Tough Area, Tough Students
The bell rang as Lori ran down the hall towards her classroom. She was always late and her first hour teacher hated it. It caused some tension between them at first. Mrs. Wiles was very strict but she had to be in this school. Basically forgotten by the city, Luther High school was run down and filled with the left over inner city kids that no other school would take. It was a tough area with a tough set of students. Lori never really understood why Mrs. Wiles would voluntarily work there.
As she rushed into the classroom, she avoided making eye contact with the teacher. Even still, she felt Mrs. Wiles’ eyes burning into the back of her skull. “Ms. Johnson, your tardiness was unacceptable on the first day of class and it is unacceptable now. So, as punishment, you will be giving your presentation first,” she said.
Lori’s best friend Gwendolyn laughed at her. Her laugh was cut off by Mrs. Wiles who instructed her that she would go second. Gwendolyn’s face became red and she rolled her eyes. Lori shed her bag and her coat then pulled out her paper from an old folder. Hesitantly, Lori walked to the front of the room. She had never liked speaking in public but that excuse did not work on Mrs. Wiles. She was fearless, or at least portrayed herself that way. Lori secretly wished that she was fearless like that. She could use that living in this neighborhood. Perhaps that is what happens to white people from good families. Maybe they did not know fear the way she did.
As she opened her mouth, a car backfired outside the school. It sounded so similar to gunshots that most people would have hit the floor but the students in the classroom only winced. Mrs. Wiles stood up and looked out the window to make sure it was, in fact, just a car. Lori cleared her throat and everyone’s attention returned to her. She knew she would lose points on her presentation by just staring at the page but she did not care. Without looking up, she read her paper to the class. It was a short story she had written. She had been proud of it the night before but now she felt exposed. When she finished, she looked up to see the class’ reaction. To her surprise most of the students were leaning forward in interest. Then Lori’s eyes fluttered over to Mrs. Wiles who had a satisfied smile on her face.
“Very good Ms. Johnson,” she said. “Ms. Aiken, you’re up!”
Gwendolyn let out a sigh of exasperation and walked to the front of the class. Lori watched her, noticing that Gwendolyn was not carrying a paper. “Mrs. Wiles, I ain’t got nothin to share.”
Everyone looked at Mrs. Wiles. She had a strict rule in her classroom about how you could speak. No slang. Proper English only. “Ms. Aiken, please rephrase that.”
Gwendolyn let out another sigh. “Ughhhh, Mrs. Wiles, I do not have ANYTHING to share.”
Mrs. Wiles took a moment. “Ms. Aiken, did you not have sufficient time to complete your assignment?”
“Yeah…,” Gwendolyn responded.
“Excuse me?” Mrs. Wiles said patiently.
“Yes, I had sufficient time,” Gwendolyn repeated.
“Yet you chose not to complete the assignment?” Mrs. Wiles asked.
“Nah… I mean. No, I chose not to.” Gwendolyn replied. She was about to say why but this was a no-excuse classroom. You either do things or you do not. Mrs. Wiles had been clear on that from the beginning.
“Very well, you may take your seat. Mr. Newman, you are next,” Mrs. Wiles said.
Lori tried to pay attention for the rest of the class but she could not. She could feel Gwendolyn fuming. And she was still thinking about her own story. When the bell rang, everyone jumped up and ran out of the class. Lori was slower but she did not want to be late to her next class.
“Ms. Johnson, can you stay for a moment?” Mrs. Wiles asked. “I’ll give you a hall pass,” she added after seeing the trepidation in Lori’s face. She nodded.
“Ms. Johnson, I want to talk to you about your story. Did you write it yourself?” she asked. Lori was too nervous to be angered by that question. Lori nodded.
“That’s what I thought. You see, ever since your first story assignment I have really been thinking about your talent and potential. You are an extremely talented writer and could do that professionally. Do you like writing these stories?” she asked.
Lori was surprised. She thought she was going to get into trouble for being late again. “Yes… but my mom says they are a waste of time…” Lori replied.
“I see. Can I tell you something in confidence Ms. Johnson?” Mrs. Wiles asked as she leaned against her desk. Lori nodded, eyes wide.
“I had the same problem. I have wanted to be a teacher and a writer for as long as I could remember. But the place I grew up, very few people graduated high school, let alone went to college. It was a poor neighborhood just south of Los Angeles. I think more people in my grade died from gang shoot outs than actually graduated with me. But I worked hard and ignored the people around me who told me I was wasting my time. And then I went to community college and got straight A’s. My grades helped me to get a scholarship to a university and I graduated there with honors,” she shared.
Lori was stunned. “You… you grew up in a place like this?” she asked. Mrs. Wiles nodded.
“That’s why I am so strict with the rules, respect and speaking. I want to give you all a place to become better and hold you to higher standards,” she explained. None of that had ever occurred to Lori. “The reason I am telling you all this is because I believe that you are even more talented than I am and I see the same drive in you that I had. So, if you want help, I can be a sort of mentor to you, and help you reach your goals.”
Lori nodded happily. She felt tears coming but she pushed them down.
“It’s going to be hard,” Mrs. Wiles said seriously but a smile spread across her face.
“I know,” Lori replied, matching her smile as she left the classroom.