In a parallel universe I am dead, my body rotting in some anonymous dumpster in South-Central Los Angeles. Antwon Gregory has taken the gold mangalsutra from my neck, used my ATM card to empty my bank account, and disappeared, laughing, never to be caught. I am dead. In the dumpster, putrid and overflowing with rotting fast-food scraps, maggots gnaw on my corpse.
But that is in a parallel universe. In this universe, none of these things happened. I got the letter from Mr. Smith, the principal, saying to go to school “during the week of August fourteenth” to clean and prepare our classrooms. Officially, that week was still part of our summer vacation. But we always have to work for free during our vacation, at least for a week or two, to get things ready for the new school year. I got the letter, but didn’t go. I thought of going (God knows the classroom needed a good cleaning, and no one else was going to do it if I didn’t.) but I figured, the fourteenth is two weeks before school reopens. I should be able to get my classroom together in a week or so … there’s no need to go on the fourteenth itself. Besides, there was no one to babysit Jayanth that day. So I didn’t go to school on the fourteenth. But Maria went. And so she was the one who was attacked, raped, in her classroom, the room next to mine.
Mr. Smith tried to conceal the whole matter. He didn’t want the negative publicity … a young teacher, beaten and raped at gunpoint in her classroom, at his school. He conspired with district officials to cover up the incident. The fourteenth came and went, and then the fifteenth. Teachers came and went from the quiet, empty campus, working in isolation as they cleaned and scrubbed their classrooms and made trips to Costco and Lakeshore to buy classroom materials. But on the night of the fifteenth I got a call from Maria, my best friend and colleague. She was in the hospital.
My hands rummage through the pile of papers on the kitchen table, which also serves as a writing desk. Here it is, that letter. Dear Staff … blah blah blah. You may come to school during the week of August fourteenth if you wish to prepare your classrooms. If we wish to prepare our classrooms? As if we have a choice! God only knows what happened to my kindergarten classroom last summer. I went in there to get things ready and there was garbage all over the floor—plastic wrappers, empty bottles, even a rotten banana. The new alphabet books had been delivered, but they were all wet for some reason, and some were ruined. There was even an old, broken bicycle frame and a pair of open-toed, high-heeled shoes (adult shoes) in one corner. God knows what-all happened to the room, or who used it for what, during the few weeks of my vacation, but the point is that of course I had to clean it up. I couldn’t have my kindergarteners start school in that disaster of a classroom. It wasn’t even hygienic. “You’re so lucky to get all that vacation time every summer,” people always say. But summer for me is just a time when I have to look for other work—temping, typing, whatever—because I don’t get a paycheck for two months. And then I have to take time off from my summer job to go and spend several days cleaning and scrubbing and working at school, so that the place won’t be a disaster when the kids come back in September.
Sheeeeeee … the teapot whistles and I jump up from the table, frantically flicking the switch to turn off the gas burner. Did the sound wake Jayanth? I strain my ears, listening … . No, he’s still asleep. Good. He’ll be fussy if he wakes up; he still has that cold, and I have all these papers to sort through before tomorrow. I have to get most of it done before he wakes up. I glance at the clock as I pour my tea: Five a.m. I should have a good three hours to work; Jayanth doesn’t normally wake up until eight. If only Carlos were still alive, things would be easier. People keep telling me I should remarry. As if my husband were some sort of … of household item or something, like something that breaks and then you replace it with a new one. I will never remarry. I still wear my wedding ring, I still wear the diamond Carlos gave me when we got engaged. I still wear the gold mangalsutra—my mother’s mangalsutra, actually, which Carlos placed around my neck when we got married. I will never remarry. But trying to raise Jayanth on my own, trying to support the two of us on my meager salary … sometimes I think I can’t do it. I never imagined life could be this hard. I remember when our teachers’ contract was up for renewal several years ago, and the school district didn’t want to give us cost-of-living increases. Some of the teachers were livid, hysterical, they wanted to strike. But I was comfortable; we had Carlos’ salary, he was an electrical engineer, so what did it matter if I received a mere pittance for all my work? We weren’t trying to live on what I was earning. I just didn’t get it. I refused to support the strike. “I didn’t become a teacher for the money!” I declared self-righteously. Now I feel ashamed of myself. How could I have been so blind? Other teachers were trying to support their families on the meager pittance we received, while I …. Now the tide has turned. Maybe I deserve this.
While my tea is steeping I get out the carton of milk, which is almost empty. Maybe I should save it for Jayanth … no, he has a cold; he’ll want orange juice, not milk. I heat the milk and add it to my tea.
