked about any problems we were having at school, nor how we were treated as outsiders and viewed with suspicion by the villagers. Instead we complained about the dreary weather and lack of conveniences and fresh produce. We even mimicked the students’ naiveté and their sad clumsy attempts to copy popular trends. All that socializing. It was new to me, growing up as I did, to suddenly have this group of people move in and out of my house; they surrounded and seemed to include me, and I was thrilled and uncomfortable at the same time.
One of the lead teachers was Paul Jenkins, an outdoorsman who dominated the gatherings with talk of his hunting and fishing trips, his ability to survive extreme conditions. “A blow hard,” my father would have called him, though I listened to his stories as though they were fascinating. His wife was more distant, reserved. She called me Sweetie and never seemed to talk directly to me as though she were preoccupied. Once the Jenkins had gathered the others on the dock to watch the season’s first appearance of the Northern Lights. They talked about it at dinner the next night. “I forget,” Mrs. Jenkins smiled. “Where you there, Sweetie?” She and her husband were building a house in Kenai where, according to them, “There’s none of this local problem.” They were the veteran teachers and seemingly well liked by the parents, though oddly, or maybe because of it, he practiced a brutal form of corporal punishment that none of the rest of us were willing to employ.
There was also a tall, young couple from Oregon who talked about cross country skiing and climbing, and spending the summer in Denali. They would often sit together on the couch, hands intwined. Or she would perch on the arm of his chair, their postures identical. Long legs crossed at the knees, free legs swinging slightly both in sync. They clumped down the boardwalk in Sorrels and matching parkas trimmed with coyote fur. Always together. From behind they were indistinguishable.
And for a while there was Mr. Allen, a a psych major and former Vista volunteer who had studied the history and traditions of the villagers and told us what we taught was irrelevant to these kids and that was why we had problems. He imagined himself an ecologist and intended to ignore the prescribed curricula. “I’m going to teach them about their own land.” His classroom was next door to mine, and during the first quarter the shouts and crashes of furniture and glass got louder and more frequent. None of us intervened or offered any advice, and he was gone before the winter holidays.
When I first arrived the locals joked about how much I looked like them. “Welcome home,” the janitor said to me as I was getting off the pontoon plane. But it was clear I didn’t belong. I realized by October it would be strictly a one year position, and by Christmas I had already begun to ship things home. For a while I wasn’t treated as badly as the white teachers, and honestly, being ostracized wasn’t anything new to me, but it was interesting to see how the other teachers responded. Only the smallest gestures. They’d roll their eyes, exchange a glance, or draw a shallow breath and sigh. “Miss Velma’s drunk out in front of the P.O.,” the Oregon teacher said. “She saw me and said, ‘Goddamn white boy.’” He shook his head, shrugged. Mr. Jenkins looked at me, smiled, “Your turn will come. They just haven’t figured you out yet.” He was right, of course. Someone from the cannery filled them in, and I began unplugging my landline.
The high school kids were the worst, merciless with their racism. When my landline was no longer an option I began receiving anonymous notes. “Go teach your own fucking kind.” They were left on my desk or my chair, and for a while I would pick them up and read them and if the class was still in session the students would begin to murmur and giggle. I learned to pretend I didn’t see them, would set a book on top of them, or brush them from my chair. But the kids were bold. “Oh, Miss, there’s something that has fallen on the floor.” It was usually DeDe who called my attention to the notes. The girl would stand and face me, adopt a ridiculous posture of meekness. Head titled, arms outstretched. “Oh Miss?” It got to be that as soon as DeDe began to rise the class would snicker and smile. “Sit down, DeDe.” “Of course, Miss. I only meant to pick it up for you, Miss. There may be something important on it, Miss, that you will want to read later.” As she turned to sit she would look back over her shoulder at her classmates, and the boys would lean forward, their chests flat against their desktops, hands over their mouths; they’d cough, pretending they were trying to cover their laughter. Whenever I complained about their behavior the elders would just smile and shake their heads. “They’re just children, Teacher.”
The thing is, even though the notes were unsigned I knew the students’ handwriting, and early on I realized the note writer more often than not was DeDe herself. Small for her age, the girl wore thick glasses that magnified, distorted her hazel colored eyes. In my memory she had tiny sharp teeth like a cat. Lips a bow. She was something of an outcast too, her father a white man living in Seattle. She was never included in the tight pack of popular girls.
