and when we are touched and deformed by it we become
ambiguous and indecisive.
—Paulo Freire, Teachers as Cultural Workers
But forget such hypotheticals, because you won’t come forward because other cases have taught you well. There was the teacher who jammed his body between the bodies of two kids—one with a knife, one without—saving the life of one student and getting sued by the other. You recall that the teacher’s back and shoulder damage was permanent? There was the time a student grabbed a small teacher around the neck and said I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you but then said he was only joking, so the teacher faced interrogation about why and how she had allowed him to touch her. There was the teacher who received a long letter from a student, a letter naming her as an object of hatred and saying how he would “dearly love” to act out his violent thoughts towards her but instead would just repeat them to her over and over. You’re going to teach a long time, the principal said. And you can’t let them get to you. (The principal had pinched the teacher’s ass at a party and when she didn’t laugh he froze up and frowned and poured himself another martini and went to sit beside his new wife on the porch.) There was also the teacher—this one truly was asking for it—who flipped through pages of student journal assignments and found images of herself: I will come to your classroom late one night while you’re still working. I will superglue you to the wall naked and cut your feet off. I will smother you in gasoline. I will light your head on fire. I will shit in your mouth.
You do remember other, minor incidents yourself, how a person kept coming by your closed classroom door and kicking or punching it so hard that some student in a back desk said, Damn! And because the kids had no idea what was going on, they laughed among themselves. At a distance, holding a nub of chalk, you saw a kind of humor. You know too well the cloying sound your voice makes in protest, how it seems to come from nowhere. What would it take for them to hear something strong? Not the dog poisoned behind your rose bushes, not your windshield smashed with a crowbar, not your stabbed body, not your home charred to the ground. Your life is made of hearsay. What’s real is your hair falling out and turning brittle, your eyesight weakening. What’s real is the smell of blood, like wet hamburger, between your legs—and how you keep trying to hide it. How you can’t. You scramble for toilet paper and try not to bleed on yourself. This is no place, no time for hysteria.
Keep telling yourself no one will hit you. Seriously. Not the campus supervisor, not the department chairman, not the principal or superintendent or janitor. Your bunker has four cinderblock walls. One small, square window in the metal door’s upper corner.
You used to sing Mozart, play oboe, dig up coins and human finger bones on archaeology trips. You wore striped dresses, pointed shoes, lab coats. Then you fell in love, wanted to share your learning. Now you dig through papers made by students—a hundred here, a hundred there—dress not for weather and exploration but bunker temperature. Good bra. Tank top. Thermal shirt. Sweater you can roll up or peel off. But the bunker thermostat reads eighty degrees when cold air blows in, fifty degrees as heat bears down. No one forces you to stay, to accept this vocation. Eight hours a day, here is your starting place. Students enter the room saying It’s too hot or It stinks in here. The bell blares. They keep leaving you in the bunker with the broken thermostat. Colleagues passing by will announce, At my end of the building the temperature is exactly opposite of here. You never stray far.
To the dented bathroom stalls and the sink, still a rust-stained trough—cold water only—the cement floor fifty years old. The lavatory. It reminds you of being a child, smelling urine near the boys’ bathroom. The faculty bathroom has not been modernized though student bathrooms have new stalls, sinks, commodes. (Inspectors visit these bathrooms, not your bathrooms.) You must not resent the students for trashing their bathrooms already. Lavatories. There are too few to go around. At least you don’t have a urinary tract infection or genital warts or hemorrhoids. You aren’t pregnant. No one has hurt you. It’s just mucus down the back of your throat, and you expectorate in the trough when you can, or else just swallow. The lack of air circulation is no one’s fault, you certainly don’t want to be just another scratched LP stuck on complaining about mildew, mold, dust. Why not take better care of yourself: more citrus, vitamin tabs, dawn walks? You can always bring a Swiffer duster, another stash of Kleenex.
Beyond the hallway voices past the lavatory, beyond your own sneezing, you hear it—the desk phone ringing, someone calling—and rush back to your starting place. A new group of students asks, Why did you think the phone was ringing? It wasn’t ringing. The intercom blasts announcements. A student throws a book across the room. You hear thuds outside your doorway, a yelling voice you recognize: the small boy with big fists. Your bunker door can only be locked from outside. It isn’t.
But this is paranoia, you are simply angry at your own raw throat. There’s no emergency button on the wall anymore. If you use the phone, there’s an office recording—formal, polite—a woman’s voice in your ear. If you speak, the voice may say “right away” but it could take an hour, perhaps never. Remember your Mozart? your oboe? your piles of ancient knuckles? At least you have lights, fluorescent bulbs that seem slightly surgical.
No one sees those moments that train your attention—not the bulbs flickering, not the now-empty drawer where you swear you secured your purse. Use pink work orders for broken cabinets, the sputtering fuse, loose wires under the carpeting. Nothing that happens hurts you. No one is out to get you. Always invent a witness if you can.