Tired of the male machismo and sexist attitudes, Ms Delacruz dresses differently. Today, Ms Delacruz wears a cowboy outfit, complete with bolo tie, a departure from her peach-colored dresses with floral prints. She stands up in front of us – one hundred and thirty middle school teachers – as the female Assistant Principal’s indispensable school aide. Those who know, know that she is the real boss. As she reminds us to locate Home Language Survey forms in their students’ records, I notice how neatly she’s dressed, her white shirt tucked perfectly into her black jeans, and the turquoise stone of her tie obscuring the top button locked securely in the button hole.
Last Wednesday, Ms Delacruz went on a tirade. When I thought about it later, I figured it was more a desperate expression of her thoughts, but it came out as a torrent of outrage. A petite woman, Ms Delacruz has more swag than swag. She scares the worst behaved kids, the most jaded of the 280-pound teachers. “Men,” she exclaimed, “they can only do ONE job. And most of them have no job! Women, we do three, FOUR jobs. We come to work, when we go home we are the mother, the nurturer, the cook, the cleaner. The men, they can’t do nothing; just good for watching the sports … gambling … womanizing. Look at the students – show me a boy who can do a bulletin board! Show me a boy who know how to edit a classmate’s work!”
I don’t know if Ms Delacruz ever married. Many of her peers, single mothers, have boyfriends and step-children. It’s just the way it is. In the hood, Mother’s Day is consecrated and Father’s Day, desecrated. The way I see it, and I have been working in the school for three years, the real problem is this: our school is being run like a mafia. The new principal fancies himself as a kind of Godfather with his Hispanic Boys’ Club – consisting of assistant principals, coaches and teachers – doing his bidding. Male administrators, like Mr Tejada, cruise around the block in black Mercedes Benzes with darkened windows. The Godfather surrounds himself with a coterie of young, blonde female teachers in his “cabinet” – the ones who weren’t blonde swiftly rectified the situation. Most of the older Hispanic female staff were terrified of the Godfather – he has been quick to lay off and harass the teachers who are, for whatever reason, out of favor with the cronies.
Ms Delacruz soaks this all in with a healthy dose of cynicism. She, Lupé Maria Francesca Delacruz, who has seen a lot in her lifetime, is standing up to a tsunami of sexism by discarding her floral dresses and adopting the bolo tie. Her life story can be summed up in the following: bad city, mean streets, men with too much power, bad women with misplaced ambitions and good women with strong hearts.
“Suck my dick, Ms G,” Mariel Cerda play-acts before me, extending from her groin the 7-foot long pole used to close the top windows. Mariel can’t help grinning at her own joke. The girls let out fake groans of disgust. Some of the groans sound like delight. The boys, as usual, pretend they didn’t hear what she said.
I look at Mariel’s newfound pose. Her body looks stretched. Even the pimple marks on her brown skin look enlarged. The pole is disproportionately long. One can’t miss the irony in this picture: Mariel is standing before a poster that quotes our newly elected Obama, “We cannot help but believe the old hatreds shall some day pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve.” Mariel resembles some centaur I have seen out of Greek mythology, or a fantastical creature in a Japanese manga. I have to bite my lip so as not to betray a smile. “Put that down,” I say firmly. Mariel is satisfied with my reaction. I have passed her test. She puts the pole down.
Mariel is a twin. The twins were big, strong girls with brawny arms and large backs. Everyone in the neighborhood knows Mariel and Fidelia Cerda. Teachers refer to “the twins” or “the Cerda girls” in low, hushed tones. To the cafeteria lady, they are “the football players”. The Deans have known their reputations from other Deans since they were little girls. To Ms Delacruz, they simply are products of their environment, and she handles them with the same strictness she dishes out to everyone else. At thirteen years of age and five feet eight inches, the Cerda girls live to be outrageous and outraged. At their best (or worst, depending on how you look at it), they have the effect of a Midwestern tornado, shredding the learning environment to tatters with the sheer force of their will. The Godfather, and the principal before him, had to place the Cerda girls in two different school buildings so that their collective power would be lessened.
