The girl in the back row has small, round holes between her front teeth. Almost perfect circles. She is small for her age, which is 10, but an undernourished kind of small, I think, like pictures you’ve seen of sweatshop children from a long time ago, before there were laws. Somewhere along the line she has learned to be afraid of making mistakes, and she speaks so softly you are never sure of what she is saying.
Her name is Louise, but she likes Louie, and it makes her smile to be given even that much—Louie instead of Louise. She wears the same clothes, or what look like the same clothes, every day of the week. Jeans, frayed sneakers with knots to fix the broken laces, trying to get an extra month or two before they have to be replaced, dirty white socks, a T-shirt several sizes larger than Louie herself. The T-shirt says: Life is Good.
Her hair is clumped, and matted, unwashed. Kitchen haircuts.
The class is fifth- and sixth-graders, 30 kids or so in one room. There is no cafeteria and the kids bring their lunches. Louie’s is always grease-stained and reeking. Whoever makes the lunch—probably Louie herself—includes a roll of little candy dots, about the size of the earrings the kids wear, even the boys. The candy is in rows, yellow, blue, red, the paper about as wide as a cash register receipt, and as mentioned, there are already two perfectly round-looking holes in her front teeth. Her daddy tells her it’s pointless to see a dentist and go through all the pain because the baby teeth fall out anyway. His theory is that you get three sets of teeth, the first two sets are for practice and the third ones, which are the keepers, are the ones you have to take care of.
The problem—the immediate problem—is that the kid smells. Not as bad as the little blond girl pretends. This is Morgan, who is 11, and moves her desk as far away from Louie as she can, holds her nose with her index finger and her thumb, and writes notes to her best friend, Megan, who sits on the other side of the room, as far away as I can put her. I like to let kids sit where they want to sit, but together Morgan and Megan constitute their own little terrorist cell. With variations, the notes go like this: “She’s so rank today I swear to God I am going to barf.” On the way to the front, the notes are passed from one kid to the next until half of the kids in class have seen them.
I am not sure that Louie has read the notes herself, but she knows who they are about and moving her away from Morgan will only bring more attention to the problem.
I have tried talking to Morgan and Megan, but there is only so much you can say without making it worse. If you ask them today after school, for instance, to imagine only having one pair of shoes themselves, by tomorrow it will be a verifiable fact that Louie only has one pair of shoes. If you sit down with Morgan and Megan and tell them what little shitheads they are, you will be talking with their mothers—or their mothers’ attorneys—later this week.
I have also thought of talking to Louie, somewhere safe and private, and then I imagine the look on her face as she realizes what I am saying—that she smells—and the truth is, I do not have that conversation in me. In the end, you can only do what you can do, and in the end I call Morgan’s mother.
I tell her that I want to talk about a little girl in Morgan’s class.
“What about? Who?”
“A girl named Louie.”
“Oh, that one. The one that smells bad.”
I tell the mother that Louie isn’t getting any help at home, and she says, “You want me to take her home and put her in my bathtub?”
While I am trying to figure out exactly what I do want, I tell her a little about what’s going on in the classroom. She says, “Here’s what I want to know. How come Morgan has to sit next to her? Why can’t the others take turns?”
And then, “Listen, how is this Morgan’s fault? She’s a little girl, too.”
“I’m not saying it’s her fault. I’m saying that she’s making it worse.”
“And I suppose the other little girl is a perfect princess...”
The conversation is longer than I’ve written and she is pretty close to yelling now. She is going to call the principal, she’ll call her lawyer, her husband’s friend is on the board of education. You hear this a lot when you end up calling the parents, and sometimes some of it is true.
“It seems to me,” she says, “that you have lost control of the classroom.”
And in a way she doesn’t understand, she’s right. You can’t control what kids think, or say, or are. A classroom full of 10- and 11- and 12-year-olds can seem quiet and orderly—controlled—but you can’t enforce mercy.
I don’t teach anymore. It’s not just Morgan and Louie—and Morgan’s mother, and Megan and Megan’s mother and Louie’s dad, who think the third set of teeth are the ones to take care of—it’s something like Morgan and Louie all the time.
I did it for 10 years and now I can’t do it anymore. That simple.
They break your balls or they break your heart.