By Jared Alan Smith
“The fiction of the facts assumes innocence, ignorance, lack of intention, misdirection; the necessary conditions of a certain time and place.
Have you seen their faces?”
-Claudia Rankine, Citizen
* * * * *
The expansive white walls of my house belie its narrow smallness. This bungalow was built during the height of Jim Crow, in what would be one of the earliest modern suburbs outside the local port. Urban sprawl has taken a lot of the wealth out of the area, but I’m happy where I’m at.
The tenant before me completely trashed the place, which meant I got new carpet, appliances, windows, and electrical fixtures before I moved in. I had to find the leak in the roof, and there are still plenty of ants and roaches in the walls, but this place works for what I’m trying to do. I took a job at one of the highest-need (see: lowest-achieving) schools in the entire county without first locking down a place to live. I was offered the gig twenty-eight days before school was slated to start, and I knew I needed to move my life about a hundred miles west to a spot in the neighborhood near campus. I don’t think it wise to teach out of a book called Bomb the Suburbs and then drive back to the suburbs after the bell rings. It’s a credibility issue, and I can already count on a steady supply of those.
The man who wrote Suburbs has called me a “poverty-pimp.” I set down the essay I am grading and walk to the thermostat in the hallway, unbelieving that it reads under 70. I think the readings are a couple of degrees off in some direction. The system has been off for about a week and a half to defray the cost of the slow leak in the toilet basin. If this house is my own little microclimate, daylight savings is making my life easier; six o’clock sundowns mean November really has come.
November means testing season at school is in full swing. We’re almost through the first semester, and my freshmen have just finished a district-mandated “progress monitoring” assignment. The writing prompt is based around how children deal with fears differently in different contexts: they must compare how Jem and Scout Finch treat Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird with the stylings of Maya Angelou’s speaker in “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me at All.” Only a few of my best learners have picked up on the fact that Angelou’s speaker is actually quite fearful, and is only trying to convince itself through repetition that it should not be. The Writing Coach who assigned this has moved onto a second-grade classroom down the street in the face of a pending reassignment. “The Gibson Report,” a publically-funded and privately-executed consulting subcontract, has eliminated her position. The Reading Coach has been retained, which is good because she is a former NYPD detective.
All of my kids are afraid to essayer, the freshmen especially. “Essayer” is French, meaning “to make an attempt” or “to put to the test.” I give them a formula to pass their state tests called “PIE:” make your Point, Illustrate your point, and Explain your thinking. Easy as pie, I say. Their irrational fear of pencil and paper persists. Actually, it’s quite rational: most of the papers they see don’t do anything very positive for them. To be “on paper” means to live in constant fear, your life’s vagaries thrown in black and blue against an ever sharper white background.
I grab a stack of essays off the table and click my pen. These are much more gratifying than any election coverage I might find tonight. My kids are struggling, but at least they’re making real progress, progress I can see. I haven’t owned a television in about four years and I don’t miss it one bit. I can congratulate my fellow teachers tomorrow and be done with the creeping sideshow partisanship we all bemoaned for a while. One candidate makes his bones spitting out demons, and the other has been spat into a sexism-fueled feedback loop, doomed by her peers to an infinite re-hash of her own closeted skeletons. I don’t need to see any more of either of their methods to know they are unsound. I have allowed this election cycle to turn my heart into a near-pure darkness.
* * * * *
I open my eyes and my students’ work is scattered across the floor, a puddle of college-ruled pencil marks and blue ball-point. My cat, Jeb, has replaced them on my lap, and he crinkles the paper I was working on when I fell asleep beneath his paws. His brother George mewls insistently and hops off of my desk, making toward the bowl of kibble in the kitchen.
