2010-01-01 / Columnists

It’s My Turn

Sanassa’s Phone Call
Commentary By J. Bryan McGeever

J. Bryan McGeever has taught Writing and Literature in New York City Public Schools for five years. His essays on NYC education recently appeared in Thomas Beller’s Lost and Found: Stories from New York. The name used in the story is a pseudonym. Many of McGeever’s students at Jamaica High School, which is slated to close, come from Far Rockaway.

The new school year is underway and I did not get any of the classes I requested. My classroom has been switched from the second floor to the basement, and my attendance list has another teacher’s name on it. I used to do early morning paperwork and watch the sunrise. Now I’m staring into a sewer grate just thankful for a job.

I’m already feeling worn out and resentful and I haven’t even met my new students yet. They don’t deserve this. Just minutes before class and I need to be inspired. So I shoo away the gigantic cockroach beside my foot and think of Sanassa’s phone call.

She called over the summer to thank me for a book I’d given her for graduation. She became an American citizen and was excited about starting college in the fall. There was a strong, unbroken quality to her voice that was optimistic and hopeful.

Sanassa was my student for three semesters because English was not her first language. She would cheerfully return after each State English exam, vowing the next time would be different. I remember her dutifully translating sentences from French to English, never once complaining that the test might be biased toward new English speakers.

She came to symbolize the diversity I sought when I came to New York City to teach. Sanassa was tall, with big brown eyes and high, elegant cheekbones. She wore colorful garbs from her native Guinea and was a bit of a fashion plate, donning elaborate sandals and headdresses almost every day.

In a school comprised mostly of students from the West Indies, her small country in Africa was exotic even to them. Occasionally, though, their good natured rivalries would turn typically American.

Sanassa’s response was to educate them, arriving to class with large stacks of DVDs from a budding African film industry and handing them out to classmates.

It was during her final semester that her attendance became erratic. She would be absent for several days, reemerge, then vanish again. One day she called me over to sign a medical excuse, her big eyes wide, the note clenched tightly in her hand. “Please,” she said.

“You can never tell anyone...”

In a nation where my morning paper continues to shrink, and the magazines I read are stuffed with glossy ads, imagine the still frightening power of plainly written words on a slip of paper: “The above patient was recently examined in this office to monitor the effects of female castration.”

Sanassa was absent the next day, leaving me to deal with layers of sadness and regret. I wanted to know how old she was when it happened. I wanted her to know that it wasn’t her fault. Yet all I did was sign the note quickly and hand it back. “Alright,” I whispered, “just you and me, okay?” She was never the same after this.

As the semester progressed I realized the situation’s enormity.

We had read The Color Purple a year before, where a minor character suffers female castration. I can recall my American male interpretation while Sanassa sat quietly in the front row. It still makes me wince. Then last winter I posted a playbill in the classroom.

On the cover was a beautiful woman, a burst of light shining down. Now all I saw was the play’s sledgehammer of a title stamped across her forehead: RUINED.

Had I discussed the play with Sanassa’s class? Did I use the word ‘ruined’ to describe what had been done to her? “No, Mister,” she said the only time I broached the subject. “There is nothing you can do.”

I never brought it up again.

In the spring a generous benefactor donated a carton of books to my ninth graders. There were plenty of extras so I started passing them out to random students in the hallway. The book was a memoir by Barack Obama, Dreams From My Father. Each time I handed one out, the student would stop cold and beam down at it. A small crowd would gather and a jumble of hands would shoot out, asking for their own copy. So began the most unique experience of my teaching career. I was stopped in stairways and flagged down in halls. There were knocks at my door from kids I didn’t know. “Are you the teacher with the Obama books?”

I became this strange vessel of hope and all I had to do was make the right hand off. “He’s speaking directly to us, you know,” this tall boy said after scoring my last copy. I rushed off to the bookstore after work that day, a cupid in search of more arrows. Only this time I made sure to save one for the girl in the front row.

“Sanassa, do you think this is something you might like?”

“Oh, yes, Mister, I will read every last word...”

And she did, calling to thank me over the summer. Now my new students are pouring in, these pop-eyed freshmen peering into my doorway. “Yes, I know another teacher’s name is on your program...

Don’t worry. We’re both in the right place.”

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