©Megan Mercurio, 2010

 Audio!

The young men work peacefully, writing fervently with their identical three-inch golf pencils, khaki pants, tan sandals, and neon orange sweatshirts with the words “Property of Chicago’s Juvenile Hall” stamped in black on the front. It’s the last day of school, and I sit at my desk, gazing at my students, as they quietly take their final exam. I start picking the skin on the side of my thumbs, scratching beneath the already raw skin.  Biting off a chunk from my thumb, I taste blood, and move onto my index finger.  A lump forms in my throat, as my stomach churns.

I avert my eyes and see the classroom pet, Friday, at the edge of my desk. I smile for a sweet second. Friday, a tiny green and brown crocheted stuffed tortoise with beaded eyes, possesses super-secret powers. Picking him up, I turn him over, and rub his soft belly and neck, just how I tell my students he prefers to be petted. Friday attracts my students like the pied piper with his music. They inevitably bicker each day over whose turn it is to sit with Friday. When a new student arrives and tries to assert his power by violently flicking Friday on the head, my veteran students defend that little stuffed animal with the same passion that they defend their turf. After Christopher returned from court last week, sentenced to seven years at the Chicago Prison, he just walked into class and quietly asked if he could have Friday. He set the little tortoise on his desk, and stroked his neck and belly all period. Today, I attempt to emulate my students, hoping to invoke Friday’s powers, but my lip still quivers. Why aren’t Friday’s super-secret powers working for me?

There’s so much incredible potential in this room, and so much suffering. I will never see most of these young men again after today.  A few will go onto college. Many, like Christopher, tried as adults, await transfers to detention facilities much worse than our Juvenile Hall and my little Classroom 7.  Others will not live past the age of 25 because they fall victim to gang violence. Today, I don’t want to say goodbye to my students or Classroom 7, my little classroom filled with my most cherished relics from around the world.  Sometimes the vivid colors, tapestries, and statues with which I’ve plastered the room effectively camouflage the grey, suffocating bricks. Sometimes, for a little while, we all forget.

But today, Friday has let me down because I feel myself starting to lose it.  Looking up, I know my students can sense my emotion. I look out at Terrance and he puts his fists together.  On one hand, the word “Trust” is tattooed, and on the other, “No One.”  Trust No One. He always tells me my emotions and sensitivity won’t work in the hood and I need to toughen up. Right now his gesture is telling me to get it together, so I nod. I stand up to collect the finals, but I know that several of my students can see my eyes watering.

I walk to the back of the room and see Deandre, a student with no family, whom I’ve taught on each of his 12 visits to Juvenile Hall. He sits near my desk.  Sometimes I secretly wonder if he keeps coming back here because this is the only family, structure, and stability he knows. All of a sudden Deandre yells, “Ms. Miranda, where’s Friday?”  Friday’s spot on my desk is vacant.

Carlos, has a devilish smirk on his face, so I say, “Give him back.”

As I start to give him my teacher look, Anthony yells, “Look, a ransom note.”  Opening up a piece of yellow paper he reads authoritatively, “This is a kidnapping.  Friday will not live to see Saturday, unless the whole class gets an A on the final.”

I feign a look of horror, which puts the class into an uproar: some students get out of their desks; one falls out of his chair onto the floor, rolling around laughing.  Then Timo yells, “We going to cut off his head and have Friday soup for lunch.  He a dead tortoise, Ms. Miranda.”

All of a sudden, walkie-talkies blare, and feet pound outside.  The emergency loudspeaker erupts and Mr. Abram’s booming voice yells, “Condition in Classroom 7.  Condition in Classroom 7.”  Condition.  A euphemism for riot or fight.  Mr. Abram bursts into the room first ready to break up a battle. His upright, muscular stature wants to pounce and he’s ready to attack. He arrives at the “condition,” but only sees smiles and hears laughter:  for a second, he looks dumb-founded. Mr. Abram has worked in the institution for fifteen years, and his job mandates that he do things like create “behavior management plans,” another euphemism for placing children in solitary confinement for extended periods of time—it’s his job.  When the kids violently pound and kick the doors of their cells, they often scream Mr. Abram’s name: he embodies the walls and system they deplore, and he’s consequently become a stone, hard, emotionless shell.  His job doesn’t give him permission to love and celebrate the beauty of the kids in the same ways mine does. Mr. Abram works with sophisticated murderers, kidnappers, and armed robbers; while I work with children who beg me to act out scenes from the Lion King, or play games like musical chairs. So, today, when Mr. Abram arrives at our condition, he attempts to kill me with his eyes.  Then, five other guards run onto this scene of ostensible violence.

