High Class

So there was this teacher named Angela Wilkin who taught art at a really tough school in the inner city. You'd think at this point budget cuts would have abolished art programs entirely from public schools, but this school had some extra state funding. The average monthly income for the families in the neighborhood was less than what most people spend on bread and peanut butter in a year. So they hired a teacher to teach the kids art, hoping that maybe a little beauty and knowledge about how to draw a circle that looks like a sun would distract the kids long enough to keep them out of gangs in the short term and out of jail in the long term. And Angela, a girl from a suburb outside of some small midwest city, went to teach Van Gogh to a bunch of rowdy kids from rough neighborhoods.

Just to be clear, when Angela first went out into the world, what she really wanted to become was an actual artist. But two years into an MFA in Art Design, her advisor basically told her that she didn't have enough talent to make it in the art world, so she'd better go teach somewhere if she wanted to make a living. So she did what students are supposed to do and listened to her teacher and went out and got a

certificate in High School Education. So she could become a teacher, too, and keep up the cycle of weeding out the dreamers.

Angela might have landed at a nice cushy academy somewhere, teaching kids who knew a little bit about art from the prints and calendars hanging on their parent's walls. But halfway through her Degree in Education she found out about a program that would take care of all of her student loans if she'd commit to teaching in the inner city for a few years. Angela wasn't particularly rich and she had plenty of student loans, so she figured this was not a bad idea at all. What's a few years in a city compared to forty years of debt payments?

So every morning Angela bussed in on the number eight bus, a half hour trip from her little apartment in a gentrified neighborhood thirty-seven blocks north of the school.

Suffice it to say, Angela regretted her choice about three weeks into her first year of teaching. Going into the program, she had some fuzzy-edged dreams about discovering true talent, bringing the light of inspired art into the dark lives of hopeless kids, but the reality of the classroom shattered those dreams pretty quick. She had enough trouble just getting everyone to shut up long enough so she could explain at least one concept a day, let alone sprinkle actual inspiration into the lesson. Classroom

management wasn't Angela's strongest subject at teacher school.

The one she really couldn't stand was Darnell. All the kids made her a little crazy, or at least nervous, but Darnell just got under her skin. He was usually late, for one thing, and she'd given up trying to start class on time, since he would always saunter in right as she was getting to the important point and completely disrupt the class with a cocky grin and a slow walk to his desk. And then he'd make comments to his friends when she went to mark him tardy in the book and they'd laugh until she looked up and glared at them before going on with class.

Maybe Darnell wouldn't be such a thorn in her side if he didn't always turn in the best work, when he turned in anything at all. Angela split her assignments between in-class work and out-of-class homework. Like most students, Darnell almost never did the homework, but his in-class stuff was startling. Every now and then Angela found herself staring at his drawings or paintings, lost in the perspective or balance of line and form. She always gave him a big, fat red "A" at the top, but beyond that never knew what else to say. If he'd been unteachable, that'd be one thing, but how can you teach someone who doesn't even need to be taught?

Darnell might have tried pushing her, maybe just a little,

maybe enjoying the bit of power he had over someone in the world. He might have known deep down that his art was something that she could never achieve, or had at least given up trying to achieve. He might have felt her antagonism as a challenge, a threat in what should have been a safe place, the one class he'd always done well in without even trying. Whatever the reasons, the semester couldn't go for long without at least one blow-up.

He came into class later than usual and sauntered into place, just as she was getting ready to explain the significance of color values in Impressionist Art. This was what she'd been studying in Art School before she quit to become a teacher, and she'd stayed up all night preparing her slides and reviewing her talking points. She felt excited for the first time in weeks, and even more so when Darnell didn't show up to interrupt the beginning of class. She was able to flow smoothly into the lesson, and she felt like the connection between her and the students that was usually missing was in place and running strong; they were catching her vision and maybe she was even sparking a passion in their own hearts for the creation of beauty.

She had just flipped to a slide showing Van Gogh's crow field painting, the dark one where the crows are fleeing into the sky, when Darnell showed up. He took a glance at the slide as he walked in, then moseyed over to his chair and slid in. His friends gave him the usual greeting, and

the noise rippled around the room. Broken connection, lost moment, furious teacher.

"Not this time," Angela said. "Go to the principal's office and give them your excuse--you're absent today."

Darnell stared blankly back at her, his face unmoving. She couldn't read any response, let alone any sort of obedience to her extemporaneous command. She didn't need to mark him absent, the office would count up the tardies and figure things out. She just didn't want him there, not right now. If she passed the trouble to the principal's office, maybe she could gather what was left of the lesson and still leave something with the rest of the students by the end of class. But not with him there, staring at her.

He didn't move, she didn't move.

