By Denene Millner and Nick Chiles
Okay, now that I think about it, maybe I did go a little too far.
I had pledged to be more honest with the mothers and look what it got me—the harshest attack that I had ever suffered from a parent. Zaria Chance had strolled into my classroom and torched the place. She actually had suggested that I couldn’t control my class, that maybe I didn’t know what I was doing. I was so stunned that I was almost speechless—which is a rarity, believe me.
As with so much in life, it was all about the timing. In fact, that’s a lesson I often push with both my seventh graders and with my basketball team. Timing. Knowing when to make a move.
Zaria Chance walked into my classroom at the wrong time. I had been getting angry, thinking to myself that right there on the sheet of paper in front of me was the problem with the public education system. According to my class register, thus far I had seen parents for sixteen students. All were the parents of my better students. The difficult kids, the knuckleheads? Their parents were missing in action. So in effect most of my evening at the parent-teacher conference was spent preaching to the choir, so to speak. The ones I really needed to convert, the mothers and fathers who were failing to do their jobs, couldn’t find the time to come down to the school and talk to their child’s teacher. As if whatever they were doing this evening was more important than that.
Yes, I could get self-righteous about it when pushed. I considered what I did to be on the level of missionary work in its importance. After twelve years in the classroom, I had seen plenty of evidence that a teacher could pull off miracles. Okay, maybe "miracle" was too strong. Work magic. But I needed help from the parents. At least backup, the appearance that the parents cared and would smack the kid upside the head—they didn’t literally have to hit the kid, of course, but at least put the fear of God into him, as my grandmother used to say—for messing up in my classroom.
Back to Zaria Chance. As I said, her first mistake was walking into my classroom just after I was getting pissed that I wasn’t seeing any of the parents I wanted to see. I’m not saying Zaria’s son, James, was a knucklehead, but he definitely had his knucklehead moments. I could tell the kid was smart—he had "potential," a term we teachers definitely overused (don’t they all have potential?)—but there was something missing in the discipline department. My guess was that there was no man in the house. I had become quite skilled at picking up on that one over the years. Especially with the boys. That’s why Principal Bell tried putting as many of the male students in my class as she could get away with without attracting too much attention.
When Miss Chance walked into my class, I was a bit surprised by how pretty she was. It’s not that I never saw any pretty moms, but by seventh grade most of the suburban mothers in Teaneck had been overtaken by resignation. They had given up on pretty—they seemed to be settling for awake. But Zaria Chance looked different, fresher, carrying a hint of sensuality that I had assumed didn’t even exist in these comfortable split levels and colonials. Her skin was a rich caramel, her face so smooth and flawless that you instantly knew she was a woman who took care of herself.
Right away, as I watched her settle into the small chair, I braced myself. I didn’t want to let her attractiveness distract me. It had happened before and I was still embarrassed. I had been doing a stint in fifth grade three years earlier and the sexy, kittenish mother of a top-shelf knucklehead had talked me out of a suspension with her clearly calculated sexual codes. I had kept looking down at the glimpse of chocolatey thigh gleaming at me and I totally forgot the point of her visit. Never again.
"So, how’s my James doing?" she said, presenting a polite smile. She had dimples. Nice.
Her James was getting on my nerves. That’s really what I wanted to say. But that was much too frank. You had to ease into it with the mothers. I had gotten the sense over the seven weeks that he had been in my class that James didn’t have much interaction with adult males. It was something about his needy, attention-grabbing swagger—he was calling out for me to give him extra time. These were the kind of observations that Principal Bell counted on me to make. I hadn’t thought about how I would get to it, but I suddenly got a flash of inspiration. Why not just come out with a simple question?
"Does James have a father figure in the house?" I asked, smiling warmly, kindly. Or so I thought.
Right away I knew the question had been wrong. The bulging of Zaria’s eyeballs told me this, as did her snort of disgust.
"Excuuuse me!" she said. "What kind of question is that? Aren’t we here to talk about his academic performance?"
Her eyebrows arched so drastically that I thought they were going to merge with her hairline. She was wearing a conservatively cut business suit, light brown, and I noticed that her nails were not decorated with any brightly colored polish. Like she didn’t have time for all that adornment. Right now her hands were clenched tightly, angrily. And of course there was no wedding ring, which I had noted early on. No rings of any type.
"Well, there’s a good reason I asked you that," I said, trying not to let her reaction rattle me. "James has acted up quite a bit in my class. He spends too much time in homeroom out of his seat, and he often seems distracted. Sometimes he seems to be, uh, kind of searching for attention. In my experience, males frequently do that with male teachers if there’s a lack of a, uh, male figure in the house."
She stared at me coldly, not responding right away. I tried to return her stare, but not very successfully. Her glare made me look away, at a spot above her head and to the left. I wanted my statement to sound strong, convincing, but I knew I had been a bit too hesitant, unsure of what I was saying. With parents, particularly mothers, uncertainty was lethal. They picked up on the scent of it like bloodhounds.
"He has plenty of male figures, thank you," she said crossly. "He’s never had any problems in other classes with his, um, discipline."
I waited for more. I got the never-had-this-problem-before defense all the time. Frankly, it was not at all convincing. Most of the time, the student in fact did have the same problem in other classes, but the other teachers just never bothered to complain. But I believed I was doing the parents a favor by giving them as much info as possible, even if it was negative.
"Uh, well, that doesn’t really concern me," I said. "I’m much more interested in what’s going on with him right now."
Right away I knew it sounded too cold, a little heartless. I wanted to take it back, but it was out there, like a finger in her eye.
"That doesn’t concern you?" she said. "Is that your way of saying you don’t care what he was like in his previous classes? That would seem to be totally relevant, if you ask me. ’Cause what it would be telling me is that the problem with James might not be with James at all."
