While walking down the hallway of JHS 43 on 127th and Amsterdam, in Harlem, a light-skinned woman pointed at me with the sharp triangle of her chin, and said I’d be lucky if I made it to the end of the school year without getting pregnant. The other woman responded I’d be lucky if I wasn’t already. It was the first day of seventh grade. I was thirteen years old. I hadn’t gotten my period yet. I hadn’t even been kissed. I avoided looking at them. Hoped they were talking about someone else. But my eyes betrayed me, and when they saw me see them, they smiled.
At home, we didn’t have much money, and after an embarrassing growth spurt, I knew my clothes were too tight. My eyes traveled the length of my body. What if it wasn’t about my clothes? Maybe they knew something about me I hadn’t yet learned about myself.
Later that day, I went in a classroom to find the light-skinned woman was my Spanish teacher. I silently closed my eyes. Swallow me, earth, I prayed. The ground didn’t open up. I grabbed a seat as far back as I could find. Quickly went on to carve my name on a corner of the desk.
Ms. Veléz started that first class by crashing two erasers against each other, the chalk a mist of particles that floated and remained suspended in the air. She walked through them as if through a curtain. The oversized windows, with those thick black bars on the outside, let in an awesome amount of sunlight. She had her spotlight. She paced in front of us, speaking in a Castilian Spanish none of us recognized.
Then, she dropped one of the erasers. The kids snickered when she bent to pick it up—her butt faced the class. Eager to make my mark, I pounced.
“Ms. Velez is white on top, black on the bottom,” I said in Spanish.
The class erupted.
She straightened up to her full height, found my delighted eyes among the many blank faces in the room, and her glare—hot as an iron—branded me. I’d hit a nerve. She had the coveted pale skin, and eyes the blonde of dead grass in the winter. She’d dyed her hair to match her eyes, and wore it in ridiculous ringlets that made her appear childlike. From the waist up, she was thin and angular, with a chest as flat as mine was then. But her lower body betrayed her true origins. Her hips flared, her backside bulbous, her legs thick-thick all the way to her ankles.
“What’s your name?” she asked me in Spanish.
I told her. She nodded and I nodded back. Between us, the understanding we were enemies.
She went on with the business of teaching us the proper way to speak our own language—in a land full of adults who could care less. From time to time, she would glance my way, as if there was a booger on the tip of my nose, as if I was a waste of space.
Later that semester, Ms. Veléz gave the class a challenge. We, as a whole, were failing her. We’d gotten the first report cards of the marking period and I’d landed, indifferent, with a straight column that repeated the first letter of my name. When Mami went to the teacher-parent conference and heard from teacher after teacher that I was full of potential, whip smart, but that mouth on me was my undoing, she’d been stern and upset in front of them, but as soon as we left, she turned to me, exhausted, and asked what she should make for dinner.
There, that bruise on her cheek, which had been a bright purple just days before, had turned the black of newly laid asphalt. It really could have been from bumping into a door. The mouth on her also an undoing. At home, the stepfather responsible for the bruise had done much worse to others.
Each day, I stared out the oversized windows, at those thick black bars that thickened as the day wore on. That classroom darkened to the color of familiar bruises – provided certainty in its elongating shadows that I was imprisoned. How much longer before I got to start my real life? Away from the school, away from that apartment? How would I ever manage my escape?
Agitated, Ms. Veléz told the class she was going to give two points for each book report so we’d have a quick way to improve our grades. She pointed to the back of the class where, on top of a long table none of us had noticed, there were dozens of books. Very few people perked up at the prospect.
“Is there a limit to how many books we can read?” I asked.
Holding back her laughter, her eyes swam around the room for someone else who understood the absurdity of me—ME!—asking that question. Finding no comrades, she shook her head.
“Absolutely no limit,” she said.
I did a quick calculation. Fifteen books to a perfect A. No matter how awful my papers, no matter how terrible I acted in class. Got you now, sucker, I thought.
Nerves took this class clown by surprise when the first report was due. We had to stand in front of the class, and she’d been clear there would be no fooling around. “Speak in a linear way,” she’d said. “Tell us what happened at the beginning, at the middle and then at the end.”
There was a way around all that. I’d structured my report so that the little bit of sex that happened in the book would be framed as the midpoint, and though I started out nervous, I quickly found I commanded the attention in a way our teachers never had. I felt myself standing straighter, speaking with the authority of a storyteller. To those who saw me I remained the same kid—a skinny Dominican black girl with teeth way too big for my head—but inside I could feel those words adding up, expanding my frame.
Each week I went up there and changed a bit more. In order to do the books justice, I had to understand what happened, how the main character changed, and because none of those characters looked like us, or lived in any place familiar, I had to make it relevant against the backdrop of our lives. It wasn’t so hard, likening those stories that often took place in Europe or Latin America, to our corner bodegas, transforming the mists of rivers or oceans to the moisture that touched our skin out of fire hydrants. I couldn’t put those characters in our world without putting myself in theirs. Soon, I became certain one day I would venture out, see it. And the ability to stay still, and listen, to truly pay attention and learn from others inked its way into my other classes, so that by the end of junior high school, I had A’s rolling down the column of my report card, transformed into a bookworm on my way to high school.
Ms. Veléz held up a hand when I stood to give my sixteenth book report, and motioned for me to sit back down. As she made her way to me, I covered my carved name on that desk. She moved my hand, tracing each of the letters with her index as she squatted next to me.
“You’ve made your point,” she said.
The way her long finger traced those letters a threat but also beautiful. I’ve never met anyone with more elegant hands.
“I like reading,” I said.
“You don’t have to keep giving reports to read,” she said.
“But I like standing up there,” I said.
That day, the fog was dense enough that the landscape was invisible out the windows—but so were the bars.
Absolutely no limit, she’d said when she announced the assignment. I reminded her.
“As you wish,” she said, and walked off.
There never was a reconciliation. She never uttered one kind word in my direction. I imagined her cursing me time and time again when she had to give me that A plus at the end of each marking period. Because I kept on reading. I kept on reporting.
Ms. Veléz gave me a gift I could never repay her for. A way out of a life she herself tried to curse me with, a life I saw skip or stick randomly with way too many of my friends. This way out—it involved no special talent to do with sports, and did not require a beautiful face and body to get a man to whisk me away. In that terrible teacher’s room, I learned reading was my true escape and pathway to a different kind of life. Along the way I found a great love could be held in the palms of my hands. A feeling I’ve known only twice since, when I gave birth, and held each of my children for the first time. On that cold day, when I stood up to her, and got a bit of control in a world I’d never known I could control, I grew certain the space I took up wasn’t wasted. My humanity deepened through my commitment to hear voices out there who didn’t reflect the people who made up my world.
Cleyvis Natera was born in the Dominican Republic and grew up in Harlem, New York City. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from Skidmore College and an MFA in Fiction from NYU. She recently completed her first novel, Neruda on the Park, and is seeking representation. She lives in Montclair, NJ with her husband and two young children. She’s a member of the New York City chapter of WNBA.