First part of a longer story of a idealistic teacher working in a withered city.
|That’s What Little Girls Are Made Of
I was deep in thought and didn’t notice the prostitute until she was pressing herself against my window.
“Come on and give me a try, daddy. I’m better than coffee in the morning.”
My morning waitress’ arms and neck had skin the color of generic peanut butter. Her face had been made several shades lighter by a dried foundation, leaving a cracked borderline along her jaw that segregated one hostile country from another. Synthetic blonde hair fell around her face and made it clear that love had very little to do with it, but that she was willing to be my private dancer for money. Obviously she didn’t know I was a teacher and had me confused with somebody that had money in his pocket.
“I know you didn’t have breakfast this morning. Let momma give you something good to eat,” she said as purple lips pulled back into a grimace that might have passed for a smile.
Ms. Turner had herself wrapped in something that was either pleather or a really tight garbage bag. Once she began to pull at her fastenings, red light or not, I had my signal to leave.
My tires squealed a bit as I sped away two blocks and pulled into the parking lot beside Margaret Murray Washington School for Young Women. Having brothers in suits and bowties walk up to my car to sell copies of The Final Call was routine--I looked forward to their bean pies--but I’d never had a commercial woman give my minivan a lap dance free of charge. I decided that times were hard all around and chalked up her change in business plan to the recession and the Bush tax cut. I gave my driver’s side window a quick look over for any leftovers that might get me in trouble with the missus, and then headed into the building.
Margaret Murray Washington School for Young Women was housed in what use to be the former Cleavon Little Elementary. The two-story building had halls that were lined with lockers that had been painted sea blue and summer green in a determined effort to liven up the wide, brown passageways.
I made my way to the office so I could sign-in for the day. Each morning that I remembered to mark myself as present was something of a minor victory. After teaching in suburban West Michigan, I was accustomed to heading straight to class and preparing for first hour. During my first few weeks at Margaret Washington, the phone in my room would stop me every other morning in the midst of my lesson. One of the office secretaries would roughly remind me that if my name didn’t appear on the attendance sheet in the morning, they would have to scramble to get a substitute and I would have to scramble to find some other way to get paid for the day.
But this morning I was in the winner’s circle. I walked into the office and was greeted by hallelujahs and grunts of worship. Ms. Bea’s was holding a gospel revival inside with the help of her compact disc player. Some mornings began with Diana Washington, others with Whitney Houston stuck on repeat. Maybe Ms. Bea knew something I didn’t and was trying to get some proactive heavenly assistance.
“Good morning Ms. Bea.” Her last name was McNair, like the astronaut, but only students, strangers, and district auditors from downtown used that name. People that she decided she was going to like were instructed to add a title to her first name, just like southern Black folk had been doing since before Reconstruction.
“Good morning to you, David.” Ms. Bea covered her mouth with her hand before she spoke. Some kind of medical procedure had apparently removed bones from her lower jaw. Her chin seemed shriveled and she was left with a bird-like overbite. When she was in good spirits, Ms. Bea cooed my name. When I made her job more difficult she said my name in shrieks and caws.
“It must be a special occasion. You brought your memory to work with you this morning. Today must be an eclipse.”
Ms. Bea would call me by my first name when she was teasing me. Our staff kept the teacher’s code of addressing each other by our last names in front of the students. But at Margaret Murray Washington, even amongst ourselves, we still had the habit of using titles and surnames. It was as if last names were part of our professional chain mail we wore as hired dragon slayers for education. Maybe first names were holes in the armor, and any exposed flesh was an invitation for a scaly student to slide a claw or tooth in.
But I liked the snicker in Ms. Bea’s voice when she would first name me. And her playful voice was better than the caterwaul I heard when I was late with my paperwork.
“If I wasn’t Christian, this would be my day to play the lottery,” teased Ms. Bea. “Now the question is do you have that SM1 form for Ms Martin. You know she's going to ask for it whenever she manages to get here.”
“I’m taking baby steps, ma’am. Baby steps.” I signed my name, grabbed the mail from my box, and headed towards the door. “I don’t want to stuff too much perfection into one morning. I heard that’s how a person ends up hanging from a cross.”
“I’m not going to let you pull me into your devil talk, Mr. David, but I know that if you don’t have her forms, Ms. Martin’s got her hammer and nails.”
The preacher screamed an amen from the speakers as I was leaving, as if to cosign Ms. Bea’s warning.