A Secret Faith

This morning, Hope Croley stomps into my classroom and flings her book bag by a desk. A bruise winks under her eye, wisps of hair barely hiding it. She grunts at my cheery "Good Morning, Hope!" and turns away, shoulders curved in a frown around her body. A circle of cigarette smoke follows her into the hall, and I hear her tell Trish how she got hit again, this time for leaving hot grease on the stove. Trish giggles, a nervous little snort, but then they fall silent. After all, maybe Trish got hi t this morning, too.

Hope hates me on a daily basis. This hate began my first day here at Crossroads Alternative School, and it is now a familiar war in my classroom. She sneers as I read the announcements, clucks her tongue during the Pledge. Today, when I ask for lun ch money, she throws her boots outward and slinks down in her desk.

"I'd rather die than eat that crap," she says, almost as a spit.

"Hope, it's a rule you have to eat," I manage sweetly, patience already thin.

"Nope," she says. "I've got gum."

She pushes the purple wad to her lips, sticking it out for me to see. I nod, staring, her one good eye rolling up to the ceiling and the other, lifeless and small, sagging down her cheek in perpetual dismay. I would feel sorry for this girl, I think , if only she was not so unlovable.

The training for at-risk students is full of ideas and theories about behavior. Some believe the kids cannot "handle" kindness and would rather be treated with respect. Others believe in a "no discipline" policy, expecting nothing and leaving their success or failure up to them. I sat through a lot of videos and lectures, but there was no chapter on coping with sorrow or pain. As teachers, we were on our own with that, and in Hope's case, I felt I was failing miserably.

* * *

First bell rings-- English class. Rosco, Anthony, and Zac filter in without acknowledging me; they are lost in the world between their headphones, a loud droning voice that is teacher for the day. Taraika bops in with her usual smile, then Keisha, B rian, and Tony. Hope shuffles in last, always late, her head turned towards the wall.

"Good morning," I say as they settle in. Rosco takes his phones off slowly, a gesture of nonchalance telling me that English class is not high on his list today.

"We're going to finish our autobiographies," I begin, and groans erupt around the room.

"Today's topic is 'What Bothers me the Most."' I write it on the board and explain.

"That's easy," says Rosco, his voice like a scratch across the board. "I'm bothered by writing."

The class agrees, complaints darting and shooting around the room. Zac's already falling asleep, Keisha is rolling her eyes, and I remind myself that these are seventeen-year-olds in the ninth grade. All they want is to get out.

"If you guys would give yourselves a chance, you would see how much you've improved," I venture, but they don't bite.

"Easy for you to say," Zac says, "You're up there and we're out here."

I ignore them with a smile, my best defense for whining, but inside I'm screaming so hard my ribs hurt. Eventually they give up and take out their writing folders, groaning and sighing in exaggerated pain.

Hope watches me. Her good eye follows me from student to student, and the dead one stares ahead, blank. I don't prompt her to get started, but I feel like a walking target. Any minute her mouth could shoot off, complaining about being bored, pissed off, or just for being Hope. Eventually, her face lowers and she begins to write, but I am aware of her like a storm brewing in the distance.

They are silent while writing, scratching their heads and shifting in their desks. Writing is uncomfortable for them, and writing about their own lives is almost impossible. But secretly, I think they like this project; they take it seriously, writing page after page and handing them in with expressions of relief.

I pick up Hope's after school, the loopy scrawls like a child's as I read:

It bothers me that teachers give dumb assignments like this one about what makes us mad or sad or whatever. I just want to smoke a blunt and hang out with Levi. But if I had to say what bothers me most it would be Miss Bland and her sw eet-like attitude. I can see she hates me so I hate her back, Hope style. Plus, she don't do nothing with this room, no plants or nothing. Just dissin' posters about how we should feel good about ourselves or to keep off drugs. That's what bothers me today. Ok?

I look around the room and a sickening grabs my throat. I read the paper over, composing my own tirade:

What bothers me the most, Miss Croley, is that I care about what happens to you and you act as if I am the biggest idiot on earth. What bothers me is that every day you come into my room fighting me. What bothers me the most is when I look into your eyes, I feel part of you seeping into me, and it is ugly.

* * *

That evening I buy a fern in a plastic pot. My sister tells me it is low maintenance, almost indestructible, and it sits on my desk like the quiet observer it is, a flash of green among the gray walls and scratched desks of my room. I name it Frank a nd introduce him to the class the next day. They are unimpressed. But I'm hoping the name will rub off on me. Cut the crap, it tells me, be more of whom you are.

The papers sit for a few days before I call Hope in for a talk. She has that "What do YOU want now?" look on her face, and she sits twirling her hair through her fingers and smacking her lips.

"I read your writing so far," I tell her.

"Yeah, so?"

"You've only done one part of the assignment, Hope."

"I'm not going to do it," she says, pushing back in her desk.

"I don't hate you, Hope." I begin, and she looks at me, sizing my words for sincerity.

"I don't hate you," I repeat.

She considers this, checks her nails as if I am wasting her time.

"You wanna' know about my lame eye?" she asks. Subject changed.

"You can tell me if you like," I say, holding my gaze to her.

"Well, my real Daddy says the doctor yanked me out too fast. And Grandaddy says it's when God sneezed while he was shaping my head. And Momma, she says it's an angel sittin' on my eyelid, and that's why it drags."

I smile a little, and Hope's face softens.

"Which one do you believe?"

"Personally, I like the angel one," she says. I mean, sometimes I feel her there."

She pushes her eyelid up and down with her index finger, thinking. I try to imagine an angel sitting there, seeing what Hope sees, hearing Hope's thoughts of the world.

