By Ilana Garon
Her name was Felicia, and she was my student during my second year teaching public high school in the Bronx, when I was 23. Her parents were having a reverse custody battle over who didn’t have to take care of her. The odds of her being totally screwed up by this were astronomical. But she smiled. She played. She said funny, witty things. She teased me for things I had never told the students (hell, things I was wary of even thinking)—“Miss, you blush whenever Chris walks into the room. He’s cute, isn’t he?”—and she would be right on the money, because I did have a totally mortifying crush on Chris, the security guard, with all his chains and crazy tattoos and dreams of being a rap superstar. Then she would link arms with me confidentially and smile.
At 14, she was 4’10” at the most, with curly light-brown ringlets, pale skin, and grey eyes, a tiny, explosive little firebrand with a sharp tongue and a quick smile. When I could get her to stand still I’d try to ask her about her life—mainly how her classes were going, or what boys she was interested in. And she would turn it on me like lightning, and start guessing—alarmingly good guesses, often.
“So are you going to go out with José? He has a huge crush on you,” I would say.
She would reply, “Oh, what a coincidence that you should ask, since you’re the one getting your ass stared at by Mr. Marcus every time you walk down the hall! Yeah, don’t even lie—I know who those flowers were from! Anyway, so let’s talk. Are we your favorite class, or is 8th period? You can tell me. I already know we’re the only class you brought donuts for last Friday!”
To some degree, I reluctantly confided in her. You never confide in students. It is one of the cardinal rules of teaching. But she solicited these confidences so easily. It was so natural and quick to tell her something: “OK, you’re right, Mr. Marcus did give me the carnations. But he’s twice my age, and I’m not interested, and I’m terrified of getting the rumor mill started—so don’t tell anyone about that, or about the donuts, ok?” She would nod her head understandingly, and put her little hand on top of mine.
School required no academic effort of her. She was already in a class of exceptionally bright kids; they were far and away the most intelligent and motivated group of freshman I have ever taught. Felicia was in another league. During the first month of school, she told me she was bored with the Young Adult novels in the library, so I gave her Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. She finished it in two days (“It’s the best book I EVER read, Miss!”) and moved on to Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, which she disliked, but finished and understood enough to come in and recount for me the various ways in which Eugenides needed a better editor.
“Seriously, this shit’s about 100 pages too long,” she told me. I had liked Middlesex a lot, but there was no denying she had a point.
She should have been enrolled in some kind of “Gifted and Talented” program. She had, in fact, taken the test and qualified for specialized high school placement, but her mom and dad (in a typical lapse in parenting skills) had given their then-13-year-old the job of independently choosing and enrolling in a high school. So she had picked the one closest to her home—ours, with its rock-bottom test scores and constant police patrol. She made solid grades—not what she was capable of, but solid. I tried to encourage her to make an extra effort, citing the incentive of college scholarships for motivated minority kids. And she would just look at me with this expression of “Get real, Miss.” Defeat? Apathy? Disdain? A little bit of all three? I was never sure.
Early that fall, a flyer advertising a high school poetry contest was put up in our department office. I mentioned it to the class, and the next day Felicia brought in a poem to enter. Its title was something along the lines of “Why I’ll Be a Divorce Statistic at 25.” She turned it in quite willingly, and that surprised me, because her writing demonstrated more vulnerability than anything she had ever exposed voluntarily.
In the hopes of enticing other students to enter, I made her read her poem aloud in class. She was a cool kid; maybe if the kids saw that she was entering, they would want to do it too.
Usually they listened to whatever she said. The boys were all in love with her, and the girls were all afraid she would kill them, in light of Felicia’s calm threat to a girl who had “trash-talked” her: “Listen, bitch, I swear to God I will stab you in the heart with a pen if you ever do me like that again, you feel me?” But that day they were tired, preoccupied. Maybe it was too close to Christmas break. Regardless, they didn’t pay attention. She stood up in front of the chalkboard reading her divorce poem to a class of 30 kids, all of whom were talking, throwing paper balls at each other, passing notes, and generally acting like the 14-year-old goofballs that they were.