There come moments in life when two souls are at an impass. Neither can give in, neither can give up, neither can win. They literally sat there, staring at one another, until the bell rang. It was a twenty-two minute long staring contest, and the rest of the students had never and will never have a more uncomfortable and awkward experience in their lives. A few tried to make jokes, one even tried to speak up. His friend shut him up so they could keep watching online videos on their phones.

The bell rang, and Darnell broke eye contact. He stood up

with his friends, and walked out like nothing had happened, joking, posturing, ignoring the teacher as hard as he could. Angela fought back tears, the ones that tried to flood in when the bell rang and she hadn't won or lost--well, hadn't lost anything except for the day's lesson. She felt stupid, and she felt trapped. She had four and a half years to go in this place, and it seemed like every day to come would be exactly like this day. Awkward. Pointless.

She took the early bus after school, ready to flee home to her apartment above the coffee shop, down the street from the florist, across from the bakery that sold cupcakes with four-inch high frosting. She slumped down in her seat, like she hadn't done since she was a student herself, riding the big yellow bus from her suburb home to the school on the outskirts of town, where the football field looked out on wooded hills and far away in the distance, a rippling river. The city streaked by her, and she watched the buildings pass, a grey blur pocked with the glisten of greasy windows.

The bus pulled to a stop next to a senior citizen's center. A group of old people were outside huddled together, waiting for some activity to get going or some mode of transportation to arrive. Angela sat up when she saw Darnell standing near the group. The bus was just pulling away when she saw him sneak around to an old lady on

the edge of the group and reach into her purse. He pulled out something, but the moment fell out of the bus window view before Angela could see more.

A cold wave flushed over her, and she sat with her fists clenched the rest of the ride home.

The next day in class, she watched Darnell closely. He came in just the same, she marked him tardy just the same, at the end of class he walked out with his group. They didn't make eye contact once, but Angela wasn't looking for eye contact. She was looking for confirmation. She stepped out of the classroom as the students scattered, holding a set of papers in her hand to make it seem as if she had some particular purpose in scrutining the crowd. She scanned around until she spotted him, then watched him go down the hall, trying to see something that would give her a definitive yes or no about him.

"I can't trust him anymore, can I?" she asked the group that night. Small group Bible study was a safe place, and they shared their problems and feelings with the understanding that anything said there stayed there.

"I mean, before I saw him doing that, I just had problems with him being a distraction in class, but now I don't feel I can even trust him. How am I supposed to teach someone I don't trust?"

"You can't even know if his work is his own," said Donna, the short lady who wore hats.

"No," Angela said, "The only work I have from him are the assignments we do in class. I just don't know if I can handle always having to keep an eye on him, never sure if he's going to try anything in the classroom. This job is hard enough."

They nodded, knowing all that she had shared over the last couple of months about the difficulties of working in a tough, poor neighborhood.

Later, after coffee and the cake Donna had brought, Shellie came up to Angela. She was holding a small flyer.

"I think God might have just given me the answer for you," she said with a pleased smile, putting the flyer in Angela's hand.

Angela glanced over it. It was an announcement about scholarship opportunities to an upscale High School for the Arts across town.

"How...?" Angela began, not seeing the voice of God in the flyer.

"Well," Shellie said, "You're always saying how great his art is. Do you think he can get this scholarship? If he does, then he gets to go to this great school and you don't have to deal with him in class anymore. It's good for everyone."

Angela nodded. The logic was flawless, but...

"It's a pretty long commute from that neighborhood," Angela said.

"That sounds like something that's his problem once he gets in," Shellie laughed. "If he can't handle getting to school on time even with a great opportunity like this, there's not a whole lot you can do about it."

Angela nodded again.

"Can I keep this?" she asked.

"Absolutely," Shellie said.

When class was over the next day, Angela stopped Darnell before he could leave with his friends.

"I need to talk to you," she told him.

He nodded, nervously surprised. They waited until everyone had filed out, then Angela had him sit down with her at one of the classroom tables.

"I have something I want to show you," she said, handing him a set of papers she'd printed out the night before.

On top was a larger flyer announcing the scholarship. Below were several sheets of paper describing the High School for the Arts and the kinds of students they were looking for.

Darnell flipped through them, stopping for a moment on a picture of a classroom dotted with painting easels, with a wall of painting supplies running behind them like an art store. He looked hard at the paper, then up at Angela.

"Why are you showing me this?" he asked, flatly.

"You can get into this, Darnell," Angela said, "You have a gift and I think you can earn this scholarship."

"I can't do this," Darnell said, "I've got to go to gym."

He handed the papers back to Angela, but she stopped him.

"Why not?" she said, "This would be a great opportunity for you."

"Sure it would," Darnell said, and stood up to go.

Angela wasn't ready to let the matter drop. She'd debated the thing to herself for hours the evening before and didn't want to have to put it off any longer.