"You know, my step-daddy owns a nursery," she announces, subject changed again. "And that plant is pathetic."

We look at Frank together, his fronds brown and ready to snap.

"I never was good at plants," I admit, turning the pot around in my hands. Obviously Frank had been neglected, and now he was almost dead.

"You ain't that good with students, either," Hope says, quietly, and I let it go. "I mean, you sure want to know a lot about our lives."

"It's interesting," I tell her. "I mean, you have to write about what you know."

"Bullshit," she hisses. "You'll never have a clue into our lives."

"Hope . . . "

"All I know is that I ain't never gonna' be like you. Talkin' all that positive crap all the time. How's that gonna' help me get through this life?" She gets up, heads for the door.

"The world isn't out to get you," I tell her, but she's already in the hall. "You have to give things a chance."

"This place is hell," she says, her back turned. "Even the plant hates it."

I take Frank into my arms, wanting to scream and throw him to the floor. It was all I could do to remain the adult and not lose control. Like Hope, I had run into a wall again, and this wall was us.

* * *

Days pass and summer approaches. Hope and I exist minimally with each other, barely a mumble between us. Like animals in the zoo, she stays in her cage and I in mine, regarding each other in distant suspicion. Soon, it is the last week of school, and everyone is jumpy.

The autobiographies are due, a major part of their English grades. Hope still has not turned hers in. If she refuses to do it, she could be dropped from the program or she will repeat next year. I know the principal will leave it up to me for the f inal decision.

"Hope, I need your autobiography by tomorrow, " I call after her on the second to the last day of school. She laughs over my words with a friend and walks out of the room--she lets me know silently that I am not there. It does not matter.

I leave the room for my usual coffee break with Sheila, another teacher at the Alternative school, and when I return, Hope is standing at my desk. She is crouched over Frank, and I hear a low, mournful humming. She jumps when I walk in, her cheeks flooding red. She looks quickly at Frank, hands me a paper, and bolts for the door.

I open the tiny window by my desk. I see Hope walking to her car, a cigarette hanging from her lips, her hair flowing in the warm wind. She gets into her car, glances at me in the window, and drives away. I begin to read Hope's autobiography.

This ain't no autobiography of me 'cause I don't want to talk about me. I get sick of being me everyday, so I'm gonna' talk about this plant I know. Miss Bland gave it a crappy name like Frank, but I named her Faith and she likes it much better.

Faith was born in Wal Mart about five weeks ago. She was brought to this school in order to brighten up the place (at least that is what Miss Bland said). Faith has had a hard life, and as far as I can see, she has been suffering since day one. First, Miss Bland kept squalling about her like a plant was gonna' make everything better and we would want to do our work. Miss Bland even took down those posters we all hate, but the air is still rotty and the floors are messy with old gum. Faith didn't like it, I could tell. There was no real sunshine in the room, (only a little window to see outside) and Miss Bland watered her too much, drowning her bad.

One day Miss Bland had this talk with me because I wrote about what bothered me. Faith sat and heard the whole thing. I even told Miss Bland about my eye, and she liked that cause she likes anything about us (at least she acts that way). It didn't impr ess me much, and my grades are still crap, but I got this idea about the plant.

I started doing something wild. Every day Miss Bland would go on her break and I snuck into her room to see Faith. We talked about everything, and she told me what it's like to be talked to instead of talked with. She said she could tell when somebody didn't care about what she said. She also said that it was easy to sit and be ugly because then no one would ever expect nothing else. I agreed with Faith because of my lame eye. She then told me all this food and water was killing her and that if Miss Bland would just leave her alone she'd probably be okay. Ferns don't require much, you know. Anyway, I started coming in here before Miss Bland got back from her break, and now Faith's doing real good. Even growing a blossom or two.

I guess Miss Bland don't realize she needs to let up a little and let us go our own way, like Faith here. She wants us all to sit straight and find the value in what we are doing, but sometimes that's a long road I just can't see down. Maybe I'll show F aith my angel, but now school is almost over and I don't think I will. My angel sits on my bad eye and tells me things sometimes, but I don't always listen. Maybe I should, for Faith's sake. Sometimes she says things like Miss Bland, and that's alright after a while. I don't know yet. So that's what I came up with for my autobiography, and seeing how me and Faith got kinda' religious names, we're a lot alike. The End.

I pick up Faith and see Hope's secret efforts. The plant's leaves are peppered with new buds for the summer, and the soil is moist and warm. I cradle the plant to my chest, thinking of Hope's care and time. The writing wasn't the best, but for Hope , it was an accomplishment. I knew then what to do next.

On the last day of school we tie up loose ends, and there is nothing left to do except say good-bye. Most of the students are sweet, telling me about their summer plans, and all the hassling is gone now. Grades are in, the summer is close, and they have made it through another year. For many of them, it is a small success that means the world.

When the last bell rings, I call Hope back. She walks to my desk with her hands clamped together and expectant.

"I want you to have this," I say, handing Faith to her. "I can't take care of her like you can."

She does not say anything, but that little grin I saw months ago peeps around the corners of her mouth.

"Am I gonna' be back here next year?" she says, a tense laugh in her voice.

"Yes, Hope, you will."

"And you?"

"Me, too."

"Oh Lord," she says, smiling full now.

"We'll do better," I tell her. "At least I will."

We regard each other again, but this time as a student to a teacher, a teacher to a student. Not caught in a war, not caged like animals with suspicion or hate.

"Thanks," she says, backing up from my desk. She takes Faith and walks out, her shoulders straight and high. I watch her from my window, and she holds Faith up to the sunshine, the leaves bouncing all the way to her car.

Carlyn Bland