by Anna Lindwasser
“John Proctor got me feeling some type of way. I can see how he honorable. He sacrificed his life for what he believed in. But we talking bout a thirty-year-old man who slept with a teenager and then threw her out the house ‘cause his wife said so. Ain’t nothing honorable about that.” Nahima Dorian shook her head.
“Interesting,” said Mrs. Wright. She tried to suppress the bubbly joy that came with students taking the material seriously, but could not avoid grinning. “Do you think that what he did was redeemable, or not?”
“I gotta think about it,” she said. “Tazhane, thoughts?” Her eyes shifted toward a classmate of hers who rarely spoke but often had something smart brewing in the stew of her brain. Good choice. Mrs. Wright would have called on Tazhane too, once she got done with Nahima.
Tazhane crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair. “I think it depends on whether we’re talking about real life or fiction. In real life, no, he’s not redeemable. A thirty-year-old hooking up with a teenager is nasty—he’s taking advantage of her. But we’re talking about fiction, and the whole point of the story is John redeeming himself.”
“I don’t think that’s the whole point,” said Nahima, flipping through her post-it note heavy copy of The Crucible. “I think it’s more the dangers of mass hysteria than it is Mr. Proctor. Give me a minute and I can show you the line that’s making me think that.”
Mrs. Wright would give both girls credit for their insight. Tazhane didn’t need it—her classwork, test, and essay grades were flawless, and school policy didn’t place much weight on participation. Nahima, on the other hand, needed it badly.
For whatever reason—systemic inequality, lack of preparation, being too smart for the confines of the test—Nahima was terrible at multiple-choice questions. Say a question were asking which literary device Langston Hughes relied on most heavily in his poem Good Morning Revolution. Nahima probably wouldn’t get the correct answer, which was b) personification, because she’d be focused on the ten other poems she’d memorized by Hughes that relied on metaphor. She’d pick c) metaphor, and she’d be wrong. The person who graded Nahima’s test would have no idea that she had memorized ten Langston Hughes poems. A wrong answer was simply wrong, a failed test was simply failed, and a failing student was, simply, a failure.
But Nahima was a poet, not a failure. Nahima was a barista at a fair trade coffee shop who drew kittens in the foam when she made lattes. Nahima was a passionate lover of small dogs, especially her terrier mix, Poppy. She was an activist who shut down a bridge while declaring that black lives matter. She’d be going to college soon, and she already knew that she wanted to double major in poetry and psychology.
Mrs. Wright’s job was to make sure Nahima’s test score reflected the girl she saw every day in her morning prep class and her 7th Period ELA class. Her hands scribbling notes furiously, shooting in the air to share her thoughts, squeezing her close friends shoulders as she leaned in to tell them a joke.
Mrs. Wright’s other job was not to die.
Despite its insistence on killing her quickly, the cancer carbonating its way through Mrs. Wright’s bloodstream was going to have to wait until her 11th graders passed the New York State ELA Regents Exam.
Her doctor and her husband were against this plan. Both insisted that working in a public school setting was too dangerous, both because of the stress and because of the thriving germ colony that was your average student body.
Sprawled out on her doctor’s lumpy armchair, Mrs. Wright said she would start treatment, but she wouldn’t take a medical leave until the school year ended. “I have a responsibility to the children,” she said.
“You have a responsibility to your health and to your family,” her husband said, kneading her fingers and twisting her wedding ring so her skin was twisted too.
“You go ahead and work out my treatment plan,” she said. “I need to finish my lesson plans for tomorrow.” She picked up her purse, which was heavier than it should be, and dug out her copy of The Crucible.
At 7 AM, one hour before the official start of school, Mrs. Wright was hunched over at her desk, looking at an online wig store while waiting for her Regents Prep kids to trickle in.
Nahima Dorian, Tazhane Norwalk, Ludmilla Stepanova, Miguel Gonzalez, Brooklynne Lai, and Gemini Delgado – six of the 12 kids who had signed up for the class – were yawning in their seats. All but Miguel had remembered their workbooks.
“Good morning, scholars,” Mrs. Wright said. “Thank you for coming in despite this blustery day—can anyone define that word for me, blustery?”