I nearly jump out of my skin when I hear the knock at the door. Who can it be at this hour? I think of the strange sight I came across in the lobby of our Koreatown apartment last night—a man selling carpets and drugs, in the middle of the night, to a motley mix of customers: addicts, shopkeepers, fraternity boys from USC … . Who knows what-all bizarre things go on in this building; if it isn’t one thing it’s another. Every time I think I’ve saved up enough for us to move out, some other expense comes up—the car breaks down, or whatever. There’s that knock again … what if the seller saw me looking at him, what if he’s figured out where I live, and … oh, God, please help us. Don’t let anyone hurt my Jayanth, please …
After a while the person gives up and goes away. Phew. Oh, my stomach feels queasy. Okay, Asha, just calm down and drink your tea. My hand trembles as I lift the cup to my lips. I think with longing of our old house in Alhambra, the house I had to leave with my baby Jayanth after Carlos died. “Carlos should have taken out a life-insurance policy,” people kept saying. And I wanted to shout at them, Shut up, shut up, shut up! Why, for God’s sake, would Carlos have taken out a life-insurance policy? How were we to know that he would die at the age of twenty-nine, shot dead by a police officer?
For a while I became a police-basher. But the police saved Maria’s life. I can’t say they’re all bad. The cop who shot my husband was just one man … And yet, the police department covered up the incident, covered things up when Carlos was murdered, just the way the school district is trying to cover up this rape incident, trying to make it look as if it was Maria’s own fault she was raped. I can still hear the snide voice of that fat bureaucrat who made the statement to the press, after some reporter found out about the incident: “The teacher had not locked her classroom door. These things happen sometimes when people are careless. Sometimes, you know, we do get lax.”
Careless? Lax? Maria, who always insisted on walking out to the parking lot together when we had to stay at school working after dark. Maria, who made a point of having every kindergarten student photographed and fingerprinted each year and creating identity cards for the parents, just in case a child ever went missing? This woman was lax? It was Maria who, last year, asked Mr. Smith why the main campus gates were not kept locked; it was Maria who pointed out that we would be safer if the outside gates were locked during the day. And what did Mr. Smith say? “You know, Miss Rodriguez, I’ve always believed that if you’re a fearful person, you invite fear.” In that patronizing voice of his … damn him, damn him, damn him. So the main gates stayed open, of course. And so it was that Antwon Gregory was able to walk onto campus. Just like that. When Maria wanted the main gates locked, Mr. Smith said she was inviting fear. And now that she’s been attacked, the district is saying that she was inviting rape! Because her classroom door wasn’t locked! It was ninety-five f—— degrees Fahrenheit in that goddamn classroom. Of course she didn’t have the door locked; she had to keep it propped open or she’d have suffocated. It was the middle of August in Southern California.
I finish my tea and begin sorting through the stacks of papers. I’m supposed to organize the popcorn sale this year, our school fundraiser. First the notes explaining the fundraiser have to go home to parents, then the order forms … no, wait, let me do that later; I need to re-type my Kindergarten Newsletter first. I always send it home in English and Spanish, flouting Mr. Smith’s “English Only” rule, which he applies to the parents as well as the children. (“They need to realize that if they want to communicate with the school, they have to learn English.”) I turn on my little Apple laptop and start to type … but my mind keeps going back to that knock at the door. Who could it have been? For one crazy moment I think, perhaps it was Susan. After all, she did call me in the middle of the night last night. But no … I think of Susan sleeping in her Westwood apartment, with the doors triple-bolted and the alarm system rigged … no, she’d never come here, to Koreatown, at four in the morning.
I stand up, stretch, shuffle over to the stove to make another cup of tea. I can’t concentrate on anything. Gazing dully at blue flame hissing under the teapot, I find my mind replaying that conversation I had with Sue, when she called at midnight and woke me up. “I got three new students yesterday,” she complained, not even bothering to apologize for waking me.
“So?” I whispered irritably, trying to keep my voice low. I didn’t want Jayanth to wake up. “You’re just five kids over the legal class size. I have ten extra kids … and they have to sit on the floor because we don’t have enough chairs.”
“It isn’t that,” Sue sighed. “It’s … one of them. You won’t believe it. His name is Antwon Gregory!”
I was so sleepy, it took me a minute to remember why that name sounded familiar. Oh yes, that was the name of the man who’d attacked Maria. “Well …,” I said, vaguely, “Well, it is a fairly common name. I’m sure the boy isn’t related to …”
“You don’t understand!” Sue sounded hysterical. “His name is Antwon Gregory! I have to see that name on my class list! I can’t look at that name!”