Mr. Abram barks, “We heard noise and saw movement.  What the hell is going on?”

I try to uphold an air of professionalism, “There is no condition, Sir.  Sorry for the confusion, however I do have a problem, Sir.  It seems that the classroom pet, Friday, has been kidnapped.  How should I proceed?”

He looks at me with disgust, for I’ve interrupted his leisure time. Mr. Abram’s official job is to stay in my classroom at all times to protect me from my students, theoretically the most dangerous criminals in the county. But today he dropped them off in my class, shut the door, and left me alone with my students. Usually, the hatred in his eyes and his demeaning voice has the power to pierce and momentarily shatter my sense of purpose. Usually, he knows how to break me just as he knows how to take a blow at the kids with his words each time he tells them they are worthless pieces of trash.  But not today.

I stand up, erect, refusing to break eye contact.  When he slams the door, laughter erupts in Classroom 7 until Terrance shrieks, “Look, it’s Friday. He crawled back to your desk, Ms. Miranda.” And there he is. In this moment, the bell rings, and I know I have to let go. I need to spend the summer taking in the beauty of the world, so when I return I have something to give.  I must rest because I know my heart is in danger of becoming hard and numb if I don’t nurture it.  I look down at my bloody thumb and start to bring it back to my mouth, but I stop, and as I look out at my students I feel nothing but gratitude.  As the young men line up to count off, every single one of us smiles.

©Megan Mercurio, 2010

Megan Mercurio participated in the 2010 BAWP Summer Institute.  She has been teaching English and drama to at-risk youth for the past five years and absolutely loves her job.  Other than her students, her greatest passions are her husband, Manuel, wandering the world, and photography.

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10 Responses to “Friday by Megan Mercurio”

  1. theresasanders Says:

    Wonderful,Megan. A very touching look at a world most are afraid to see.

  2. Enrique Says:

    What to say ? A moving ¨story¨, very well written ! A cry for real justice, a denounce of a society, that makes Deandre to find love being a prisoner. Too much sadness, but also hope ! Bravo Megan !

  3. Alejandra Says:

    Maravilloso Megan!!!
    Too much.
    You are a wonderfull person!! I am proud to be your sister in law!!

  4. Janet Says:

    Thank you for giving us a glimpse of what it’s like for you and your students in your classroom. I’m glad you have figured out how to keep yourself nourished in order to continue your most worthy work and passion. We all owe a debt of gratitude to you and others like you who give strength, heart, and hope to our at risk children. They get from you the most valuable commodity: “Love Therapy” (showing people that you care about them). And what a well-written and well-read story you told — very nice job.

  5. sap Says:

    Thank you for this beautiful and needs-to-be-told-right-now story.

  6. Marty Williams Says:

    I so love this story, Megan, and the wonderful humanizing work you do. Glad this is published so everyone can get a peek into your world.

  7. Miles Myers Says:

    When I read about your teaching, when I hear you talk about your teaching, I am literally on the edge of my seat. Something special happens.

  8. Barbara Kaull Says:

    Your story had so much meaning to who you are and what you do. Thank you for sharing a day in the life of teaching those who you care so deeply about. “Friday” especially brought a special feeling – since we both share a part of your Mom’s affectionate pet. Keep writing and sharing beautiful stories.

  9. JC Says:

    I am crying….I love u meggy! keep on keepin on!!

  10. Hector Says:

    This is a beautiful piece of finding freedom even behind bars. Thanks for sharing.

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