While Ludmilla raised a tentative hand, Brooklynne shouted “it means windy!!” Ludmilla’s soft blue eyes shifted into something sharklike. She snapped, “bitch, you stole my answer!”
Brooklynne fired back a flippant, “suck my blustery dick!” and the two girls gnashed teeth at each other until Mrs. Wright mollified them with the cliché, “great minds think alike.”
“My mind’s great as fuck,” muttered Brooklynne, hugging her knees to her chest, teardrops bubbling in her eyes. Mrs. Wright considered scolding them both for inappropriate language, but chose not to.
“Yes Brooklynne,” said Mrs. Wright, knuckle grinding out a knot of pain in her forehead. “You are an intelligent young lady. Now, why don’t you demonstrate that intelligence for the class, and remind us of the annotation strategy we learned yesterday? That’s what we’ll be working on today.”
Brooklynne spat out the format they’d been working on for six weeks, missing the third question they’re supposed to answer—what literary device does the author use? Tazhane raised her hand and pointed this out, reading it off the rubric in a crisp, imperial voice. Brooklynne’s eyes narrowed and her shoulders tensed, but Mrs. Wright was able to calm her by clearing her throat and shooting a knife-laced look her way.
Twenty minutes later, as the kids were digging their way out of a pit of multiple choice questions, Nahima raised her hand.
Walking toward Nahima’s desk left Mrs. Wright so fatigued that she had to clutch the back of her chair for support. Nahima grabbed her arm to steady her. “You okay, Miss?”
“Yes—I’m fine. What do you need?”
“I can’t concentrate on this stuff. I got a headache.”
Mrs. Wright stifled a flash of annoyance. She had chronic myeloid leukemia, and she was somehow dragging her corpselike body to school and teaching five lessons a day. That wasn’t even counting this prep class, not to mention all the grading and planning and parent calling and emotional managing and meetings and paperwork and endless endless grind—but she didn’t mention any of that.
She smiled. “Sorry honey. Do you want to go out and get a drink of water, see if that’ll help?”
“No…you got any painkillers?”
Mrs. Wright had a half-canister full of Oxycodone in her purse, but seeing as she’d probably be arrested if she gave Nahima one of those, she said no.
“Okay, thanks.” She twisted around, tapped Gemini on the forearm. “Got any painkillers?” Gemini handed her an ibuprofen. After five minutes of rubbing her head and whimpering, Nahima got to work.
“Can you help me with these multiple choice questions?”
This was said in the scratchiest, most congested voice Mrs. Wright had ever heard outside of a children’s cartoon. The word multiple sounded more like buldible than the word itself.
Nahima was suffering from some kind of infection. Black swipes underneath her eyes, a swollen, chapped nose, and her mouth hanging open so she could breathe made that clear enough. The rattling cough that announced itself the instant Nahima sat down made it crystal. The messy sneeze aimed into a bundle of tissues plucked from the box on her lap ramped it up to blinding.
Still, Mrs. Wright asked, “are you sick, dear?”
If she was sick, Mrs. Wright was screwed.
“Yeah,” Nahima rasped. “That headache from yesterday turned into a cold. My nose got mad stuffy last night. I couldn’t sleep.”
“I see.” Mrs. Wright frowned. She couldn’t say, get away from me you disgusting germ fountain, don’t you know that I have cancer?! Because Nahima didn’t know, and Mrs. Wright didn’t want her to know. If she knew, she’d tell her friends and they’d tell their friends and sooner or later the whole school would know. Then they’d be giving her flower arrangements and get well cards and their deepest, most sincerest of sympathies. All while looking at her as if she were something stuck to the bottom of their shoe.
Nahima wasn’t doing anything wrong by asking her teacher for help while having a cold. She didn’t understand the material that she needed to pass the test and graduate. Mrs. Wright could not, in good conscience, turn her away.
And so she just shoved her hands into her pockets, determined not to touch anything until she could disinfect the surfaces Nahima breathed on.
