6+Title Of Your Piece
by Kathy Spruill Dudley
This happened years go, but I remember every detail like it’s yesterday, know what I mean? I can see it now, the classroom, the dusty air, the blackboard. I’m in school, in the English classroom, and the teacher sits at her desk across the room. The door opens. In walks this girl wearing a jumper – orange and white polka dot. It’s kind of short, you know: just above the knees. Her collar like, well I don’t exactly know how to put it, but let’s just say the white collar contrasts with the color of her very long, very slender neck Don’t get me wrong. I noticed her neck mostly because of the contrast. But, like, she could have been a model or something. Except she’s in my school. So why is she all dressed up I wonder.
So, she just walks in, this girl. Without knocking, see. Which ain’t right. This is Wasserman’s classroom. And rule number one is you knock, you always knock, before you enter Wasserman’s room. Period. Student, teacher or principal, you knock first. Rule number two: you better speak to whoever is in the room. Otherwise Wasserman kicks you out – makes you go right back out, and start all over. I’m not kidding. I seen that happen so many times. Even happened to me a couple a times.
I’m sitting there in the back of the room, and I look up when the door opens. First at her, then at Wasserman. Ooh, this is gonna be good, I think, and wait for sparks to fly. But Wasserman doesn’t say nothing. Or even flip a finger to signal the girl to go back out. Like what she made me do. Then, get a load of this: Wasserman smiles at the girl. Smiles! I never seen Wasserman smile in the two years I been attending Kennedy High School. Nobody I know ever seen her smile. That prune mouth is always puckered like she just sucked a lemon. Now it cracks as she attempts a long-forgotten smile. My lunch crew is not gonna believe this.
So, I’m sitting there, in the seat farthest from the door. In a dark shady corner. Making up a grammar test I missed two weeks ago. Wasserman sits in front of the class, watching me like a hawk, know what I mean? She don’t trust nobody. The dusty chalkboard is full of diagram sentences. It’s like chicken scratch voodoo to me. Why did my parents have to send me to Catholic school? And of all Catholic schools, why to Holy Ghost?
The open door and this thick bottle glass window are on the right side of Wasserman’s desk. I may be sitting a shady spot, but the sun’s heat and light stream through the thick opaque glass. You can smell the warmth. This small floor fan revolves left then right, slowly, listless, scattering dust motes and musty air.
The girl has this big grin on her face. Her teeth are as white as her collar. Who walks into Wasserman’s room in a happy mood? Is she some kinda wacko? She is taller than me, I figure. Then I do a retake: I can’t believe it – she has freckles. Go figure. Some throwback to Congo Square voodoo. Anyways, she’s carrying this single sheet of lined paper in her left hand like it’s a hundred dollar bill or something. This beige pigskin satchel slung over her right shoulder looks heavy. “Mrs. Wasserman. Sorry to barge in,” she says.
She didn’t even say excuse me. Or speak to me. What a crock! Then Wasserman looks up and dripping honey vowels says, “Think nothing of it.” And then she sees the girl’s paper. “What have you there? Do we need help with a writing assignment?” Wasserman reaches out her bony hand, eagerly. What kinda nerd is this girl? Who comes for help with a writing assignment before it’s due? Anyway, Wasserman’s hands – if you ever seen those fake body parts kids buy at Halloween you know what I’m talking about. You know, like the bony green hands with long red claws? Well the fat blue veins along Wasserman’ wrist and her blood-red polished fingernails make her hands look just like them monster claws.
The paper rustles crisply as Wasserman grasps it between both hands. She looks up at the girl, then down at the page. “A poem? An epic?” The girl nods. “I see; okay.” Then Wasserman reads silently, mouthing the words, pursed lips, head moving side to side across the page, right to left and back. Like the fan. She stops, a question on her face, scrunches up her brow, looks up at the girl, then returns to reading.
The girl watches Wasserman closely, her head moving when Wasserman’s does, smiling when Wasserman smiles, questioning look matching Wasserman’s. “This is very thoughtful. Historical yet not time bound,” Wasserman murmurs, pleased I think.
She turns the sheet over. Reads to the end. Turns the sheet over again. Suddenly her eyes grow into these humongous saucers. Face turns as red as her nailpolish. “What is this nonsense, Sondra?” So that’s her name. “Why are you wasting your talent on this trash? He is nothing but trouble. Riff raff!” she says, shaking the page, then throws it down on her desk.