She sat back and crossed her arms in a huff. I waited for more, but she was waiting for me to respond. She was telling me that the trouble with her son was his teacher. I took a deep breath, told myself not to overreact. This, in fact, was the other problem with the public education system—parents unwilling to take responsibility for their children’s behavior. It was always someone else’s fault—usually the teacher. Sometimes when they were called to school because of their youngster’s wild antics, they’d actually wind up confronting the teacher right there in front of the child. Obviously, I had one of those single mothers in front of me who thought her child could do no wrong. Boy, I was sick and tired of the Zaria Chances of the public school world. I wanted to gather them all together, scream until my voice was gone, then teach Parenting 101. No, my daughter Lane had never lived with me, but I still knew a thing about parenting—enough to teach all these blameless single moms, that’s for sure.
"You know," I began, "it would be a lot more helpful to your child if you could listen to what I’m saying. James doesn’t need you trying to put the blame on somebody else for his actions. He’s in seventh grade, starting to become a young man. Frankly, he needs somebody to crack down on him more, not to give him excuses. He won’t—"
"No!" she interrupted loudly. Her exclamation made me draw back, away from her, as if she had swung.
"No, sir. I will not sit here and listen to you lecture me on how to raise my son! That’s what’s wrong with the public schools—teachers always wanting to blame the parents for their own shortcomings. If you can’t figure out how to reach my son, then maybe you’re not a very good teacher. Maybe he needs to be in a different social studies class. If you could control your class, I know you wouldn’t be having any problems with my James. He doesn’t have any discipline problems."
I think I gasped audibly. I noticed a nasty glint in her eye; she had enjoyed her little speech. She had actually accused me of not knowing how to teach. I was so stunned that I almost wanted to laugh. This was by far the worst confrontation I had ever had with a parent because never before had any of the angry ones made it so personal, so quickly accused me of not knowing what I was doing. That was astounding. She wasn’t nearly as pretty to me anymore. I glared at her, trying to gather my thoughts, trying to craft the perfect response to her unprovoked attack. Here I was, dragging myself up to Teaneck every morning, pouring my heart and soul into the classroom, trying to keep these knuckleheads still long enough to stuff something into their heads that might prove useful one of these days. It was the most thankless job in our thankless society because we were always getting ganged up on, used as a handy scapegoat by every politician from the White House down to the town council. Test the teachers, monitor the teachers, mentor the teachers, punish the teachers, blame the teachers. So they pay us peanuts, kick us in the teeth at every opportunity, then place their children in our care for the majority of their days. It made absolutely no sense to me. I mean, would your average mother hire a nanny to watch her baby after the mother had spent the previous year smacking the nanny upside the head every five minutes? I don’t think so. But we come in every morning and do our job like professionals, knowing that each child who’s not paying attention, who is too depressed or distracted or excited or aggressive or uncaring, is still our responsibility, even if it’s clear that he has no intention of learning anything.
These are the messages I wanted to shout at this woman who had the nerve to blast my teaching abilities. I wanted to invite her to follow me around for a day, to watch me in action as the students grinned and laughed and squealed and applauded and listened—that one was key—on my cue as I did my thing every day in this classroom. I couldn’t control my class? Sheeeit.
"You know, Miss Chance, I sit here all night hoping that the parents I really need to talk to find just a little bit of time in their busy schedules to come out and hear the things their kids need to work on. But usually the parents I talk to are the ones I don’t really need to see. I’m still not sure why that is, but I’ve come to accept it. But every once in a while I’ll get a parent—and I’m going to be honest here, usually a single mother—who seems unable to hear what I’m saying. For whatever reason, she doesn’t want to believe me, as if it’s impossible that her little boy could be anything but perfect. And that’s a problem. James doesn’t need you to blame me or anybody else for his difficulties. That’s not going to do him any good. If more parents took responsibility, we would all be a—"
"Oh, hell no!" she said, bolting up from the chair and grabbing for her pocketbook. "I’m not going to sit here and listen to this." She started toward the door. Then she turned on her heels and pointed a long finger at me.
"You need to take a good look at yourself, Mr. Roman! You seem to think you are God’s gift to teaching, that you can do no wrong, but you need to think again!" And then she was gone. Just like that.
The rest of the conversations with parents over the next half hour zipped by in a blur. Right after she left the classroom, I was literally shaking. I had to run to the bathroom so that a parent wouldn’t see me so flustered. I stared into the bathroom mirror, looking myself in the eyes. What had just happened? I turned over the entire conversation with Zaria Chance, pinpointing the places where I had erred. Surely the opening was all wrong. I should have suspected that she would be sensitive about a grown man asking her if she had a man. In this age of multiplying single mothers, that was a question loaded with tons of baggage. Some single mothers were frank and unashamed about their single status and the lack of positive role models for their sons and were often engaged in campaigns to find role models wherever they could—but those were usually the parents whose sons weren’t knuckleheads. Again, Zaria’s son wasn’t a knucklehead, but he did have some knucklehead tendencies.
Once the conversation between me and Zaria started off wrong, I didn’t know how to make it right again. So I made it worse, it seemed. Telling her I didn’t care what he acted like in his other classes had been a mistake—even if it was true. What was wrong with me? I needed to go somewhere and have a tact transplant, I thought, as I splashed cold water on my face. Now the question was, do I reach out to her and apologize—or just let it go? Surely I was a big enough man to construct an affecting apology—right? Maybe I could send a letter home with James. I nodded to myself. That was what I’d do, sit down over the next few days and write a strong apology letter—warm but not too apologetic—perhaps even invite her out for a cup of coffee. But she might misconstrue a coffee invitation, thinking it was an attempt at a pickup. I certainly didn’t want that evil woman thinking I had any interest in her other than professional. I preferred my women to be a bit funkier and a whole lot sweeter. Not that sweet is enough to make a relationship work, as I discovered about six months earlier with a woman from Queens named Cynthia. Long story, but it’s enough to say that surface sweetness doesn’t necessarily mean a woman won’t eventually try to cut out your heart and feed it to her dog. Actually, Cynthia had a cat, but he was a mean little bastard who might as well have been a dog.