After a coughing fit that made Nahima sound like she was trying to dislodge a rock from her throat, she croaked, “I can’t figure out the answer to question four. It could be #1 because Pyotr is showing his contempt for status, but he’s also showing his indifference to wealth so it could be #2. The last two answers make sense also if you look at what the narrator says after Line 50—she’s saying people don’t take action and just complain or stay quiet, because they’re not confident. And that’s #4. I can’t even use the elimination method here because they all…”
She trailed off, nostrils twitching and eyes slamming shut. After gulping air for a few seconds, she sneezed furiously into a waiting handful of soggy tissues.
“Nahima, are you sure you’re up for this right now? You sound terrible.”
After noisily blowing her nose, Nahima said, “I’m okay. I just really want to understand this so I could do good on my Regents.”
Mrs. Wright’s guts were performing a trapeze act, her heart slamming against her ribcage like a kid belly-flopping into a pool. If she caught this cold she’d probably get pneumonia and die.
But this was her job. Get Nahima and the rest of the 11th Grade through this fucking test if it killed her. So she took Nahima’s sheaf of Regents questions, and said, “let me just look over the text real quick, and then we’ll talk about that question.”
Before Mrs. Wright got halfway through the text, she was interrupted by the sound of heaving breaths, whimpering, and hiccups. She looked up to see Nahima wiping tears onto her sweater sleeve.
“Nahima? What’s wrong?” Mrs. Wright didn’t want to get too close, so she just sort of hovered over her, brow wrinkled with concern. “Whatever it is you can tell me.”
“This test is getting me tight!” Nahima moaned, digging fists into her streaming eyes. “Making me feel so dumb. I can’t guess the right answer—half the time all the answers make sense. I’m not a mind reader, I don’t know what makes most sense to the people who made the test. All I know is what makes sense to me.”
She blew her nose, turning three tissues into mulch. “I’m never going to pass this test,” she whimpered. “I’m never going to graduate high school. If I was just smarter…”
Mrs. Wright’s aching arms moved without her, wrapping Nahima into a germ-ridden embrace. “Honey, you’re not stupid. It’s the test that’s stupid. It expects a very specific way of thinking, and very smart people don’t necessarily think that way. The test measures how well your thinking lines up with the test, nothing more.”
Nahima nodded into the now damp collar of Mrs. Wright’s shirt, then pulled away. She wiped her face off on another handful of tissues, and mumbled an apology.
“It’s okay,” Mrs. Wright said. “You’re in a bullshit situation. I’d be crying too.”
Three days later, Mrs. Wright was the one crying. Mainly because what started off as Nahima’s cold had transformed into her own pneumonia, but also because her red-faced, blustery husband was growling at her about how she should never have let that girl get so close to her. He thought she shouldn’t be working while she was going through chemotherapy. He thought what she did was not necessary. He did not want to lose her. He wondered how she could be so careless with her own health. Did she want to die? Did she want him to be a widow? How could she be so selfish?
She couldn’t say anything because she couldn’t breathe. The tubes up her nose and down her throat were doing it for her. Her husband sat down on the side of her hospital bed, tried not to jostle her but did it anyway. “Jennie, you don’t have to keep working. Obviously we’ll have to make a few sacrifices, but I can keep us going until you get better. Then you can find a new teaching job. If you die…”
What she wanted to say was I won’t die, but even if she could, her husband would just launch into telling her how hard it’ll be to treat her leukemia if it turns acute, how likely it was that she’d die if she kept picking up infections from the kids, how he wouldn’t be able to walk into a silent home after work without crying, not when he was used to The Clash blaring from her laptop while she banged out lesson plans and talked to the cat.
Mrs. Wright didn’t want to hear any of that. She closed her eyes and tried to blur his words with sleep. The last thing she sensed was her husband’s fingernails scratching her scalp as he tried to stroke her chemo-sparse hair.
“Yeah?” Mrs. Wright dragged herself up from the heap of essays she’d been disrespectfully using as a pillow. A full class period worth of labor from these kids, and she drooled on the product? What was wrong with her? Well, never mind that now, her students were here and she had to give them her full attention, no matter how sleep-strangled her brain might be.
Nahima and Gemini were standing in the doorway, Gemini leaning languidly on the door frame, Nahima standing primly with her fingers laced around her middle.
