It was not surprising that Tomás and Julio were having another argument. Ever since Shukura had left last month, most of the students were on edge. All of our children from Egypt and Bangladesh were now gone and no one was sure which group would be next. I had broken up two fights in the schoolyard in the past week alone as my remaining ESL students tried to sort out their places in the pecking order.
“You’re doing it wrong,” Tomás said as he leaned across the round table in the hallway and pointed at the large block letters in Julio’s notebook. With his thick plumes of black hair and narrow jutting chin, he looked like a ravenous bird in a hoodie and blue jeans. ”You’re not using capitals.”
When they were with the rest of their sixth-grade class, Tomás and Julio were the new kids who couldn’t speak the language well enough to keep up. Away from judgmental ears, they loved to grab hold of the grammar that tortured them and wield it as a weapon against each other.
“You’ve got to pay attention,” Tomás said as he shifted in his wooden chair. “How many times I need to keep telling you?”
Julio grimaced as I glanced at his sentences, each word carved into the page with the dull point of a number two pencil. Even in his best moods, Julio looked like he was on the verge of bursting into tears. He had the kind of plump pouty face that always seemed wounded by the latest assault on his innocence. When Shukura was here, she had served as a buffer—an unlikely blend of bodyguard and girlfriend. She had a knack for handling Julio’s antagonists, smiling in such a way that they all seemed to be the butt of her own private joke. She never did share either the set-up or the punch line. The mere fact of her amusement was usually enough to help Julio maintain his composure. Now that Shukura was gone, the job of protecting him fell to me.
“Don’t worry about Julio’s work,” I said to Tomás in my best teacher voice. “Focus on your own.”
“Yeah,” Julio said. “Focus on your own.”
Tomás told him to shut up and picked up his pencil. Unlike Julio, Tomás was a skilled writer. In fact, writing was his favored mode of expression. It allowed him to use English without the risk of humiliation. Words on the page would never stumble or stutter. No one would ever see his awkward transitions or incorrect conjugations except a teacher with a red pen. Tomás’ classmates might laugh at the funny stories he liked to write but they would never laugh at how he wrote them.
Today he was describing how a tray of food toppled onto a passenger’s lap when he took an airplane from Venezuela to the United States. I wanted to know all the goopy details, but Tomás got stuck trying to remember whether the incident had occurred just before or just after a stopover in Mexico City. As I started to explain how the exact location of the flight was not that important, Julio looked up from his notebook.
“I don’t want to go back to Mexico,” he said. “I really hope they don’t send me back.”
Although Julio spoke in the tone of someone who was asking permission to skip his math homework, I could see the agitation in his moist black eyes. I had no idea whether his parents were actually thinking of leaving the country or if he was just responding to schoolyard taunts. The kids were becoming experts at the art of cruelty. Just yesterday, Julio told me about the seventh grader who had boasted how the Polish kids had nothing to worry about because everyone knew that the Mexicans and Dominicans were getting kicked out first.
“Shukura promised she’d come back and visit someday,” Julio said. “How’s she going to visit me if she don’t know where I live?”
I looked at Julio the way he had so often looked at me, frozen in silence. I was just another new kid who had been called on by the teacher but could not answer the question. Julio put down his pencil, waiting for my response. Like a student under the watchful gaze of a demanding instructor, I was trapped in a moment that would not pass until I found the right words. I needed a sentence—one in any language—that would be equal to the anguish in those eyes.
The voice that finally emerged was not my own. Tomás leaned across the table and spoke with precise baritone conviction, intoning each syllable with the authority of someone who was prepared to endure as many international flights as were required.
“Check your second paragraph,” Tomás said to Julio. “You forgot to indent.”
Craig Fishbane is the author of On the Proper Role of Desire (Big Table Publishing). His work has also appeared in the New York Quarterly, Gravel, the Manhattanville Review, Drunken Boat and The Nervous Breakdown. He can be contacted at his website.