Being an unmarried, reasonably attractive male teacher in an elementary or middle school was like tossing a hunk of chum into the middle of a pool of sharks—they all tried to devour you whole, and they didn’t care who got nipped in the process. The ones who were married themselves were trying to fix me up with their single friends—inside and outside of the school—and the single ones were trying to send me as many loud and clear signals as possible without appearing too desperate. A challenge at which they usually failed. I had tried to mess around with a few teachers in my earlier years—had even had a couple of brief but deliciously scandalous sexual relationships with two different married teachers (one of whom transferred out of the district after we mutually decided to end it because she felt she was on the verge of getting caught)—but it typically ended badly and messily. Nothing worse than breaking up with a fellow teacher—not only did every female in the building know all your business by the first lunch period, but you instantly became archenemy number one of the entire staff. (Though that only lasted long enough for another single teacher to decide that she now felt kindly enough toward you to invite you over to her place for dinner.) I’m not even trying to brag here—two other male teachers in the school who I had grown fairly close to over the years got just as much attention as I did, and one of them was rocking the sunnyside up, balding-pate-with-a-circular-fringe-of-hair look. Well, he didn’t get quite as much attention, but he did all right. In fact, he was dating a sixth-grade English teacher.
When my classroom clock hit 9 p.m., I quickly gathered my things and practically sprinted for my car. I didn’t want to linger and do the post-conference debriefings that the other teachers loved to engage in while they were sucking down leftover donuts. I really liked my job, but I had a hard time stomaching the social scene that pulsated around me in South End Middle School. Teachers were just too damn nosy for their own good, which is why it was so difficult trying to have a relationship with a teacher in the same school—or even the same district (I had tried that once, too).
As I pulled out from the parking lot, I decided to make a few detours on the way home to my Jersey City apartment. I had to cancel basketball practice on parent-teacher night, but that didn’t mean I stopped thinking basketball. This would give me a chance to drive down a few choice blocks to check on a couple of players who liked to sample the Jersey City street life way too much for their own good. I worried about Jermaine and Tariq probably as much as their mothers did. Both of them were immensely talented, but I feared they both seemed to have a knack for getting into trouble. Stupid, avoidable trouble. They were both seniors, both had been All-State the previous year, and they both were being recruited by nearly every major college program in the country, pursuing them with the passion of starry-eyed lovers. If they could just stay out of trouble for the rest of the year, both of these boys could sign on at the college of their choice—and they could lead me to my first state championship. We had lost in the semifinal game just nine months earlier and I desperately wanted to get to the championship this time and win it. My team, St. Paul’s, had never won a state championship and I knew if I could deliver I could probably double my annual salary. We all had a lot of big things on the line.
Which is why my heart fell into my shoes when I turned onto Tariq’s block and immediately was confronted by the swirling lights and amped-up excitement of at least four Jersey City police cruisers parked haphazardly—as if they had parked in a hurry—outside of Tariq’s building. Lord, please don’t let it be Tariq involved in some foolishness, I whispered to myself as my SUV slowly floated down the block. As I got closer, I heard excited voices and shouts. I couldn’t worry about trying to find a parking space—I double-parked and bolted from the truck, intent on finding Tariq. I saw two police officers, one black and one white, walking alongside a young man in handcuffs headed toward the squad cars while a woman who could have been his mother pointed and cursed at the officers every step of the way. When I turned to look to my right, I saw exactly what I had prayed I wouldn’t—and the sight made my knees buckle. Two white officers had Tariq up against the wall and they were excitedly talking to him right up in his face—well, he’s 6-6, so as close to his face as they could get. I saw one of them pointing his scary cop finger right at Tariq’s chest. I couldn’t see the boy’s face clearly enough to read his expression, but every bit of my coaching instincts kicked in and I raced over to the trio.
"Uh, is there a problem here, officers?" I said too loudly as I approached the officers from behind.
They swung their entire bodies around simultaneously, both already wearing scowls. Oh, this was not going to be pretty.
"Hey, Coach!" Tariq said cheerily. Why was he sounding so happy?
"Tariq, what happened?" I asked. I avoided looking at the cops because I just knew they’d be sending me those cold, blue-eyed cop stares.
"Are you the coach over at St. Paul’s?" one of them asked.
I was stunned to see what almost appeared to be awe on his face. It was the last thing I had expected to see.
"Yes, I am," I said, still not sure where this was leading.
"Coach Roman, so nice to meet you," his partner said, extending a hand. Wow, he knew my name?
I looked down at the hand and quickly enclosed it in mine, though I was still a little off-guard.
"We were just talking to Tariq here about that game he had against St. Anthony’s last year in the playoffs," the first cop said. "My nephew goes to St. Anthony’s, so I was rooting for them. But Tariq was unbelievable in that game."
The cop reached up and patted Tariq on the shoulder. My player—who had once scared me half to death telling me he hated cops so much that he dreamed about getting one alone without his gun and badge—was grinning like a little boy on Christmas morning.
"What did you have, like thirty-five points and sixteen rebounds, or something like that?" the second cop said. Tariq shrugged happily.
"Yeah, something like that," he said, his long handsome face still stretched in a grin.
"Actually, it was thirty-six points and fifteen rebounds, plus six blocks and seven assists," I said.
Both of the cops shook their heads simultaneously. I could feel the tension—no, the fear—start slipping from my body. Boy, this certainly was unexpected.
"You think you can beat St. Anthony’s this year, Coach?" the first cop said.
I looked at him again. He wore that slightly excited little-boy look that men got when they talked sports. He was no longer a white cop—he was now a fan pulling up a stool in the bar.
"Well, I certainly hope so," I said. "We got Tariq and Jermaine coming back, of course. Our point guard, who was only a freshman last year, has improved dramatically, which will be a big help. If we stay healthy and focused, we should have a good shot to win it all this year."
"Yeah, that kid Jermaine is terrific, too," the second cop said. He looked toward Tariq. "It’s been a long time since I saw two kids as good as you and him on the same high school team. How’d you pull that one off, Coach?"