Mariel and Fidelia were popular among their girlfriends who enjoyed their exuberant, egregious antics and their untamed weirdness. The boys thought they were ogres, those ugly monsters in Harry Potter movies. To the boys, who have already started to have crushes and ideas of womanhood dictated by the media and their surroundings – Shakira shaking her booty, J-Lo getting on the floor, the blonde sycophants in the school. It is bad enough that there’s one Cerda girl, but there are two of them.
Today Mariel Cerda has reason to placate me. Faced with the prospect of summer school in the city while her twin Fidelia, the better student, is at home on the pearly beaches in the Dominican Republic, she is determined to do my bidding.
“Please don’t fail me, Ms Gomez,” Mariel pleads. “I’ll be good. I won’t act out. I’ll sit here. I’ll even read my chapter book, not the Daily Post. I’ll finish my essay on Emmet Till, and I’ll do a good job. All I want is a 65. Please, I promise to be good. You watch. I’ll read. My mom will kill me. Please, Ms G, please.” When Mariel tries to get into your good book, her vernacular becomes as grammatical as the Queen’s English. During these rare moments, I can imagine her in elementary school – the strong reader who raises her hand to answer the teacher’s questions, the teacher’s best helper. Mariel pleads me with her beady eyes. She sees me as the softie from outside the hood, one of the three chinitas from The Philippines who cringes every time a kid uses a swear word and makes them write five paragraphs and say “a pair of scissors” instead of “a scissor”.
The fact is, no one wants to teach in the American ghettos, and the U.S. government sponsors overseas teachers to come and teach their children. I come from Bukidnon in North Mindanao, half way around the world, and my students’ and my native geographies are married by the latitudinal range of 19 degrees north. Some of our most famous fruits are also theirs – the papayas, rambutans, pinapples, guavas, starfruits and bananas. Our cultures are used to drinking coconut water directly from the fruit. We are also married by our post-colonial pasts and our post-colonial names. Cerda, Gomez, Tejada, Delvalle. We are bound by a history and diaspora that has flung us to a colder, harsher and more prosperous corner of the world, by and against our wills, products of history and economics.
In the mountains I grew up in, the air is cleaner than anywhere else, a stark contrast to New York City’s ghettos where most kids have asthma from air pollution. I come from waterfalls bathed in cool mists. I come from tall canopies and giant tufts of bamboo. In my home, it would not be out of place to see a Manobo tribesman race through the forest, spear in hand, or to see happy children walking for three hours on mountain paths, just to get to school. Here in the city, students live five minutes away from school at most, most the boys roll out of bed minutes before homeroom and sit in class sleepy-eyed, chomping on cheese and toast; some are already high on their first smoke; while the girls have dressed themselves up immaculately, every strand of hair tamed by conditioner or bobby pins.
Mrs Cerda, Mariel’s mother, helps out with the Parents’ Association and After-School Programs. I have spoken to her twice. The first time, on the phone, was brief. The second time I invited her to come in for a chat about her daughter. Mrs Cerda is intelligent, lovely and well-mannered. She says she and Mariel like the Civil Rights unit I am teaching and my writing workshops. We talk about the importance of education, colonization and the inequities of the world. Mrs Cerda instinctively grasps my particular situation and the sacrifices I am making in coming to work in this school. “We come from the same places with pockets of poverty – ex-Spanish colonies, mira, we even have the same Spanish names,” she says. She grabs my hand and promises she would do her best to cooperate with me. All things considered, this woman is doing her best with her twins in the throes of adolescence. I am relieved. Usually when Mariel does something overboard, my only resort is to take her to Ms Delacruz – the only person in the entire school who can control her. Delacruz would give her tasks to complete – take the paper off the bulletin boards, staple the handouts, organize the blue cards alphabetically. Now I can reason with Mariel and have Mrs Cerda on my side.
Mariel is agitated today. So agitated she can’t sit still in her seat. She runs out of the room in the middle of class, and comes back ten minutes later, her eyes shining with injustice. When the kids tell me the news, I cannot believe them. There was a fight after school yesterday. The victim was Jimmer O’Neal, an African-American student who was friends with Mariel. A group of six Dominican boys jumped him right outside the bodega on his way home to the projects. If I had looked out of the fourth floor classroom window at dismissal, I might have seen the whole incident. But I did not. It’s normally so noisy it’s hard to tell if it was a fight or kids playing.