“Hey,” she said. “I’m glad you’re back. I was worried about you! Why you was out for so long?”
“I was sick.” Mrs. Wright stared at her fingernails. She hadn’t wanted to tell her that, but she hadn’t figured out a sufficient lie. “Don’t feel bad. I didn’t get your cold. It was a stomach thing I got from my husband.” This said without having any idea whether or not Nahima blamed herself in the first place.
“Oh. You feeling better now?” Nahima fiddled with one of her beaded braids, cocked an eyebrow. As if she didn’t believe her.
“I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.” Mrs. Wright forced a smile as bright and wide as she could, stuffed down the cough rumbling in her throat. “Anyway, what’s going on? I’m sure you and Gemini didn’t come here just to check up on me.”
“We was so worried, Miss!” said Gemini, loping toward her desk. He dragged over two desk-chair combos for himself and Nahima, and sat down. He said, “You right though, that’s not why we here. We got something to show you.”
Nahima took a white Hello Kitty folder from her tapestry bag. She said, “we been writing a book. Well, I did the writing, and Gemini did the photography. We bout ready to find a publisher, so we was hoping you could make some edits. We asked Mr. Patel for help with the photos already, we just need you for the poetry part.”
Without stopping to consider whether or not she had the time or skills to help, Mrs. Wright agreed. Nahima smiled, and handed her the folder. Inside was a title page, and about 80 pages worth of poems and photos.
“This is awesome,” Mrs. Wright said, flipping through the manuscript. “Thank you for showing me this—it’s always a bit of a thrill for us English teachers when the kids are doing extracurricular reading and writing. I can’t wait to read it.” She looked at the title page, which held the collection’s name: FAFSAphobia.
“Most of the poems are about where we at right now, trying to finish high school and plan for the future. The whole thing was starting to stress me out, so I started writing poems.”
“What an excellent coping mechanism,” said Mrs. Wright. She would never have the nerve to write about cancer. Then she’d have to acknowledge its existence outside of her medical appointments, and process its implications. Not a chance.
“Thanks for helping us out, cuz,” said Gemini.
“No problem, bro,” said Mrs. Wright. Gemini laughed. Nobody said bro anymore.
Mrs. Wright edited the manuscript with a needle in her arm. She usually had a good twenty minutes before the chemo cocktail put her to sleep, and this was a good distraction from the aching bones, grisly rashes, and riotous nausea that she knew would come after the treatment.
The manuscript involved about 40 poems and 20 photographs. The photos included Nahima and Miguel hunched over Chemistry textbooks, Tazhane and Ludmilla craning their necks to see at the clock tower at the Brooklyn College library, and Gemini kissing a five-year-old boy’s chubby cheek. Probably his brother. There was Nahima in a winter coat, arms outstretched to catch the snow. Brooklynne and a 10th grader named Julissa midflight on the basketball court. A failed math exam, with the student’s name smudged out. The whole 11th Grade class holding up signs at the Union Square Black Lives Matter protest. Beautiful photos, mostly black and white. Mrs. Wright hoped that Mr. Patel would have some decent feedback for them.
The poems were hard to read critically. There was no rubric, and Mrs. Wright didn’t specialize in poetry. Reading it, she felt that generalized joyous glow of reading something she liked, and she could not put her teacher hat on. She changed some spelling, moved a few lines around, but ultimately, there was little she could do to change its core.
The poems were already what they should be, without Mrs. Wright’s help.
Twenty minutes into the Global History Regents, which Mrs. Wright was proctoring while her students sweated through the ELA test in another room, Ms. Ng poked her head into the room. “Ms. Wright, just so you know, Nahima didn’t show up for the test. Claudia called her mother but there was no answer.”
Mrs. Wright furrowed her brow. “Did she try her father?”
“Yes, same thing.” Ms. Ng chewed her bottom lip. “Just thought you should know. We’ll talk more later.”
Good, because Mrs. Wright felt like she’d just been hit in the chest with a hammer. She couldn’t talk to Ms. Ng. The only thing she could do was sit, mouth gaping, fingers curling into a fist that she swore to God she would not hit her leg with. Not in front of the kids.