“Alright, alright,” I say. “C’mon Jeb, get up.” I poke him in the shoulder to get him moving, and he quits crinkling my student’s paper, frowning up at me. They’re named after the Bush brothers because they’re not the brightest crayons in the box, even if I did find out recently that ‘ole Gee-Dub has taken to painting portraits of veterans who’ve been wounded carrying out his orders in the Middle East. Jeb must also be something other than plain stupid to misplace the results of the 19-2000 election and keep his job. I don’t expect any such ludicrous closeness in the results this time around, even if the bourgeois plastic beach they will wash up on still seems very much the same.
There is no way the “KKKandidate” makes it to the presidency, no matter how white that house has always been. Bush ran his War on Terror cloaked in Christian supremacist rhetoric, and I almost bought it; by “almost,” I mean that I was 12 years old in 2001, a newly-minted sixth-grader who got the world-churning 9/11 news from a contractor at the school bus stop. I grew up watching our supreme Judeo-Christian response hack the world apart, and am reminded by American foreign policy to this day of the inimitable fool’s errand all my history teachers called the Crusades. Our new and improved version of them is not working, and has never worked for anyone other than those giving the orders. Neither candidate in this election seems to have a problem with that. I have just a few students who were alive on September 11th, 2001. Seniors, mostly. They all think they know what a terrorist is.
I pour some kibble out for the cats and catch a glimpse of the clock on the stove: 3:15 AM. I really knocked out, and I’m still not even halfway done grading. I return to the living room and scoop the splayed papers off of the floor, grabbing my cell phone and my cigarettes off the table and heading out to the front porch. I light up a square and my screen simultaneously. I only need to type an “e” into Google for the terms “election results” to show up right under it. I tap the screen with my thumb and inhale. The tab that appears is divided neatly into “Overview,” “President,” “Senate,” “House,” “Governor,” and “Referenda.” Underneath the different options, in bold black print: “Donald Trump won the presidency.”
I exhale and scroll. I hope that Dems took the Senate and House of Representatives, and see nothing but the same red tide George Bush rode in on back in 2000. There is scratching at the door behind me. I crack it and George looks up through the opening.
“C’mon, take your pick.” I open the door wide, and he continues to stare. When I step toward him, he bolts out the door, and I clank it shut behind him. I curse in surprise when I read that Trump took Pennsylvania. The fracking there is close enough to be ruining my family retreat in the northeastern tip of the state, and now it is only going to get worse. I curse more softly for Florida; there is an RNC headquarters in Hillsborough, and I still haven’t seen much Trump / Pence signage in the streets. I click through to the county-by-county results, where Hillsborough is marked blue and marooned in a sea of red along with Orange, Dade, Broward and some county up north. I have lived in almost all of those counties. Donald Trump won the presidency. Donald Trump won the presidency. Donald Trump won the presidency. He couldn’t turn this train around if his name was Boo Radley.
I’m going to be in front of my students in less than six hours. What will I see in their faces? What will they see in mine? In other high schools across the county, teachers had been gathered in auditoriums during preplanning and told that if they talked about the election, they would be fired, no bones about it. I have worked the last ninety days under no such restriction. My kids know exactly how I feel right now, down to the oldest of my own bones. Telling them not to be afraid would be telling them to be stupid, blind, dumb; the same qualities I have excoriated for them in both of our candidates. Qualities I exhibited in believing Hillary had separated herself from the pack. I reach into my pack of smokes and realize I have burned through the entire thing. Have I been blowing smoke out my ass this entire year? My cell phone reads 5:30, which means it is time to get ready for work. I wonder who among my peers will not show, and head back inside to scrub the creeping yellow stains from my index and middle fingernails with a coarse Brillo pad.
Jared Alan Smith was born in Orlando and lives in Tampa, Florida, where he teaches Exceptional Student Education English Language Arts. His nonfiction has appeared in Burrow Press’ Fantastic Floridas series and his fiction in Issue 19 of Hinchas de Poesia. His chapbook Sure Shot: Collected Assays in Pulp is available here. He is easier to find on Facebook than in real life.