"I just got lucky, I guess," I said, grinning. "The fathers at St. Paul’s must have sent a prayer up to the basketball gods ’cause I walked into practice one day and they both were standing there, both of them already towering over me as fourteen-year-olds. I knew the next four years were going to be interesting."
The cops grinned back at me, happy to be getting an inside story on one of New Jersey’s most talked-about teams. Actually, the story wasn’t entirely true—I had been trying to woo both boys to St. Paul’s since they were in sixth grade, and had been tipped off to Jermaine’s talents by a friend, the director of a popular community center—but this was the story that I had been telling reporters for the past three years, ever since Tariq and Jermaine had combined for forty-seven points and twenty-three rebounds in their first high school game.
"Well, we gotta get going, Coach," the first cop said after he looked around and realized there was only one squad car left, which I assumed was theirs. "My name is Mike Palumbo and this is Kyle Minervini. I’m sure we’ll be seeing you at the games."
He turned toward Tariq and stuck out a hand. "And you have a great season, big guy."
Tariq took the cop’s hand and nodded vigorously.
"Make sure you give us your autograph when you’re starting for the Knicks," the second cop said as he, too, shook Tariq’s hand.
Tariq and I watched the cops walk back to their squad car.
"What in the world was that all about, Tariq?" I asked.
Tariq shrugged again. He did that a lot. "I don’t know, Coach. I was upstairs watching TV with my moms and we heard all this screaming coming from somewhere in the building. When I looked out the window, I already saw the cop cars so I decided to come down. My mother wanted me to stay inside, but I thought the noise was coming from my boy Raja’s crib. He’s been having a lot of beef with his girl Tina’s baby daddy. This big dude named Antwan. So I just wanted to see if, like, Raja needed some help."
I shook my head. "Tariq, how many times—"
"I know, I know, Coach. Why I always gotta go looking for trouble. Yeah, you tell me that shit, um, sorry, Coach—you tell me that all the time. But it was my boy, so I couldn’t just leave him hangin’ if he needed me. He’s had my back enough times, you know? Remember that time when I had beef with those kids from Bayonne, them white boys, when I was trying to catch the bus after the game? Well, Raja was the one who punched that kid in the face just before the bus took off. So I had to see what was happening."
"So, what was happening? Was that Raja in the handcuffs just now?" I asked. Tariq looked at me with wide eyes, as if he were trying to get out of a whupping. He shook his head.
"Nah, that wasn’t no Raja. Raj wasn’t even home, I don’t think. I don’t even remember that kid’s name, actually. It’s like Teddy or something like that. I’m not sure what he did. I think he’s a dealer or something."
I shook my head again. Tariq and his mother needed to get out of this building and neighborhood before it ate him alive. Tariq wasn’t a bad kid—he just liked to be out in the street. In this neighborhood, no good could come of that particular hobby. In the meantime, I had taken it upon myself to keep a watchful eye trained on Tariq. I knew the more I kept him busy with basketball and schoolwork, the less time he had to find trouble. But I still worried over him like an anxious dad, like he was my child. His partner Jermaine also had a nose for trouble, but Jermaine had a father in his house and thus had less need for me to come sniffing around all the time—though I worried about Jermaine, too.
I walked Tariq back upstairs so I could have a word with his mother. As we approached the building, she waved and yelled at us from the window.
"Hi, Coach!" she bellowed, waving coquettishly. As I watched her little flirtatious wave, I wondered if she realized that screaming from a seventh-floor window at 9 p.m. wasn’t exactly ladylike behavior. But I waved back at her so she wouldn’t yell at me again.
When we reached their apartment, Tariq’s mom, who always insisted that I call her Ronnie—short for Veronica, I believe—was standing in the doorway, waiting. While I liked the woman, her efforts to flirt with me were sometimes too painfully over-the-top. Curiously, Tariq never seemed bothered by them, as if he didn’t even notice. But Tariq didn’t notice much—the boy was forever lost in his own world.
I decided not to go inside—I knew she was about to invite me in. Best to just get on home and prepare for tomorrow’s classes. The thought of classes brought me back suddenly to the encounter with Zaria Chance and my stomach did a slow burn. I still couldn’t believe the nerve of that woman, to suggest that I couldn’t teach. I had a few things to show her.
"Would you like to come inside for a bite to eat, Coach Roman? I made some macaroni and cheese and roast beef."
My stomach stopped burning and growled conspicuously as she described dinner. It was so loud I feared she must have heard it.
"Uh, no, that’s okay. I already ate," I lied.
A frown crossed Ronnie’s face. She was not an unattractive woman—her heart-shaped face and large eyes carried a permanently innocent look that was, frankly, a rare find in these parts. She was getting a bit pudgy, but I’m sure she was still considered quite the looker among her peers. She had an enormous chest that I couldn’t have missed even if I’d wanted to. It might even be too big, if that was possible. I’m not an elitist by any stretch, but I knew there was no good that could come from spending any intimate time with Ronnie Spencer.
"What you talking about, Ma? You didn’t make no roast beef!" Tariq said, shooting his mother a startled look.
Now her frown turned into a full-blown scowl. "Boy, how you know what I made?! You don’t stay in the house long enough for your behind to meet a chair at the dinner table. Now you tellin’ me what I made?"
Tariq’s shoulders slumped a bit. "Well, how come I ain’t have no roast beef for dinner then?" he mumbled, more to himself than to his mother. Ronnie ignored him and turned her attention back to me.
"Well, Coach, I’m sorry I can’t feed you tonight. I hope you can come back and eat some of my cookin’ another time. I’m a great cook, if I say so myself."
"Yeah, Ma can burn!" Tariq confirmed, nodding vigorously and smiling at her.
Ronnie now smiled, too. Not wanting to be left out, I also smiled. Maybe there’d be no harm in sitting down at the woman’s table one of these days.
