Craig Fishbane ~ The New Kids

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.