"I think we need to talk about this some more, Darnell," she said, "Can we meet after school?"

"I have to be somewhere after school."

"You can't spare just a few minutes? I think this is important for you to think about."

Darnell sighed and looked to the side.

"I can meet you at the corner of 6th and Pine at 4:30," he said. "I have some time then. There's a diner on the corner."

"I'll see you there," Angela said.

The diner was almost all white. White tile, white formica tables, white menu board with black plastic letters spelling out the foods available. Even the bench seating was white. Angela traced a large scuff mark across the table while she waited for Darnell.

She saw the crowd of old people come out of the senior citizen center next door. She watched as they passed and gathered at the corner. Darnell came walking up behind them. He veered around the group, shifting near enough to an old lady near the back to get close to her bag. Angela watched in shock as he once again reached into her bag and pulled out something. This time, Angela was close enough to see that it was a balled up clump of napkins. Darnell grasped the napkin-ball in his hand behind his back, then moved in front of the lady. He gave her a one-armed hug, and she patted him on the shoulder, saying something with a quick, toothless smile. He moved away from the group, waving at the other old people, before coming into the restaurant.

The door jingled as he walked in. Angela watched him come in, watched him drop the balled up clump of napkins in the trash can by the front door, watched him as he

walked across the room and slid into the booth across from her.

Neither of them said anything for a long minute, just stared at each other.

"Who was that woman outside?" Angela finally asked.

"It's my grandma," Darnell said.

"Darnell," Angela said, "What did you take from her bag? I saw you."

Darnell rolled his eyes and squirmed on the white bench.

"Nothing," he said.

"You need to tell me," Angela insisted.

Darnell gritted his teeth, then sighed heavily.

"It's just my grandma has this thing about saving food from her dinner at the center. She wraps up the last couple of bites on her plate and sticks them in her bag. They don't like her to do that, because she forgets about it and it starts to pile up and stink after a couple of days. I can never get into her bag at home because it's been snatched so many times that she's paranoid and watches it all the time. So I come by and take it out when she's talking with her friends and forgets to watch her bag."

Angela said: "Oh."

Darnell didn't look at her, just stared out the window at the old people loading onto a bus that had pulled up to the corner.

Angela looked at the scuff mark on the white formica tabletop. She ran her finger along the edge again, tracing all around the contour, thinking about the negative and positive shape of it, the dark inside the light. Her artist mind switched the contour back and forth, seeing the dark streak of the scuff as a solid shape, then switching and seeing the white expanse of the table, contoured around the emptiness of the dark shape. She slapped her hand down on it and looked up at Darnell.

"So tell me why you can't apply for this scholarship."

"I can't make it," he said, turning back to her, away from the window where the bus was pulling away with the old people lined up on the seats inside.

"You can't make the scholarship, or you can't make the school?"

"I can't make it to a school on the other side of town. You know I can't even make it to school here on time."


Angela realized this was the one question she'd never bothered to ask. She just lined her "T's" up everyday without looking for the reason behind them.

"I've got to drop off my little brother at the middle school, and they start the same time we do."

"He can't make it to school on his own?"

Darnell half smiled and looked back out the window.

"I'm not going to let him have the same problems I had when I went to that school. He's a smart kid and he deserves to get to school everyday without getting jumped. He needs to pay attention and actually learn something."

"So what's your answer, then? You don't want to go to this school?"

Darnell didn't answer, just for a moment. Then he blinked slowly.

"No, I do. I just can't."

"Look at me," Angela said.

Darnell turned and stared at her. The staring contest didn't last as long this time, because Angela had it within her to give in. There was an earlier bus every morning, one that would bring her to the neighborhood in time to get Darnell's little brother to the middle school on time, and one that would take Darnell to his school across town.

"You can. You will."

The funeral started right at noon. The church was packed,

the last bus from the senior center just arriving. Angela stood in the back, waiting. A small woman with pure white hair crowning her dark skin stopped and patted Angela on the shoulder.

"She'd be glad you're here," the old woman said. Angela smiled at her and squeezed her hand.

As the woman moved into the sanctuary, Darnell came in with his little brother, now so close in height they might have been twins. Darnell's brother was graduating this year and then, as Darnell had told Angela the week before in a voice broken with pride, heading upstate for early orientation at a college that had earned a full scholarship to attend.

At the time, Angela had been standing in the middle of Darnell's first student art exhibition at the local college. She wasn't sure if Darnell's pride in his brother or her pride in Darnell was more apparent to the people milling about them, eyes upturned at the startling, vibrant paintings.

Darnell saw Angela right away and immediately wrapped her in a hug.

Angela said to Darnell, "I thought you might be late."

Darnell said, "There were a couple of things we needed to do."