Jimmer is the class pet. He has a sweet nature and still has the wonder – something very few kids in eighth grade have. His voice hasn’t yet broken, and he has a stammer. The kids love to imitate his stutter and his high-pitched voice, and he mostly takes it in stride. Unlike most kids in the neighborhood, Jimmer is a good reader and thinker. When I first took over the class, he used to play possum at the back. Then I moved him to the front and he started to listen, respond to questions, ask his own, and on two occasions, voluntarily tried to repeat multiple syllables after me. “E-man-ci-pa-tion Pro-cla-ma-tion,” we chanted, over and over. Mariel joined in the chant. In fact, Jimmer and Mariel have a close bond because they’re outcasts in the hierarchical society of the school – Jimmer is not “manly” enough, and Mariel is not “girly” enough, so in a social environment that preys on gender stereotypes, they have become fast friends. Moreover, Jimmer is African-American in a school with 98% Hispanic population – and the stammer doesn’t help things. Everyone knows that Jimmer was picked on yesterday purely because he didn’t fit the crowd. I make a mental note to call Jimmer at his home when I get a period off.
“Attention 8th grade, please make your way to the auditorium,” the Godfather’s buffoonish voice thunders into the classrooms from the loudspeaker. I can see the ugly, gargoyle snarl on his face. Noise erupts down the hallway. “Ooooooooo … Someone’s gonna get in trouble!” Kids bounce out of their seats. Some, like Mariel, are mad that Jimmer has been discriminated against and are waiting to see some justice. Others, quite simply, are conditioned to be grateful for any disruption to lessons. From Mariel’s detective work, we know that the perpetrators of the crime have been sitting smugly in the classrooms all this time, promulgating their heroism, exaggerating the story for any bobinchero or gossiper who cares to listen. This infuriates Mariel. She gets to work fast, “Yo, be quiet, shuddup! Johnlaudy, stop shaking yo ass in my face, yo! … Sergio, Carlito, line up! C’mon, Antonio, you know better than that!” The last line sounds oddly familiar – one of my own. Mariel gets all 35 kids in line and quiet in record time. She takes the lead and stands in the front and waits for me to open the door. I smile at her. “I be kickin’ butt,” she says.
Seated in the auditorium, we’re all waiting for the Godfather to talk about what’s foremost on our minds – namely, a racist crime that’s happened practically on school grounds – but he appears uninterested in justice. He sermonized long and tediously about standardized test scores, as if they were unrelated to the circumstances that surrounded the students – gangs, the lure of the streets, drugs, homelessness and segregation. In the hood test scores, quite simply, are irrelevant in the scheme of things – getting your next meal and enough money to pay the rent takes precedence. But one rule of thumb is unchanging: brotherhood and solidarity, above all. Since his taking over the school, the Godfather has messed with this rule, creating an environment of fear that pits kid against kid, teacher against teacher, kids against teachers and vice versa. The Dominican teachers are mad at the Filipino teachers for “taking their jobs”. (Would that the entire parent body were as understanding as Mrs Cerda.) The Science and Math teachers are being intimidated by getting unsatisfactory ratings. The misguided “bad kids” have been sold out and suspended for months, and since Angel – the perpetrator of the attack – is the Godfather’s primary little snitch, nothing’s going to happen to him. The police came and interviewed the Godfather till 5pm yesterday; I wonder what version of the story he gave to the cops. Rashomon in the hood, what’s new? A student reported that he left at 5:04 with the new fake blonde, Ms Beiber.