She looked up and stopped mid-sentence. The other kids didn’t notice. She stamped her little foot on the linoleum, registering her impatience, but they kept on talking, acting like she was not even there. I yelled at them, but my belated intervention, while it sobered them, didn’t do much for her. She looked at me forlornly, and then gave up entirely.
“That was discouraging, Miss,” she whispered to me as she slunk back to her seat. The other kids didn’t notice.
After class he handed me a sad, crumpled little piece of paper and I took it home, where I typed it, spell-checked it, and sent it to the contest with a $10 check and a letter explaining that the kid who wrote this poem was from an inner city school, and to please give her the recognition I felt she deserved.
(In point of fact, we would never hear back from the contest. It was probably a scam; I can only conclude that they took the entry fee I paid on her behalf and fled the country.)
She asked me about it, though, a couple of times. “When do you think I’ll hear from the contest, Miss?” It was her study hall period, and I had come barging in because, peering through the window in the door of the classroom, I had seen her sitting uncharacteristically alone. The other kids were looking over at her, confused. Why didn’t she want to play? I walked in and brought myself down to her, desk level. “When will the contest let us know, Miss?” she asked. It was December then; I said I hoped April, maybe May. I didn’t know for sure. I asked her if she was ok. She smiled at me, but there were tears in her eyes. She refused to tell me why.
The semesters changed, and suddenly I was not her English teacher anymore. I was working with 10th graders that term, and it was difficult, because they were a rowdy bunch, and by an unfortunate coincidence, all male. I had been assigned to them on the heels of a beloved teacher—a benevolent ex-baseball player aptly named Clausi—who had been very “cool” with them, as they put it. Now that he was on a semester-long leave for shoulder surgery, I was teaching the class. It often felt like they were angry with me purely for not being him.
“What can I do to make you guys not hate me so much?” I asked one day, exasperated. For the past few days they had been throwing baby carrots, stolen from the lunchroom, at my back every time I turned to write on the board. I could never whirl around fast enough to catch the culprits.
“We don’t hate you,” they told me. “We just miss Clausi.”
One of the toughest guys, a kid named Alberto who was a foot taller than I was and about twice my weight, looked at me with a pained expression. “Mister Clausi . . . Miss, no one was like him. He was just like this cool older brother,” he said wistfully.
When he said this, I felt like crying.
In light of my ambivalent relationship with the boys, it seemed all the more important to maintain some vestige of closeness with the class that she was in, a class that, I believed, loved me the way the boys loved Clausi. I came to their advisory period one morning to say hello. Felicia greeted me with her characteristic charm—“Do you miss us, Miss Garon?”—but she seemed distracted.
It was around that time that I found out how much her grades were slipping. Her history teacher was the one who told me. “She’s pulling a ‘D’ in my class,” he said. “She isn’t doing any homework and she basically failed the last test.”
I had never seen Felicia break a sweat in any class. She already knew so much. She watched and understood “The Daily Show” at 14. She made jokes about communism and wore a Che Guevara shirt when most of her peers couldn’t have identified Latin America on a map. She was so much more sophisticated, more worldly than they were. How on earth was she failing freshman history?
I went to her guidance counselor to see what was up. “Yeah, she’s gone down in everything,” the counselor said. She probably was not even supposed to tell me that, the counselor, but she did anyway.
I pulled Felicia from class during her lunch period. I was professional. “You wanna tell me what the hell is going on, girl?”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m not 7.”
“Right. You’re 14 going on 28. Answer my question.”
“Miss, don’t you think you’re just insecure about your role as a young teacher?”
“Whoa, this isn’t about me! We’re talking about you.”
“Why do you care, Miss?” Exasperation.
“Because I do. Because you’re brilliant, and you know it, and I hate seeing you slip like this.”
“Can I go now?”
“Yeah. Just try and pick your grades up a little, ok? And come see me if you want to talk . . .”
She scampered off.
I kept my distance. I tried to give her the space she clearly wanted, as much as it worried me to see her grades going down the toilet. If she had looked happy, maybe it would not have bothered me so much. But when I saw her in the halls, though she was always surrounded by friends, she would laugh with a bitterness that I didn’t recognize. She had stopped coming to see me altogether.
So I went into her advisory class again, ostensibly to see how all the kids were doing. She was in the back of the room, goofing off. Her sleeves were rolled up, and on one of her wrists, there was a little tree. Just like that—a neat little tree carved into her skin, the angry welts reduced to perfect red branches.
