School’s out for the summer. At least here New York, it will be in two days. I’ve decided to post some pieces I wrote back when I was a teacher in Washington Heights. Word count: exceptional. As my students might say: my bad. Also, just to be clear, this is not a picture of Noel. Somehow, I don’t have one.

I always feel like I’m failing as a teacher when students use poor grammar to tell me off. Like last week when Kevin stole my keys, broke into my classroom, took my notebook, and wrote “fuk you” in red marker on the black board.  Or, like the first day of school when I asked the students to write their emergency numbers on an index card. Noel Moore wrote “mind you business.”

Noel makes it impossible for me to “mind my business.” The assistant principal shakes her head at me, “It’s a good thing you like that boy. Somebody has to.”

I do like him. He’s the smallest boy in our class, has googling eyes, a mouth that is more frequently open, and braces without any wires.  He looks half his age, but no one makes fun of him because he’s confident and his best friend is Darien Perry—who measured some six feet three inches in the seventh grade and gained notoriety for setting Mr. Garcia’s trash can on fire and then trying to piss out the flames.

It’s not uncommon for Darien to laugh at Noel’s nappy hair and reach over with gangly arms to pick at it. Noel acts annoyed and shoves the boney black arms elsewhere. “Come here,” Darien shakes his head, and with awkward tenderness that hasn’t grown into its body, he pulls out his brush and fixes Noel’s hair. He will hold the top of Noel’s head in the grip of one hand and will use the other hand to brush with harsh downward strokes. Noel submits— this is the only time I see him admit that he needs help.

The second week of school I walked into the suspension room to give him his assignment and he mocked my collarless button-up. “Ms. McConkie, why you dressed like you Amish?”

            “I am Amish, Noel.” I lie to dismiss his question.

            “No she aint, Ms. McConkie’s a Jew,” Shantora turns around.

            “Ms. McConkie ain’t a Jew, Ms. McConkie’s white,” says Antonio.

            “Ms. McConkie you white?” questions Shanika.

            “Of course I’m white,” I confess. 

The rest of the students accept it as truth, while Noel jumps out of his chair and cocks an imaginary rifle. “You mean you redneck?” Steadying the rifle at eye-level he tromps around the room like he’s coon hunting in Arkansas. It’s Shantora who explains to me that white means racism, “like the KKK, the Ku Klux Klan. Don’t say you white Miss. Say you ‘light-skinned.’”

After such enlightening encounters I usually just laugh and give a silent shout out to God who spared the class from Noel today. Then I’ll hear Principal Weisbrott reminding me that I’m “responsible for the education of every child in my classroom.” I often play this mental recording so I won’t sit the trouble-makers in the back and just teach the kids who try. I admit that I always feel guilty when I think like this. That’s why it’s kids like Christine and Angelo who end up in the back.

This time Noel was in the suspension room because he got kicked out of social studies when he produced a pint of coffee ice cream, put his feet up on the desk in front of him, and began eating in class. After a series of encounters with angry adults he calmly walked out of the building. The security guard, the assistant principal, and the principal followed him the three and a half blocks to Broadway before giving up. Then the principal—frustrated and anxious—walked briskly into the office and without looking ordered the secretary to call Noel Moore’s mother. “Tell her he left the building. We are not going to chase him down.

It’s disconnected.

By the third week of school Noel and I had silently exchanged our ground rule: don’t mess. But then Weisbrott will be back in my ear and I’ll wake him up three times in the first fifteen minutes of class. He swats at me. I produce his notebook. He swipes it to the floor. I bend down to pick it up. He’s tired. I tell him he needs to get home before four in the morning if he wants to stay awake in school. At this he smiles. “How’d you know?”

“I have my ways.”

 “That Bitch.”

Turns out that Bitch is his Aunt. Noel doesn’t have a mom. We aren’t really sure what happened to her. All we know is that she was addicted to crack when she gave birth to twins. The other twin is schizophrenic and got put in jail after he tried to kill Noel.  Noel was officially adopted by his aunt seven years ago.  

But now his aunt wants to get rid of him. You can’t just “give him back” they tell her, so she is looking for ways to get him thrown in jail. She’s been keeping a pretty thorough log.

9/13. Comes home wearing red shirts, red tear drop—arm

9/16: has someone else’s cell phone

She has recorded the night when her co-worker knocked on her apartment door and motioned, “You need to come and see this.” And there was the thirteen year old who looks like a seven year old, standing on the corner of 172 and Fort Washington Ave., holding a cigar in one hand and a Corona in the other.

9/22: 2 more cell phones, out till 4, dealers?

9/23: older kids

9/25: chased down Amsterdam–Machetes- Dominicans?

She comes up to the school, shows me the list, and wants to know what else I can add to the list. I’m not ready to give up on him—I just can’t help feeling like there has to be some little butterfly we can crush so that in five years, ten years, a generation from now, everything will turn out okay.

I think about it a lot. Sometimes when I see a homeless man sitting on the half of the subway car that is empty my mind races and I wonder if any of my students will end up like this. More than once the image of a dispossessed Noel has stopped me from picking up the phone and saying something like, “Mrs. Donaldson? 10/14: Called his teacher a f—ing slut.”

And she says the same thing she says every time I talk to her, “I’m trying my best, Miss, but I can’t control this boy.”  I know. I tell her it’s good she’s trying her hardest, that we can hope it’s just a phase, that eventually he’ll see what he’s doing to himself. And then I hang up the phone and daydream that I get a call in the middle of the night and it’s Noel and I’m the one he knew he could call for help.