She’s been wearing color contacts lately, but the bright blue contrast still startles me a little when she makes eye contact. She’s been meeting my eyes more since coming back from winter break. She used to fall asleep. I would teach to the top of her head.
She’s barely 5 feet tall and is one of the few girls who still wears skirts in the cold weather “so no one gets me confused with my twin” who attends the other high school on our floor. There’s no need; her sister loves to wear hats.
In October, we learned that her mother has stage 4 breast cancer and was in and out of the hospital all summer. Her father isn’t in the picture. She sometimes steps into the hallway to use her inhaler. She’s familiar with hospitals from her frequent asthma attacks.
She never told us about her mother. She and her sister explored the halls early every morning, entertaining the other students. She’s bright. She’s a hard worker. She’s chatty.
She was called into the office in early December for a serious phone call. We were all worried, but didn’t say anything, hoping that if we ignored the ominous tone on the other line it would disappear.
One of her brothers had died suddenly. We didn’t see her for a month.
Her body returned the next week for brief appearances before a friend walked her to the guidance councilor. She opened her eyes in class a few days later. She didn’t touch her work. She didn’t speak to us. We didn’t blame her.
Her grades dropped, as we expected they might but hoped they wouldn’t. We watched her body walk itself in and out of class, up and down the halls. We switched groups, started a new book, and her body followed. To pass, you need a 65. The lowest grade we assign is a 45. She averaged a 51, down from a 93, for a month.
We began to read The Color of Water by James McBride. She didn’t like it. We assign 4 sticky notes every 20 pages that are rolling until the end of the semester- that’s 52 total sticky notes. I check them daily. She did a few, then spent a lot of the classroom reading time with her head on her desk.
We supplemented McBride’s novel with the first chapter of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. She volunteered to read out loud, and needed little encouragement to continue. This reading included words like “genealogy” and “physiognomy”. I could see her, very briefly, for the first time in a month.
The Color of Water was due, sticky notes and all, last Friday.
This morning she told me she had a present for me. It’s Valentines Day, and sometimes students make their teachers cards; I have a few taped to my bookshelf. Instead, she pulled out her copy of The Color of Water.
“Miss, I finished all of my sticky notes. They still count, right?”
My heart is so full.