There’s a thing I’ve been avoiding.
Last week a student raised his arm to his chest, as if to begin a backhand, and asked, “Do you want me to slap you or something?”. He had been angry at me for two days, through two rounds of group meetings, because of a rule I was holding and the way I was holding it. This student is already in a man’s body; he is broad and strong, though not taller than me. In the moment I was relieved. I could even describe the feeling as happy. Odd, no? It was the second day, and his anger had been building, his tone when he spoke to me becoming more dismissive, his accusations both increasingly vague and vitriolic, and here finally was something that was indisputably wrong. He had crossed a clear line, and I could stop trying to handle it alone.
We began the necessary follow-up, he surprising me at first by not resisting our trip to the office, or the conversations that followed. I was calm, mostly, that whole afternoon, and into the evening. As the night progressed and I told B. the story, the certainty that I had handled the situation the right way, and adrenalin too, kept me alert, hyper even. This lasted until I wrote up the incident report. I sat down to type, recording the meetings and the conversations and then I got to the sentence, “Do you want me to slap you or something?” and I remembered suddenly that he had raised his hand to his chest when he said it, as if to begin a backhand. And instantly that I was sure and strong about, and the fuel of my adrenalin, drained away. And it’s still doing it, the angry glare, the sentence, and the hand, and I can see it and then I am not his teacher, nor he my student. I can’t see his actions in any kind of perspective, can’t weigh them against the challenges I know he faces, his unique needs and hardships in the world; all I can be is exposed.
The next day, when we began a new round of meetings I came to understand why he had not resisted our trip to the office, or any of the follow-up: He still thought he was right. He informed me that he had said that sentence, he would not use the world “threaten”, because I had “crossed a line.”
The drama of the incident is passing. The staff has had to shift to considering the over-arching questions of the relationship between this student and the school.
I haven’t gotten to the thing I’ve been avoiding; that thing is about skin, meaning skin color, and that will come, but this comes first, because of course this is not the first time a man, a boy, whatever, has reacted with rage to what they determine to be my crossing of a line. It’s not the first time a man has hated me. It happens on the street and on subways; it happened when I stood posing and hustling behind a bar; and it’s happened in my family.
I do wonder what memories my brain has locked away from me. I’ve wondered that for a long time. But regardless of what I may never remember, I do know the feeling of my body as symbol, as key that unlocks male fury, and I can never be quite sure what will do it. It comes at random, punctures days that begin peaceful and sure. Sometimes it beads right off me. Sometimes it seeps in and quickly, collects and stays and sloshes in me while I go about my day.
And sometimes there are days when my sense of who I am splits entirely from my body. I am me and apart from that me is my body: a thing that was done to me; a thing that traps me; a thing that draws attention even when I don’t want it to. Sometimes the very fact of being seen, of walking down the street, is exhausting.
I’m grateful that nothing more happened than a threat. That my life is not violent. But, and I can’t explain it, a few sentences and the sweep of an arm have been enough to shake me.
My body is the safest space this babe of mine knows. I thought that this was my grace period; the nine months I get to keep it absolutely safe before I expose it to the world that is. But that’s not true. And maybe that’s why I’m uneasy these days. Because I can’t give what I can’t get.