In the spring we could all see the end of the long school year, and we were happy, almost giddy. The weather grew warmer, the ceiling lifted, and there were regular flights bringing mail and supplies. The air was so sharp and clean it seemed possible to see past the small islands in the bay to the curve of the earth, and at lunch break I would look up from my desk and watch the white caps and the silhouettes of the cormorants sitting on the pilings and couldn’t help but feel the ache that beauty creates.
On such a day I was teaching a lesson and like the feeling that spring had brought on, this, too, was a kind of exaltation; that wonderful feeling when it’s all and only about ideas. I was in the middle of a lesson that I now think was probably overblown and pedantic when one of the students, Adora, flinched and pushed her paper and pencil to the floor. All of us were silent and still. Adora generally refused to participate in class, though she always attempted the written assignments. Often in the margin she’d scribble “Don’t get. Don’t get.” She had a deep, low-pitched voice and carried herself with a kind of stiffness as if she were wearing a neck brace. But she was a leader, and they feared her.
“Adora? Is there something wrong?” I took a step towards her. “Adora?” She grumbled and turned away from me in her seat. Someone giggled. “Adora?” “She says you’re not teaching it right,” DeDe smiled. “You’re no good.” The entire class began to laugh. Loud and uncontrolled. They slapped their thighs and desktops and rocked back and forth. Adora put her head down on her desk, folded her arms as though taking a nap. And I froze. I just stood and watched them. After a while I wrote an assignment on the board, and one by one they opened their texts, and the laughter subsided.
I was lucky because it was the last period of the day, and we all sat like that until dismissal. I stayed at my desk while they filed out of the room; I heard DeDe in the hallway. Gleeful. “I think Miss is going to cry.” She was right. Long after they had all left the building I was still at my desk. I remember my hands were shaking, not in anger but more in loathing and loneliness and dread.
I heard the other teachers begin to leave; Mr. Jenkins stopped on the threshold of my room. “As usual.” I glanced up quickly and smiled. “You work too hard.” I was sure he could tell I had been crying. “I’ll lock the door. Make sure you close it tight on your way out. You’re the only one still here.” I nodded, looked down at the papers in front of me. I listened to his heavy footsteps in the hallway; he banged the front door closed. His wife and the couple from Oregon were waiting outside on the steps, and I watched them all walk away down the boardwalk.
Mixed in with the assignments was another anonymous note from DeDe. This one was longer and listed my hated behaviors and disgusting appearance. On and on in expletive detail. Jesus. The spelling. I fantasized for a moment correcting her note and flinging it back at her. And then without much thought at all I took an ink pen, went into the girls’ bathroom, and in one of the stalls, low, almost hidden in a corner, I scratched in tiny letters “bitch Adora.”
The next day I watched the drama build as first one girl and then another came back from the bathroom. Whispers. By lunch the girls had surrounded Adora, vigorously shouldering each other, trying to get inside the circle, close enough to coo and pat her shoulders and back. Of course, because she was an outsider, they suspected DeDe. They were all too guarded to allow me to overhear any of their conversations, but I watched from a distance. That day at dismissal I saw DeDe on the steps, one hand half raised not in the mock supplication she had adopted in class, but this time real. The group of girls passed her without a glance. And the next day the students made a show of inching their desks away from hers. The boys would slightly bump against her desk or shoulder whenever they passed and then make a great show of brushing at whatever part of their bodies had made contact as if she were contagious. DeDe silently endured it all. After that first day on the steps I never saw her try to approach the girls, and I never heard of her trying to get even. She still came to class, but now was quiet, kept her sweatshirt hood pulled up around her small face. Hunched over her desk every day she shrank in size.
Just like before I was never suspected, and I felt no sympathy or guilt. Most of the time I don’t think about it at all, or at least, I try not to. Like DeDe, there are these roles I somehow get stuck in. I used to fuss and complain about them all the time, but now that I’m older I see I found a certain comfort in them. It’s been a way of navigating through my life, though lately I wonder if it isn’t all some big excuse. This is who I really am, and maybe people have known that all along and were just too sly to let on. I only thought I was handling them. After everything is said and done maybe I am very, very small. “Were you there, Sweetie?” Oh hell, I know it’s awful to say, and I know this kind of talk is tiresome to people. I’ve seen it in their faces. Even to me it sounds like one long whine so I don’t think about what happened to DeDe. It doesn’t bother me about what I did. I was just glad she didn’t write me any more notes.