I let out an exasperated breath. Did she have to be so melodramatic? “Listen,” I snapped at her, “Antwon Gregory is in jail. Okay? We can forget about him. If there’s one name you shouldn’t want to look at, it should be Joseph Smith. Our boss. He’s the one who sent us that letter saying to come to school on the fourteenth. He’s the one who refused to keep the gates locked. He’s the one who constantly does everything he can to squeeze more and more free labor out of us at the expense of our safety. Why aren’t you getting upset at him? And at all of them, the bureaucrats and administrators who pay themselves six-figure salaries while … listen, why are you misplacing your anger, why are you taking it out on some first-grader, for Christ’s sake? Don’t you see that this isn’t about Antwon Gregory? It’s about the fact that Maria was working for free during her vacation time, it’s about the fact that the gate wasn’t locked and the phone wasn’t working … it’s the whole system, the system that keeps us down, dammit …”
“Oh, shut up, Asha. Why did I call you? You sound like some hippie from the sixties, complaining about ‘the system’…”
“Well, maybe that’s because the system hasn’t changed in the past four decades. We may as well still be living in the sixties, or the fifties …” What am I talking about? I wasn’t even born during the sixties. I was still a dream, my mother’s dream … a village girl in Karnataka dreamed that she would have a daughter one day. But my mother never dreamed that her husband would die so soon after her daughter’s birth, leaving her alone and clueless in a strange country … nor did she dream that her daughter would grow up to face the same fate: widowed at an early age, struggling to raise a child alone …
Sheeeeeeeeeeee … the teapot whistles again, jerking me out of my reverie. I pour the hot water over a spoonful of tealeaves. Staring at the pile of papers on the table, I feel queasy again. I am alone, so alone in this world … my parents are gone, my husband is dead, my son is left in a lousy daycare center all day while I work and work and still never get ahead … my only real friend is lying in pain, beaten and violated, in the hospital … all I have are thirty five-year-olds to deal with all day, and not enough desks for all of them to sit at … alphabet books with mold growing on them … an evil boss who says things like, “These Mexican parents don’t care whether their kids get educated” … and a few shallow friends-by-circumstance, teacher-women who call in the middle of the night, from Westwood, to complain that they don’t like their students’ names. How has my life come to this? When I was a little girl I used to dream of becoming a teacher. Is this the way my dream was supposed to turn out?
Hunched over the rickety table, I try to focus on my paperwork, but I can’t. I stand up and move over to one of the kitchen cabinets, take out a stick of sandalwood incense, and place it in the wooden holder in front of the tiny picture of Durga Mata. I light a candle and the incense. Please, Durga Mata. Please give me strength … My mother was very religious. Now that she’s gone, I feel strangely compelled to take over her traditions, start doing pujas … but the truth is, I can’t believe in it the way she did. Still, I try: Please, Durga Mata …
I fold my hands and start to spin around, the way I used to see my mother do sometimes when she prayed. Around and … suddenly I stop in mid-twirl and open my eyes. I don’t know why. But when I open my eyes, I’m not facing Durga Mata: I’m staring straight at the garlanded photo of Carlos. Carlos … if only you were alive … and suddenly my mind flashes back to a scene from years ago, when Carlos and I were dating. We were sitting in a pizza place near CalState LA, and I was complaining about my teacher-preparation program—how meaningless the classes were, how stupid the professors were—and suddenly Carlos said, “You know, I hated school until the fifth grade.”
“I still hate school,” I joked, moping.
“No, I really hated it. You know what I learned at school? I learned that my brown face was ugly. I learned that my parents were stupid because they spoke Spanish. I learned that I was a dirty, lousy nobody. … And then, in the fifth grade, I got Mrs. Garcia. She saved my life, man.”
“Yeah, sure. ‘A teacher saved my life’—that’s what they all say.” I slurped my soda and rolled my eyes.
“No, I mean it. That’s why I’m an engineer today. Mrs. Garcia saved my life.”
A sound in the hallway outside the apartment jolts me back to the present. Feet running, and then a door slamming. Down in the street, an engine roars and tires screech.
I turn on the stove to make yet another cup of tea, check on Jayanth to make sure the covers are over him, and sit back down at the kitchen table.
I take a deep breath and begin again to re-type my newsletter. “Dear Families, Estimadas Familias, …”
I could have been there that day, when Maria was attacked. In a parallel universe, I am dead, my body rotting in some anonymous dumpster in South Central Los Angeles. But in this universe, I’m still here. And I have to keep going.
Malathi Michelle Iyengar is a public school teacher in Los Angeles.