"That would be great, Ronnie. I’d like that," I said.
She smiled more broadly. I needed to run.
"Uh, well, Tariq. See you at practice tomorrow. You know we got that tournament this weekend to kick off the season. We got a lot of work." Tariq probably hadn’t even looked at the schedule yet. He just showed up when I told him to (usually) and put the ball in the basket, didn’t really matter to him who we were playing.
I waved to them and scampered back to my car. On the way to my apartment, I started thinking about the lesson I had planned out for the next day. I was supremely confident in my teaching abilities, but I convinced myself to take it up even another notch. I wasn’t responding to Zaria Chance’s criticism, not directly. I just wanted to prove to everyone that I was the best teacher in that damn school. Actually, I wanted to prove it to myself. I didn’t really care what everybody else thought. Especially some angry, single mother who probably had just moved to Teaneck from some godforsaken ghetto and had long ago given up on trying to control her misbehaving man-child. I didn’t care what that woman thought of me. Everything I did, I did for me.
As I parked my car, I knew that was a damn lie.
See, what kills me is Negroes who think that just because they don’t see a diamond on my left ring finger means that (a) I’m some desperate woman who hasn’t seen any parts of a man since she last got knocked up; (b) I’m some ghetto hootch looking for somebody—anybody—to help me control my wild-ass kids; and (c) I’m some loser who needs lecturing on how to raise my child—particularly my son. Well let me tell you something: I’m none of the above, thank you very much. Okay, so I don’t have a man, and my kids haven’t seen their father in more than a year. But he’s a trifling idiot who I don’t want around my James and Jasmine anyway, and I don’t have the time, patience, or inclination to deal with men right now, because, just like Mr. Roman, they’re always trying to walk into my house and fix stuff—as if I, a single mother of two, can’t handle my business asa mother/head-of-household/career woman/breadwinner. Well guess what? I don’t need that madness in my life. And I sure as hell don’t need fixing. And neither do my kids. Now, I’ll admit they’re no angels—but whose kids are? James is a boy knocking on his teens, and yes, he needs attention—but so does every other little boy growing into a man-child. That’s what they do, they get into messes. And do zany things that make you want to snatch them by the scruff of the neck, smack them over the nose with a wet newspaper, and tie them to a tree in the backyard until you’re sure they’re housebroken. I’m sure it’s no different in school. The trick is to keep their little behinds preoccupied. And interested. And intrigued. James has had plenty of teachers who were capable of doing this—good ones who recognized potential and treated the kids as individuals, not some little numbers who mechanically memorized their lessons, spewed the facts back onto test papers, and waited quietly for the next workbook assignment, like little Stepford children. James is full of life, and smart and creative and engaging. I will not have some teacher tell me two months into classes that my son is some badass child who needs a backhand slap from a "male role model"—whatever that is—in order to be a better student.
James is a good kid. And he’s a good kid because he has a good mother. A role-model mother. I may not be perfect, I may have had two children out of wedlock, I may not have finished college, and I may not have a "male figure in the household," but dammit, I’m doing something right. I’ve got my own house, in a neighborhood safe enough to raise children, with enough bedrooms for each of us to have our own space, and a backyard to play in. There’s food in the refrigerator. I’m no dummy. And my kids want for nothing. Because their mother has a good job and works her behind off to give them what they need and even what they want sometimes. If James and Jasmine fail to graduate from college—and they are going to college—it won’t be because their mother didn’t tell them that a college degree is one of the most important things they could ever get for themselves. If James and Jasmine don’t get themselves careers in their lifetimes, it won’t be because their mother didn’t drill into their heads the importance of being productive. If James and Jasmine turn out to be somebody’s sad news story—which they won’t—it won’t be because their mother never told them that they are special and loved. Or because she didn’t set a good example for them.
Sure, I’ve made some mistakes along the way. Nobody told me to have two babies by age twenty-three, but I thought I was in love with their daddy. And I was young and foolish and stubborn and unwilling to listen to my parents, who, in retrospect, knew this was going to happen. And I dropped out of college—not because I didn’t respect the institution, but because I couldn’t do my studies well and take good care of my children. And since they’re the most treasured things I have in my life, my decision to leave college was an easy one. I decided the day Jazzy was born that I would live my life like a woman who had a college degree—even if I didn’t have one. Just so that people like Mr. Roman wouldn’t mistake me for all those other trifling single mothers who make gangs of snot-nosed babies, let them run wild while they’re busy watching Ricki Lake and eating bonbons paid for with my hard-earned taxpayer dollars, and then sit back and blame everybody but themselves when their crumbsnatchers do something wrong.
Of course, people like Mr. Roman don’t distinguish women like them from the leagues of women like me. We’re all the same, huh? Ghetto welfare queens full of nothing but excuses, right? Funny how people like him are so quick to blame the mothers. If he’s so damn concerned about male role models in James’s life, why not track down his daddy and ask him why he’s not doing what he’s supposed to be doing? Ask him why he’s not being a man. Ask him why he hasn’t been around to see his kids in so long they barely remember what he looks like—and, for the most part, don’t even bother to ask for him anymore. In fact, why doesn’t Mr. Roman, if he’s so interested in getting into my personal business and figuring out how I run my household, go find their daddy and collect on the piles of child support he owes me? Or ask the courts why, after I spent all that time trying to get the law to make him be a responsible father, they’ve still only collected exactly $2,343.13 in support from his behind in the eight years since I first took action? Nobody ever gets into that. Oh no, they’re too busy blaming all the ills of society on the single mother. Crime is rising? It’s the single mother’s fault. Test scores are dropping? Blame the single mothers. O.J. killed another white woman? You guessed it: single mother.
I’m not going to sit here and pretend like I don’t have my faults. I work too hard, I don’t spend enough time with my kids, I don’t really have a life. But people have done worse by their kids. My children’s father certainly has. And I refuse to sit back and let anybody—particularly some bubblehead junior high school teacher who’s known my child for about sixty days and me for less than five minutes—tell this thirty-two-year-old woman that I’m doing wrong by my kid because I don’t have some man lying up in my bed.
