Yesterday I got up early and went out to Williamsburg to speak at the public high school where an old friend of mine now teaches. Funny, that he's teaching now -- he had little love for high school when we were there together -- and yet I could tell right away how great he is for the job, how calm and at peace he seems to be in the face of all that high-strung teenage anxiety, what an aura of sensitivity and care he brings to his classes. "Mr. D.," the kids said casually as he passed, noting him without noting it. Naming him, like a reliable feature of the landscape: rock, stream, Mr. D. This is the boy I used to cut school with in various parks; the one who I saw staring one day through the glass window of my classroom door, saw from my desk inside the room how blank and sad his face was, and then watched disappear. Two minutes later, the fire bell rang. Not a prank; more an emergency nobody else could see.
Walking into his school, there's a smell I can't identify -- it's the smell of high school, I guess. Endocrines and construction paper. A kind of kinetic warmth that drifts and bounces through the halls. I have to go through a metal detector, and my bag is laid on a conveyor to be scanned. The building is old, with thick wooden doors bearing plaques that say DRESSMAKING and MECHANICS; the wood, too, has an old, warm smell. There aren't many kids in the halls before first period.
There aren't many kids there at first period, either. I sit and talk with my old friend as we wait for his students to arrive; when they do start to trickle in, they are more interested in discussing the continuing dominance of the girls' softball team, which apparently kicks ass all over town. But finally, we begin -- I am introduced to the six assembled girls and the one boy in the back of the room with his head down on his desk as "the author we were reading yesterday."
Mr. D. and his class have read the first chapter of the book together, and the class has come up with a number of questions for me.
Why did your mother keep getting back together with Dave?
What was it like at the shelter?
How did you finish school?
Why did my mother keep getting back together with Dave?
"I don't know," I confess. "I think part of her was afraid of him. Part of it maybe was she didn't want to admit to herself that she'd made a mistake with him. You know, they had a baby together, too, which can make it really hard for women to leave a relationship. And part of her staying probably had to do with her own upbringing. Now that I'm the age she was in the book, I understand her a lot better, and I feel a lot of sympathy for her."
What was it like at the shelter?
"It was better than living at home. And it was better than living on the street. It was strict, and it smelled weird, and everybody was crazy, and the food wasn't great, but they gave me a place to stay, and they gave me food and clothes, and they took care of me, you know? They found me a place in a group home; they made sure I had a place to live, not just while I was there, but after I left. That place saved me from having to live on the street, so I didn't care about the powdered mashed potatoes -- nothing was more important than having a roof over my head."
How did you finish school?
"Because I had teachers who cared about me, and tried to help. And you do, too. You guys might think people here don't see you, or they don't know your name, or they don't think about you when they go home at night, but they do. I know, because I'm a volunteer at the shelter where I used to live. And girls I barely see or talk to, if I don't see them the next week, I'm asking the counselors, 'Where's Afreeka? Where's Lizette? Where's Qu'enisha?' They might not know that I'm thinking about them, that I care about them, but I do. And my teachers cared about me. Without my drama teacher, I might have quit school. And my art teacher always looked out for me, too. So I had a lot of help from adults when I was in school, even if I didn't recognize it at the time."
There's a break between Mr. D.'s two English classes, so we go get coffee cake, sit in a nearby park, catch up. So the last twenty years, let's see...college, and poetry, and grad school, and writing. That dotcom place, where we bumped into each other back in '97. A bunch of shitty relationships, mostly menial jobs. Therapy -- lots of therapy. Then Bill and the book. That took twenty years? He's got his own story, not mine to tell, which ends with a wife and a beautiful baby and a teaching degree. I am happy, talking to him; I feel closer and more relaxed with him than I think I ever was in high school. I am happy for both of us, on this beautiful warm Friday morning; we made it, we're okay.
Then we talk about who we've heard from. He tells me Gorgeous Ted has put on weight, lost hair. An ex of mine lives in St. Louis. I haven't heard from most of the people in the book, I tell him. Not yet, anyway.
We go back inside for fourth period, which is the reverse of first -- six boys, and one girl in the back with her coat over her head. They too have read Chapter One of Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir, and they have some questions of their own, many of which match the questions I answered in first period. So I go over the answers again:
My mom was having a tough time of her own.
The shelter sucked, but it was way better than the alternatives.
Some teachers care about you more than you think.
A tall boy in a headband raises his hand. "Do you think you could ever forgive your stepfather?" And we talk about forgiveness and accountability. Another boy raises his hand. "How much money did you get for your book?" And we discuss how publishing works, and advances and royalties. The second boy raises his hand again. "Did you and Mr. D. go out in high school?"
"Yeah, for a few weeks," I say, and Mr. D. dips his head and smiles. Oh. I guess he didn't tell them that part. "Mostly, though, we were friends."
It's an exhilarating morning; I feel challenged in the best possible way by these kids, with their prolonged eye contact, their passion to be heard -- "If that was my stepfather, I'd have whupped his ass!" Did I teach them anything today, besides the address of Covenant House NY ("It's right there on Forty-First Street and Tenth Avenue in Manhattan," I repeated again and again. "If you or anybody you know ever needs it, it's there for you, twenty-four hours a day. Forty-First and Tenth. Forty-First and Tenth.")? Did I improve their English? Mr. D. seems to feel the classes went well. We embrace, and promise to do this again soon.
As I'm leaving, I see a couple of the boys from fourth period standing in the sunshine on the corner, newly liberated from school, debating which way to go. Just then a police car pulls up, and two cops get out, start walking towards the group.
Bye, I wave, though they don't see me.
Let's do this again soon.