I came over and picked up her wrist. “What is this?”
She immediately pulled away, moved her wrists out of sight. “Nothing.”
“That’s not nothing.’”
“My cat scratched me.” Sleeves rolled up. Hands tucked under her arms.
“That’s one hell of an artistic cat.”
She laughed sardonically. “You know it is.”
As a teacher, I’m a mandated reporter: legally obligated to inform the guidance counselors if I see a student in a potentially harmful situation. I gave the word. They had her in the guidance office 15 minutes later.
As I expected, she was livid. First, she told the guidance counselors that I was a liar and an idiot. She wouldn’t let them see her arms. Then she told them I was stalking her. That hurt. “It’s pretty common for them to say stuff like that,” the guidance counselor told me by way of comfort. “Kids who have never had anyone care about them in their lives don’t know how to handle it when someone demonstrates that they do.” Somehow, that just made me feel worse.
In the hallways, if I saw her, she would turn and run the other way. She wouldn’t even make eye contact with me, or look in my direction. I eventually started taking a different stairwell so that our paths wouldn’t cross anymore.
One of her friends came to find me. “She’s really mad at you, Miss,” her friend Jennifer said. She said this with a note of glee. Jennifer liked drama. Jennifer also liked having someone who was as miserable as she was; she too was a veteran of self-mutilation, but I’d only learn that much later.
“I know,” I said. I gave Jennifer a book to borrow. “You can let Felicia read it when you’re done, if she wants to.”
“She’s really pissed. She, like, hates you.”
I sighed. “Well, tell her I still care about her, and that if she wants to come and scream at me in person, she’s welcome to.”
I talked to another English teacher about it. “Leave your door open,” he said. “You did the only thing you could do, by law. So just leave your door open. Eventually she’ll come back.”
The math teacher and the history teacher both tried to intervene. “Ms. Garon loves you. She cares about you. That’s why she did what she did.”
“I fucking hate that bitch,” Felicia said to them. “She better leave me alone.”
The worst part was that the rest of my special, smart, talented class turned on me, too. Graffiti appeared on the walls: “Miss Garon is a snitch.” I could have pled that this wasn’t the same as ratting out a peer, that I’d done it because I cared about Felicia, or that it was illegal not to. But I didn’t bother.
Except for once. Another student in that class, Naomi, confronted me online. I’d given the kids my screen-name so that they could ask me questions when they didn’t understand their homework assignments. So Naomi sent me an instant message saying, “You’re a snitch.”
“Naomi,” I typed back, trying to rationalize with her, “This incident was not so clear-cut. I think Felicia needed help. I did it because I thought she was hurting, not because I wanted to get her in trouble or whatever.”
“You helped no one,” Naomi typed in response. “To hell with you.”
She signed off before I could respond, and copied and pasted the conversation on her MySpace page.
Humiliated by my bad judgment (who in their right mind tries to rationalize with angry 14-year-olds?) and a little bit afraid that I would incur someone’s wrath (administrators or other students, I wasn’t sure), I went and talked to the social worker who was counseling Felicia.
“I know you can’t tell me anything about her,” I said to him, “But I just don’t know what to do anymore. I wish they’d all stop hating me. I wanted to help her, and I feel like it’s totally backfired.”
Then I started crying. I had been holding it in for a while, but at that moment I realized how hurt and sad I was. I loved Felicia. And she hated me. That was the bottom line.
The social worker listened patiently.
“What is it you like about her?” he finally asked.
I thought about it. “I don’t know. She’s just so funny and cute. And so smart. I sort of see her as a little sister, I guess. I’m only a little bit older than she is, when you think about it, and we certainly have . . . well, had . . . a different kind of relationship than I have with most students.”
“I’ve never counseled a student like Felicia either,” he said. “She has this knack for creating drama. She’s crafty: she’ll ask me to tell teachers this, to tell the guidance counselors that, pit them all against each other to get everyone on her side. She’s a nice kid, but she’s a master manipulator. This is something important to know about her.”
He paused, and appraised me with interest.
“You have to be careful not to get too involved with kids like that,” he said. “It’s easy to do . . . all of her teachers have, basically. She’s really good at luring adults into blurring boundaries.”