"Mom? You home?" That’s James now, slamming my front door and yelling from the foyer like he has absolutely no home training. Keep telling that boy he doesn’t live in a barn on the farm. "Mom?"
"James?" I call back. "Come here." I’m sure he can tell by my voice that this conversation won’t be pretty. What? You didn’t think I was going to let him get away with whatever it was he was doing in Mr. Roman’s class, did you? Goodness, what was it that James did in Mr. Roman’s class anyway? He was so busy trying to determine my marital status and I was so busy laying him out that we never actually hashed out what James’s offense was. No matter; I’m about to get to the bottom of it. James bounded into the kitchen and headed straight for the refrigerator. His windbreaker was practically hanging off his shoulders, as was his knapsack. And that dirty basketball was exactly where it always is, under his right armpit. I swear, sometimes I have to wonder if it has attachments. Or if it’s simply stuck there.
"So tell me, Mr. James Chance, why I went to the parent-teacher conference today and got thoroughly embarrassed by my son."
"Ma, I didn’t—"
"Don’t you even fix your mouth to tell me you didn’t do anything. Mr. Roman tells me you had an incident." Well, he didn’t, but I was on a fishing expedition, and James didn’t really need to know that, now did he? "What did you do?"
"I didn’t do anything, Ma—honest."
"Well, that’s not what Mr. Roman is telling me. He seems to think that you’re having problems paying attention. Why is that?"
"It’s just homeroom, Mommy." Aw, here we go. That boy only calls me "Mommy" when he’s trying to con his way out of a situation. Which means that we have a situation. Perhaps there’s something to Mr. Roman’s charges. Aw, bump that—he still didn’t have any right to tell me I’m not a good mother.
"Just homeroom, huh? You have him for more than homeroom. And what, exactly, were you doing in homeroom that your teacher had to call you out to your mother?"
"See, what had happened was, Joseph was passing this letter to this girl Kathy, and Kathy didn’t want to read it because she’s mad at him. They’re girlfriend/boyfriend—or at least they were until Kathy found out that this other girl was interested—"
"James? What the hell does this have to do with you acting up in Mr. Roman’s class?" He started to explain, but I threw up my hand. Not in the mood for long, drawn-out stories. "Let me tell you this: I don’t give a damn about any Kathy or any Joseph. The only person I care about is James Michael Chance because he is the only little boy I’m responsible for. And I’m sure that that little boy knows that his mother is not trying to hear that her child is doing anything in school but what he’s supposed to be doing: learning and listening. Now, if you weren’t doing either of those things at the point and time when you got in trouble in Mr. Roman’s class, then you were doing something you weren’t supposed to be doing." James was silent. He knew he was about to get it; his eyes were as wide as saucers and his mouth was hanging open. Lord, he sure is a handsome little bugger—just as cute as his daddy. In fact, he looks just like him—from those big, light brown sandy eyes, to those thick, shiny eyebrows and those juicy lips. True-and-tried lady-killers—the both of them. Or at least once-and-future lady-killers. But I’m not raising a boy to be the kind of man his father is, which is why he won’t be acting a fool in any class he’s attending—not on my watch. "So, here’s what’s going to happen: since you have such a hard time paying attention in class, how about starting Friday night after school, you write one thousand times, ‘I will pay attention.’ If you are not finished by the time Saturday afternoon rolls around, you will not be going to Billy’s birthday party. If you do not finish by Saturday evening, you will be writing an additional five hundred ‘I will pay attention,’ all of which I will expect to have waiting for me on my desk before we go to church on Sunday. Do you understand your punishment?"
"But Mommy, if I’m writing that punishment, I won’t be able to go to Teaneck’s basketball scrimmage game on Friday night."
"And your point would be?"
"It’s almost the beginning of the season and everybody’s going to be there."
"And your point would be?"
"It’s going to be a great game and I really wanted to be there for my future school, you know, to give support to the team."
"Oh, you want to be there for your future school, huh? Well you should have thought about that before you decided not to listen to your teacher and embarrassed yourself—and me, might I add—in his classroom. Tell you what: I’d like you to be there for your school, too—so maybe you should also write ‘I’m sorry’ five hundred times and give it to Mr. Roman when you see him in homeroom on Monday, and then promise him you’ll act like the human being and student your mother raised you to be."
"But . . ."
"I’m sorry—did you want something else to write?"
James shut his mouth and looked down dejectedly. He knew not to say another word; his mama is no joke. I don’t beat their behinds anymore; the boy is practically as big as me, and his sister? Well, she doesn’t really get into enough trouble to warrant spankings. Besides, a good friend of mine at the college where I work as an administrator in the bursar’s office is a child psychology professor, and she’s told me over and over again that beating children really doesn’t do anything but teach them how to be violent and afraid of the parents they love. "If you want to get them to change their habits, you have to make them see that what they’ve done is wrong," Julia told me on more occasions than I cared to have heard it. "Well, I’ll tell you this much," I’d shoot right back at her. "A few smacks on the butt never hurt anybody that badly. I had my fair share and I turned out just fine, thank you very much."
"Yes, you did. But did those smacks make you change your ways?"
She’d always get me with that one. Truth be told, I waited for those beatings when I got in trouble with my parents because I knew that a five-minute beating was just that: a five-minute punishment. They got to feel better about their parenting and, after the sting wore off my legs, I got to go right back to whatever it was that I was doing before being rudely interrupted by my ass whupping. The ’rents caught on pretty quickly, though, to the fact that I was much happier to get a beating than I was to be punished. Shoot, punishments lasted for what seemed like a lifetime. No bikes, no television, no phone, no after-school events—that was my personal definition of child torture. I was like, beat me, but please, I’m begging you, don’t take away my freedom.