The atmosphere in the hundred-year old auditorium gets stuffier by the second. The air is a smothering blanket; all that the gigantic industrial standing fan is doing is to disperse the air that is directly in its path slightly. I look around and see Mariel shifting in her seat constantly, her eyebrows knitted together. Carlos and Sergio are fast asleep in the back. Mrs Delvalle is munching on a pastelito, and Mr Kreider’s reading the newspaper. I wish I were in the park, strolling along the salubrious path near the Cloisters overlooking the Hudson. Even the Hispanic Boys’ Club – the administrators – cannot hide their boredom. Secretly we all know that the Godfather will be gone in a year, just like the principals before him, if the test scores don’t go up. And typically in 8th grade there is a big slide in the reading scores because kids have already got into high schools and stopped taking the test seriously. The city has been threatening to close the school for years – we are the last remaining big school in the largest school system in the country, with more than 1500 students. For years, the Board of Education has thrown taxpayers’ money at us with no visible results – except more books about dragons and fairies that kids have no interest in reading. The Godfather knows the score better than anyone else, which makes him bombinate with increasing vigor.
A sharp, high-pitched voice interrupts the drone. Everyone looks up. “Excuse me, what you gonna do about the fight yesterday?” It is Ms Delacruz. She is standing near the front and in the aisle right in the middle of the auditorium. She repeats clearly and loudly, as if talking to a small child, “I say, what you gonna do about the fight yesterday?”
The Godfather looks stunned. “What are you asking me, Ms Delacruz?”
This time, she enunciates the words carefully. “What – you – gonna – do – about the – fight – yes-ter-day?” With each extended syllable, Ms Delacruz enthralls the audience. 367 pairs of eyes rest on the Godfather. Everyone knows who the perpetrators of the crime are – Angel and his posse of hate-mongers.
“What do you mean, Ms Delacruz? That was taken care of yesterday, by the police. So why don’t you take a seat and let me finish my job.” The tone of the last five words are patronizing and pat.
I swear I can feel Ms Delacruz’s wrath – everyone in the auditorium can. Her frilly, fiery red hair is defying gravity (I see a pregnant cat with her hair standing). Her black bolero jacket, with smart matching slacks, gives her the air of an old matador giving his final performance. Her thin, deeply-etched face and her chiseled cheekbones take on a kind of old-world beauty. Her little nose turned upwards, she glares at the Godfather. In a flash, she turns her back on the Godfather and strides down the aisle towards the exit, her sharp heels clipping, resonating throughout the entire auditorium.
Mariel leaps out of her seat. “Yo, this shit is whack!” she hollers, “what kind of Principal doesn’t address a hate crime – nigga’s on crack, I swear! This be lynchin’ all over again – and mira, I don’t wanna be no Strange Fruit hangin’ off no tree. Answer me this: Who’s the president? Barack Obama! This can’t be happening now. Y’all mad stooopid if you stay here and listen to this idiota jerk off! ¡Vamos! Your mamas will be proud of you! This loser will be gone next year, anyway, like Mr Vargas and Mr Zenon and all the Mr Mistahs before them!”
Mariel trots behind Ms Delacruz like a pony which has just won best-in-show. Soon her twin Fidelia is running after them. “Go, Mariel,” Fidelia punches the air. Then she turns round and shrieks at the Godfather, “You racist, suck my dick!” Laughter erupts in the auditorium. Then Fidelia adds, facing the entire class of eighth graders, “What are they gonna do? What can they do? The most they can do is give us detention. They can’t suspend all of us, coz’ you know we’re right, right like white on rice. C’mon ¡Vamos! ¡Vamos!” Her voice ripples throughout the stolid, century-old auditorium.
Johnlaudy is the first to stand up, followed by Carlito and Sergio – then Ariel and Alejandra and Abiel – Alexa and Alyssa – Brandon and Bisma – Chevelly and Christian – Devon and Diogenes – Fabian and Fausto – Jewels and Justyna – Kelvin and Kerven… Everyone gets up, and soon, the Cerda sisters are taking the entire 8th grade class with them. They walk tall behind Ms Delacruz. A breeze blows through the auditorium. It is the march from Selma to Montgomery all over again. The Women’s Suffrage March a hundred years later, this time in the City’s ghetto. The horizon is breaking.
Only, Tejada and his men slam the heavy doors shut – and everyone gets an hour’s detention.
Ling grew up in Singapore and lived in London, where she won an Asham Award for writing. Her work has been published by Serpent’s Tail, Fiction Brigade, Crosstimbers and We’ll Never Have Paris. She lives and teaches in NYC.