I thought about that for a while. I was the adult here—how could I fault her for any of this? She was a really messed up kid; that was basically all I would cop to.
Besides, I still felt like a snitch.
“I’ll stay away from her, ignore her, whatever she wants,” I said. “But please tell me one thing: Will she eventually stop hating me?”
He smiled sympathetically. “You know I can’t tell you that. We’ll just have to see.”
I waited her out. I kept my door open, like the other English teacher had said, and I put the situation out of my mind. It was easier to do than I thought it would be. I became wrapped up with the class of all boys. I taught them Sex Education during advisory that term, which was, weirdly, the event that finally bonded us all, despite their lingering sadness over Clausi’s departure. They were surprisingly eager to learn what I had to teach them, and earnest about it. They really wanted to know about women. It was sort of sweet.
I took an old plastic box that had formerly held Twizzlers and cut an opening in the lid to the container. “Here’s where you can put in any questions you have about sex that you’re afraid to ask out loud,” I told them.
The questions that came in the box were mostly along the lines of “Ms. Garon, will you marry me?” But it was not horrible. Spring came, the end of the year was in sight, and I started feeling happier again.
And apparently, around that time Felicia started to feel happier too.
It started small. Some of the kids were still going on about how I was a snitch. Three full months later. They remembered everything, except their class notes on test day.
“Whatever. I’m over it,” Felicia said to them. The history teacher told me about that later. And then another time, “It wasn’t her fault. She had to tell. She was required by law.”
(That’s my smart girl, I thought privately when I heard.)
I still kept my distance. Felicia started asking me questions. Not to me directly—through other teachers.
“Felicia wants to know if you have more books she can borrow,” her math teacher told me. “I said she should ask you herself, but then she just ran away.”
A few weeks later, another thing happened. This, too, was told to me by the math teacher. Felicia came up to her after class and said, “I’m cool with Ms. Garon now.”
“Well, that’s great,” said the long-suffering math teacher. “But does she know this?”
“I think so.”
“Are you sure? Have you told her?”
“So how is she supposed to know?”
At that point, Felicia looked embarrassed again, and did what all adolescents do when they run out of things to say—rolled her eyes and stalked off.
The math teacher asked me to help her chaperone a field trip. “Felicia’s going to be on it,” she told me.
I was hesitant. “Is it cool if I come then?”
“Of course. I wouldn’t have asked you if it weren’t.”
“But Felicia . . .” We still hadn’t spoken in months.
“Yes, it’s fine with her. I already asked.”
I went to meet the kids after school, and Felicia ran up to me and threw her tiny arms around my waist, as if nothing had ever happened between us. “MISS!” she said, in her usual slightly bossy, conspiratorial tone. It was good to hear her voice again. “Your outfit is SO last year. We have to do something about this. Now, let me tell you all about this drama I’m having with this boy named Jesus . . .”
I guess that’s 14-year-old speak for “I’m sorry.” I certainly never pressed the issue. But just like that we were “cool.” A few days later she called me on my cell (I had given it to her many months ago in order for her to call me if she was having problems) and left me a voicemail saying, “Miss Garon, this message is ridiculously dorky. ‘At the beep, do your thing?’ What the hell does that mean? You have to change it. Right now.”
Summer came, then fall, and we were all back. I was teaching in a different school in the same building. But Felicia would occasionally come visit me to say hi, and tell me what was going on in her life. She told me that she had started to pick up her grades. We were not as close as we had been once, but I think that is the inevitable side effect of my teaching a different group of kids from year to year.
The most recent time I saw her was a few months before I left the school for good. I was walking to the subway when I saw her goofing around with some friends a few blocks from campus. She seemed, somehow, more grown up than I had ever seen her: her hair was straightened, and she had applied silver make-up flatteringly around her eyes. I was struck by how beautiful she had turned out to be. She ran up and hugged me, and said, “Are you dating that fat guidance counselor Miss? Yeah, I saw you talking to him. What’s going on with you two?” Then she cackled at my protestations.
I don’t know that I have ever been so attached to a student as I was to her, and I don’t know if I ever will be again. Perhaps it’s healthier that way. But I still miss her.