Eventually, I admitted to my friend Julia that punishment was the way to go and tried it out on James. My first punishments were no bicycle for a week, no television for two, no roller skating—you know, the obvious. Soon, though, after I realized some of the punishments weren’t really affecting his behavior, I started to get quite creative. Like, once, when he got busted cursing in front of a bunch of old ladies on the bus (one of them, Ms. Smallwood, is a deaconess at our church), I made him spend a month’s worth of weekends reading and singing to the elderly down at the local nursing home. He missed all kinds of school activities with that one, but ended up liking the nursing home and the people living there so much that he still goes by there from time to time to visit with the residents. Some of those little old ladies write me and tell me that I have the sweetest, most respectful child in the world—"he’s so well-behaved and mannerable," one letter said, praising both my son and my mothering. I do know this much: I’ve never heard tell of my son cursing or disrespecting an elder since that one.
I don’t know whether his having to write "I will pay attention," and "I’m sorry" hundreds of times will change his behavior in class, but this much I know is true: it sure will make him think twice before he cuts a fool again. "Is there anything else I can do for you before you go upstairs and do your homework?" I asked James.
"No," he said, turning around slowly, that basketball still connected to his right arm.
"Okay, well, when you’re done, come on back downstairs and eat your dinner. I’m ordering pizza," I said, turning to the phone to dial the number of the local Italian spot. "Oh, before you go upstairs, go and get your sister next door, will you?"
James turned on his heel, dropped his knapsack, and pushed through the screen door. I listened to his basketball hit the pavement on the sidewalk until I couldn’t hear it anymore.
Now, about this Mr. Roman. I’m going to have to have a talk with him—but he’s not going to like what I have to say. Well, not like he liked what I had to say the last time, but whatever. I want to sit down with this man and have him tell me about my child and his schoolwork, not his assumptions about my personal business. And I’ll tell him that if he can’t handle that, then perhaps he can arrange for my son to be put into a classroom with a teacher who can. And if he can’t do that, then perhaps the principal can get the job right. Yeah, I got something for him, all right. See how he likes that.
"Zaria? You home?"
"No. I just keep the back door open so that strangers can walk in whenever they please and help themselves to my riches."
"Girl, what riches you got? You trying to tell me I’m friends with the millionaire next door?"
"You didn’t know I had it like that, huh? I’d give you the details, but then I’d have to kill you."
April cracked up, pushed the sliding door open, and hopped into my kitchen. That’s my next-door neighbor and best friend—or at least the person I’ve been closest to since I moved to Teaneck five years ago. She’s got three kids—the eldest, JJ, is thirteen, a year older than my James; Pammy is a year older than my Jasmine, who is almost ten; and she’s got a little one, Summer, who’s just as cute as a five-year-old can be. April and I met through the kids: I was in the middle of cussing out the movers, who had just come too close to dropping my antique headboard onto the hot asphalt, when out of the corner of my eye I saw James in some boy’s face, challenging him to a game of basketball. "I bet you can’t ball as good as me, though," he said, cockiness rimming his words.
"I bet you I can," JJ shot back.
"No you can’t," James said, getting in the boy’s face.
Now, we hadn’t even sat our behinds in a chair in our new house yet and here was James, bragging and boasting and about to get his ass kicked right there on the front lawn by this great big ol’ boy—solid and sturdy and tall, too. James had his chest puffed out and his chin hiked up in the air while he was talking all that smack, but he was still a good four inches and at least ten pounds lighter than that boy. I thought he was a teenager until his mother told me better over coffee later that day. In fact, she told me a whole lot about everything before the sun even set. "First off, don’t pay any attention to the people on this block," April said, placing her elbows firmly on her Formica kitchenette counter and conspiratorially leaning into me. Her breath smelled like cheap coffee beans and kinda turned my stomach, but I knew I’d better pay attention because there might be some good information somewhere in the conversation. "The Hadleys—over at 274? They hate kids, so keep yours away from there. They won’t hesitate to yell at your boy in the middle of the street like he’s some hoodlum, and I swear they got 911 on speed dial just for Mikey’s ass down the street, but he’s so bad that only people with nightsticks can control his ass anyway, so maybe that speed dial is a good thing." She stopped to take a gulp of her coffee, but I know she couldn’t have swallowed the entire mouthful of liquid before she’d started in on the Eisenbergs, over at 258. "Now the Eisenbergs, nice couple—but don’t get into any conversations with them about race, because they’ll be the first ones to start telling you about their involvement with today’s poor, destitute black youth and how young black kids don’t look up to all the positive role models in the community like Dr. Martin Luther King and Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, and how they’re personally trying to save as many black boys from jail and drugs and worse as they can, but they need the help of the black community and they’re not interested in helping their own and yadda, yadda, yadda."
"Well, there are some trifling black folks in this world," I said, shaking my head.
"You got that right," she shot back quickly. "But I don’t need some old, crotchety white folks to tell me that."
"I know that’s right," I said just as quickly.
After two hours, dozens of stories shared, three cups of coffee, and several promises to have each other over for dinner "real soon," April Finney and I became fast friends, as did our children. She, too, is a single mom—a widow. I’d come much later to find out that her husband, a barber who’d owned several shops in northern New Jersey, had been shot dead in his Hackensack shop by a woman with a broken heart and extremely bad aim. She was there to kill one of the barbers who worked in Al Finney’s shop—apparently, the barber had been cheating on his wife with one of her close friends—but when the wife fired the gun, she shot the owner, who had been standing clean across the other side of the room from where her intended target was. By the time they wrestled the gun out of her hand, she’d shot up the place and three other people in it—none of them her boyfriend. Al caught his bullet right in the heart—died almost instantly. April was four months’ pregnant with her youngest baby when it happened.
Luckily for April, he’d been smart enough to show his wife how to run his businesses and make sure his managers weren’t dipping into the till way before he met his untimely demise. April had managed to keep all five shops running at a profit with the help of two good, honest, hardworking employees, and so just sat back and collected her money from the businesses and Albert’s pension and life insurance to keep her and the kids happy, well-dressed, and fed.