The girl steps back. She looks confused to me. “B-b-but my Dad says it’s one of my best…. He already sent it to a record company. They say they want to use it. In a song.”
“Then why are you wasting my time? If it’s good enough for Motown….”
How did she know it’s Motown, I wonder. The girl acts surprised and asks my question, “How’d you know Motown accepted it? Did I already mention it to you or something?“
Wasserman shrieks. “Who else would accept it, Sondra? No respectful poetry journal wants it.“ She glares — the Wasserman I knew and all the kids feared.
“Well, I want to include it as samples of my writing. You know, in my applications to Vassar and Brown? But want to make sure that it isn’t against the rules to submit it after it’s made into a song. And I hoped you could tell . . . me if I should I change anything?” The girl is struggling, almost pleading.
So, this is a golden child. One of those literary types that spend hours after school in Wasserman’s room, writing and discussing literature. What a waste. Now I get it, the smiling and googooing. Sondra is on the fast track outta here – into some Ivy League crap. I shoulda guessed when she first walked in. Considering how Wasserman treated the girl. Now I get it.
“What’s wrong with it, Mrs. W? Was I wrong to fuse a villanelle between two sonnet forms? You said to be original…. And that the dirge was becoming a neglected poetic form, so ….”
I bet she wrote about some rock and roll or rhythm and blues musician who died recently – Wasserman hates that. Maybe Shakespeare would have been okay.
“Yes I did indeed. But the dirge must be about something or someone decent, uplifting, larger than life. I thought you understood that. This man was nothing. In and out of jail. Stirring up trouble, causing riots. Filling people’s heads with foolishness. He’s causing more trouble now that he’s dead than when he was alive. If you think Vassar wants to hear some immature, revolutionary drivel about a man we all despise –“
“What do you mean despise?” The girl stares at her paper, wrinkled on the desk. “Who despises –“
“Well, we all do. All decent people. I don’t know why the colored people want to –“
“Colored?!” The girl’s hand shakes. “We haven’t been colored for over twenty years. We’re not even Negroes any more, Mrs. Wasserman. We’re Black, now. And proud….”
“Hah!” Wasserman snorts. “That’s your problem. Always has been. Can’t leave things be. This is the most liberal state in the country. What has Texas ever done to the colored people except treat them equally? Are our schools segregated? No. Do you have to use separate water fountains? No. Why, look at this whole situation right here and now. It is my lunch hour, yet I always invite the colored girls to stop by if they need help with their writing. And you have the nerve …. These Black people as you call them want all white people dead.”
After that there was just silence. I couldn’t care less about villanelles or sonnets, but Wasserman had a point. You can’t be writing poetry about Eldridge Cleaver and H. Rap Brown. Especially not in Waserman’s class. Sheesh! Not so smart after all, Miss Vassar, I think, and go back to my test. I’m going to fail anyway.
Suddenly, the girl becomes aware of my presence. “Oh . . . I’m sorry. I didn’t know you had a student.” She turns on her heel, the white Keds squeaking, and remembering her manners, speaks to me. “Hey.” Then she grabs her poem and leaves the room hurriedly, tears streaming.
Then Wasserman starts talking to me, dripping honey sweet vowels. “Can you believe the nerve of these people? Even you know better I’m sure.”
“Who did she write the poem about? Some dead bluesman or something?” I ask, gathering my test pages together, ready to leave.
‘You would not believe it if I told you. After all the trouble he has caused this country. And it’s not half bad as a poetic technique, that’s not what I mean. But she has the audacity to write poetry about topical events. Poetry must always be timeless. But worst of all, she chooses to write a tribute to public enemy number one. What is she thinking? All these riots he caused? Making this country look bad in the eyes of the world. I can hardly spend my summer vacation in Europe these days. All they want to talk about is the water cannon, the water cannons. Those water cannon are better than bullets, I tell them. How else you gonna control lawlessness among the coloreds?”
As I drop off my papers at her desk, I take a guess and ask, “Did she really write an epic poem about Malcolm X?”
Wasserman gathers my papers in her red c laws and puckers up her face once more. “Even worse,” she hisses. “She had the temerity to write a heroic poem about Martin Luther King. Riffraff.”
Now it is me who is surprised. I walk quickly out of the room, looking for the girl. Her name is Sondra.