Today is Monday, and on Mondays I watch over high school detentions. At 2:45, fifteen minutes after the end of the school day, the students stroll into the room, cramming the last bits of their after-school-snacks into their mouths and chugging the last bit of their drinks. I use one hand to point first to the trash can, signaling for them to throw away their trash and spit out their gum, and then to the desks they will be confined to for the next long (very long) 30 minutes, all while using the other hand to quickly pull the door shut, fully expecting the student who pulls the door back open and sputters an excuse about why he is late. I give him the look that says “I don’t want to hear it, just sit down and be quiet.” I scan the room, giving a slight headshake and sigh to “the regulars” and inquisitive looks to the students I don’t expect to be in detention. I am given “it’s not my fault” or “it’s just for being tardy” looks in return. It’s all part of the Monday-detention-routine.
Today as my eyes were sweeping the room, I made eye-contact with Stitch, a tenth grade boy in my Geometry class. (Last week in class, after I had started calling one of the other boys Slick, he held up the finger that he had sliced open and informed me that he is now known as Stitch.) He’s not exactly a stranger to detention. I think we all had classes with guys like Stitch in high school- the ones that seek to master the art of standing as close to the line as possible without crossing over it, but fail more often than they succeed. Stitch makes me laugh almost as much as he makes his classmates laugh, and I’m pretty sure he has accepted the fact that his funny-business often lands him in detention. This was one of those detentions. As he met my gaze he shrugged and laughed slightly, pulling out his pencil and a piece of paper and preparing to fill the page with the reason he was in detention.
Slowly the time ticked away, and a few minutes before 3:15 I started to make my rounds, collecting papers filled with reasons and excuses and promises to never do it again. When I arrived at Stitch’s seat, he pretended not to see me for the concentration he was giving to the drawing in front of him. I picked it up off of his desk, looked at it, and raised my eyebrows at him, questioning what exactly it was.
“Ms. Heft, will you hold it up next to your face so that I can see the resemblance?” Stitch said loudly and proudly. There it was, the entire foot across the line.
I had all I could do to keep myself from chuckling. His delivery was perfect: he asked in a most sincere tone, cracked only the tiniest bit of a smile, and raised his own hands with an imaginary picture to the side of his face and posed, modeling what he wanted me to do. The glimmer in his eye made it clear to me that he wasn’t being the least bit malicious, but that this was the moment he had been anticipating for the last 27 minutes- the moment the entire room would crack up laughing, each student in disbelief that he had the guts to do it.
I sighed and shook my head. “That will be another detention,” I said calmly and coolly, turning around to go back to my desk, picture in hand (I already had a plan to add it to my collection of student-drawn portraits of me, one of which depicts me standing on a desk and chair, towering over my class with a whip in hand [I promise, that picture was an exaggeration, I didn’t stand on desks and never, ever had a whip]). I didn’t laugh and I didn’t yell (both victories I know can be chalked up to practice over the years with the hundreds of other “Stitches” and “Slicks” in my previous classrooms). I felt a little sorry for him, knowing that in any other setting, his joke would have been a hit with me (I’m glad he already knows me well enough to know that I can laugh at myself). I would have given him the satisfaction of laughter with another audience, but not there where his joke could be seen as complete disrespect. As I walked away, with the eyes in the back of my head I watched Stitch deflate completely, knowing that I hadn’t given him either of the two reactions he figured he might get.
I dismissed the rest of the students and asked Stitch to stay behind while I filled out his detention form.
“I’m sorry, Miss,” he said genuinely as he walked up to the desk. “I was just kidding, and I thought you would think it was funny, but I guess it wasn’t the right time. I’m all booked up for detention until Thursday,” he continued with a slight grin. He didn’t argue, and he didn’t complain; he simply took the detention, knowing he had misjudged the combination of the words that he spoke and the audience that was watching.
And this, too, is my struggle: to know what words to write for the audience that is reading.
I long to share with my readers all that I am experiencing. I want to share the funny stories and the heartbreaking moments, the daily challenges and the wonderful successes. But its just so personal and so political and so confusing. It seems impossible for me to take into consideration all of the opinions and misunderstandings and beliefs and biases of my audience, as any good writer does, and accurately predict the reaction my writing will receive. And so, until today, I haven’t.
I’ve been playing it safe. I’ve only been sharing stories that I know will go over well with almost anyone who reads them, and tucking the others away. I’ve been keeping from you the emotional highs and lows, the real struggles and the challenges, for fear that you won’t understand or maybe won’t care. But today, Stitch unknowingly taught me a little something about bravery. He bravely took the risk of being completely himself, and even when his joke failed, he shouldered the consequences.
So from here on out, I’m going to do the same. I hope you’ll continue to read, knowing that some of the things I write might make you angry or go against everything you think to be true. I hope that even when my stories make you cry or make you scared or make you shake your head in utter disbelief, that you’ll continue to read and walk with me though this craziness that comes with living in this place, because I can’t do it alone.