The day she’d told me that story, I knew she was opening up to me—and that she counted me as dear a friend as I did her. Everyone knew that if they went looking for April at her house and she wasn’t there, they might as well check mine—and vice versa—because we practically lived together, as much time as we spent with one another.
"What you know, no good?" she said, twirling herself into my chair, still laughing at me for calling myself a millionaire.
"I know this much: I’m about to get all in James’s social studies teacher’s ass," I said, my smile instantly removed at the mere thought of His Rudeness.
"Who? Mr. Roman?"
"That’s the one."
"Um, um, um—with his fine self. I hope you’re going to get in his ass in the right way."
"I sure am. I’m about two seconds off of calling the principal and lodging a complaint against him for insulting me and my intelligence at the teacher’s conference this evening."
"The principal? You’re going to call the principal on Roman? For what?"
"Well, I’m sitting there trying to get some information on how my child is doing in school, and this fool can’t think of anything to ask me except if my child has a male role model at home. Can you believe that?" I asked, incredulous. "This Negro didn’t know me but two minutes and there he was, asking me about my damn personal business and who I’m sleeping with, instead of telling me about my child."
"Hmm. If I were you, I would have told him my marital situation quick, fast, and in a hurry—and then asked him if he was interested in filling the position."
"Huh? April?" I paused for a second, but I still was only half paying attention to her. Then I continued. "The only thing he could tell me about James was that he had an attitude. But he was so busy accusing me of being a bad mother that he never once actually told me exactly what it was that James did wrong. I laid him out and promptly left him standing there with his mouth wide open. I hope he got some flies in it."
April laughed. "Zaria, you are too silly for words. I know you didn’t curse that man out for real, did you? Fine as he is? You obviously didn’t check the ring finger, did you?"
"Why on earth would I be looking at his ring finger?"
"By the time you walked into the room, you should have noticed a lot more about him than his ring finger. Like that beard, and those big eyes, and those thick lips, and his perfectly shaped head. All the mothers want him; he’s fine and single. No ring," April said, practically without taking a breath.
"You know what, love? I didn’t see one attractive thing on his body because his attitude was so damn ugly."
"Okay, but be careful," April warned. "That man is well liked by a lot of the parents and loved at that school, not only because he’s fine but because he’s an extremely good teacher. And he’s the coach at one of those private schools, where the basketball team is one of the best in the state."
"I don’t care who likes him, I don’t care who wants to screw him, I don’t care whose baseball team he coaches," I said.
April cut me off. "Basketball. He coaches basketball."
"Baseball, basketball, foosball, I don’t give a damn. If he ever gets me back in a teacher’s conference again and starts getting into my business, there’s going to be some problems up in that school—and they’ll all be his, trust."
Later that evening, while I was putting away the laundry, I saw James lying on his bed, a heap of papers littering his floor. Apparently he’d started writing out his punishment, probably in hopes of making it to the game and the party and whatever else he thought he’d be doing this weekend.
"Um, don’t think you can rush through the ‘I will pay attentions,’ because if they’re not neat or there’s one misspelling or one missing sentence or anything else is wrong with it, guess what? You’ll be writing five hundred more. Don’t think I won’t check," I said. "And did you do your homework?"
"Yes, I did my homework."
"Oh, I’m sorry—do I hear a hint of attitude in your voice? Because we could add five hundred more to your assignment right now, if you’d like. I’ve got nothing but time to wait for it."
He thought better of answering me back fast, and instead paused, then said simply, "I did my homework, Mommy. It’s right here."
"Let me see it." Now, I’m no dummy, but half the stuff this boy was working on was already over my head. To keep up with him, I was going to have to attend some classes myself; we didn’t do half the stuff he did when I was his age. In my hand I held some kind of math he was working on—the early stages of algebra. I was always good at math, so this I had a lock on. But the Spanish lessons, the English literature and all the dead white men he read, and some of the history he was studying was definitely beyond my reach. Like, here, he was working on South African apartheid. I never had time for all this when I was in school, and half the time, I didn’t understand it anyway. I’m not sure if the teachers sucked, or if I was just bored with it all. But James seemed to be kinda interested in this stuff.
"You sure had a lot to read for social studies," I said to James as I shuffled through the rest of his homework. "That Mr. Roman seems tough."
"He’s not that bad," James said, matter-of-factly. "I like his class. He makes it really interesting and we learn a lot."
"You like him, huh? Well if you like him so much, why are you acting up in his class?" I genuinely wanted to know what the problem was because this didn’t make any sense. "Usually, if you like someone, you go out of your way to act right for them. So help me understand: What’s your problem?"
"I don’t have a problem, Mommy."
"No problem, huh? Then explain to me why that teacher thinks you’re such a bad student."
James shrugged and looked back down at his punishment papers. "I don’t know. Sometimes he gets on my nerves and a lot of times he’s really cool—he makes class interesting," James said thoughtfully. Then he added excitedly, "Besides, he’s the basketball coach at St. Paul’s High School and he knows everything there is to know about basketball!"
"Yeah," he said, looking over at his basketball next to the bed. It was never too far away from his hands. "His team is no joke."
"Well, I’ll tell you what’s no joke," I said sternly. "I’m not trying to hear anything else about you acting up in Mr. Roman’s class, you hear me? I’m not having it. Your job is to go to school and work hard and bring home the best grades possible—and you can’t do that if you’re too busy acting up in class. Straighten it up, okay?"
"Yes, ma’am," James said, a guilty look crossing his face.
"And don’t think you’re going to sit up here all night trying to finish your punishment. And don’t think I didn’t notice that you started it earlier than you were supposed to. I said you were supposed to start Friday night. I’ll excuse it this time. It’s almost time for bed. You got ten minutes," I said, turning on my heels and heading out of his room. I closed the door behind me.
—Reprinted from In Love and War by Denene Millner and Nick Chiles by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © Denene Millner and Nick Chiles, 2003. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.