Nahima. NAHIMA. All that extra work and she misses the test? Mrs. Wright’s early mornings that could have been spent sleeping, spending time with her husband, SLEEPING, all those hours upon hours of planning, grading, and sacrificing for Nahima to just say, “screw it?”
Mrs. Wright shut her eyes. Forced enough air into her lungs to choke out “thank you Ms. Ng.”
Mrs. Wright sat on a student desk, arms crossed, while Nahima stood awkwardly in the doorway. “Are you coming in or what?” barked Mrs. Wright.
Nahima’s brow wrinkled, and her lips folded in on themselves. She walked in, stood in front of the desk. “Why you yelling, Miss?” she asked, staring down at her sneakers.
Mrs. Wright took a labored, shivery breath. “I’m sorry, that was inappropriate. I’m just so…I just can’t believe…” She laced her fingers together, gnawed a loose sliver of skin on her bottom lip. “What were you doing during the ELA exam? Why weren’t you there?”
“I had a really good reason.” Her lips curled into a smile. Her eyes were now fixed on Mrs. Wright’s. Sparkling.
Nahima opened her tapestry bag and pulled out a slim paperback. “Look at this,” she said.
Mrs. Wright took the book. It was sleek and blue and decorated with a photograph of Gemini Delgado looking terrified. Written in American Typewriter Font: FAFSAphobia, poems by Nahima Dorian, photography by Gemini Delgado. “I had to go to a publishing party for the book. They was willing to work around my exam schedule, but I messed up the date, and by the time I realized they couldn’t fix it.”
Mrs. Wright’s vision blurred into snowflakes and static. One part of her mind wanted her to shove a fist in the air and scream victory—Nahima published a book of poetry, who the hell did Regents Board think it was calling her incompetent? Somehow, though, that river of pride dried up before it got to her mouth. She could not speak over the rattle of her pneumonia-scarred lungs, over the creak of bones too chemo-fragile to hold her body up.
She looked at Nahima with her mouth hanging open. Ran her fingers through her thinning hair and said, “I just can’t believe you did this to me.”
Nahima’s eyes narrowed. “Did what to you?You ain’t going to congratulate me?”
“Nahima, you skipped the Regents exam! You know you can’t graduate without it, so why would you do something so stupid?!” Mrs. Wright’s voice was thin and shouty. She had to clutch the desk to keep from falling off it.
“Chill, Miss, it’s okay! I can retake it in August!”
“Yes, but you won’t have been doing any of the prep work for two months. You’re far less likely to pass if you take it in August.”
“I’m gonna study on my own, and my mom signed me up for a prep class outside of school.”
In August it didn’t count, because it wouldn’t be Mrs. Wright’s hard work that helped her pass. If Nahima could pass on her own, if she didn’t need her, then what the hell had Mrs. Wright been doing all this time? Getting pneumonia, dragging ass into school at 7 AM, sticking out the year through her treatment…she felt nauseas.
She sighed, clasped hands pressed toward her forehead. Her dry lips parted. She wanted to say, I could be dead by August, but she still hadn’t told Nahima about the cancer. She wanted to say, look at what I did for you, I deserve catharsis, I deserve your passing score. She could not, in good conscience, say such a thing.
So she just said, “oh. Okay. Good luck. Congratulations on the book.” And shut her eyes.
“Thanks Miss,” chirped Nahima. “You can keep the book. Read it over the summer if you got time, I want to know what you think of the final product!”
With that, she strode out of the classroom, braids bouncing and back straight.
Mrs. Wright opened the book to the acknowledgement page. For Tazhane, it said. Of course. Tazhane was Gemini’s girlfriend and Nahima’s best friend. She hadn’t expected to see her own name, but its absence made her boiled eyes burn.
She stood up, her muscles snapping and screeching, and walked to the principal’s office to inform him that he would have to find someone to take her place next year.
About the Author:
Anna Lindwasser is a freelance writer and educator living in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, Verdad Magazine, Whiskey Island, The Charles Carter, and on Ranker.com. You can find out more about what she’s up to at annalindwasser.com.