Excitement stirred in the air like mashed potatoes between mixer beaters prior to Thanksgiving dinner in the not-too-distant future. But the girl sat outside the classroom door, settled on the floor amidst a cacophony of noise that usually occurs in the school hallway before any holiday break. Most kids rushed around in a frenzy of anticipatory energy, while Kenzie slumped against the wall with one earbud coursing music into her ear despite her nose being buried in the pages of John Steinbeck.
Ms. Alford leaned down to tap Kenzie’s shoulder before opening the door to her classroom. “You know that book report isn’t due until a week after you return to class,” she told the student.
Kenzie pulled out the lone plug and looked up at her English teacher. “I like this story. Not as boring as that other one. No super sad migrant workers,” she said.
Turning the cover over to see the title, Ms. Alford nodded in reply. “You can come on in if you’re here to see me.” She noticed the same ragged jeans the girl wore almost every weekday, holes worn in the knees, and thought of that style being popular back in her own days of high school. This ninth-grader seemed to have no other choice but to wear the dirty pair. Ms. Alford ashamedly recognized how, in her own shallow teenage past, she’d have been embarrassed at untreated acne and an apparent bathroom-mirror haircut.
Kenzie obviously cared more about her grades than her looks, an admirable quality in itself, but probably had no other choice for personal priorities. Her daily survival seemed more evident. The teacher asked her, “Are you trying to work ahead?”
“Just bored, I guess,” she replied. “Gotta watch my brothers when we’re off. They saw their tutor this week, though, so we’re gonna be good.”
“Oh,” Ms. Alford asked, “they’re doing better in Math?” She smiled at her, trying to be supportive.
“They’re okay,” Kenzie said about the twin 12-year olds. “We like it when the tutor comes, ’cause she brings the backpack from Caring Connections. We’ll have something to eat over break.”
Alford flinched. With the impending time away from school, the kids wouldn’t have two regular meals per day they got with public education’s free lunch and breakfast program. The tutor must also represent the community charity that brought backpacks of canned goods to low-income students.
The girl held the dilapidated copy of her assigned reading. Many students owned electronic readers, the newest cell phones, drove their own expensive cars. Kenzie simply loved her used I-pod and borrowed paperbacks.
Who knew what the children faced at home. Alford only heard rumors from the counseling office about attacks some suffered, incarcerated parents, and sensed tension leaching from them as their heads collapsed on desktops. Stress settled on those students like the drool that pooled beneath their tired faces.
Ms. Alford imagined her own upcoming feast, relatives who’d visit and be happy to see each other, their family game night, all the laughs and love they shared. She wondered what Kenzie and her brothers had to look forward to on Thanksgiving.
The teacher realized the limits of her power but didn’t know if she’d ever let go of feeling responsible for her students’ well-being. Alford hoped to at least stir their interest in literature, make them hunger for knowledge, would possibly write some college recommendation letters for those lucky enough to continue their education. How could she hope to enrich their minds with physical needs much more imminent?
“Let’s check my bookshelf,” she smiled reassuringly and told the girl, “to see what you can find to read over the break. Maybe something fun, a little escapist reading.” She turned away so Kenzie wouldn’t notice her eyes brimming with tears.
*Studio 30+ writing prompt – attack
Image – Seyemon via Flickr