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Belinda

Title – Belinda
By – Danny Brassell

On the first day of school, Belinda stuck a pencil in Rory’s eye and called him a name not suitable to be heard by most adults, let alone by a classroom full of seven-year-olds. That earned her a place in “time-out.”

“Time-out is like jail, Mistuh Buhsell,” she said, and she would know, as she had spent the majority of her time there that day. “You should call this jail.”

Belinda was right. From that time forward when students misbehaved and ignored their first two warnings, they were sent to an isolated desk in a corner near my desk known as “jail.”

My first year of teaching was probably not too different from any other teacher’s first year. I drew praise for my enthusiasm and hard work while secretly realizing I hadn’t a clue what I was doing. “And the nominees for best actor in a teaching performance are: Danny Brassell, second grade, inner-city school,” I kept telling myself. Belinda knew.

“Mistuh Buhsell, you too young to be a teacher,” she said on the second day.

We were getting to know each other well. Belinda, like many of my students, had grown up “street-smart,” with very little use for schools and books. She was one of only three African-American girls I had in my predominantly Spanish-speaking class, and she was not too fond of her Latino classmates conversing in Spanish around her. Belinda was easily the smallest person in my class, and in the past many of her teachers had fallen into the trap of believing she was “too small and precious to hurt anyone.” They might as well have thought the same about a bumblebee.

Jail was not working, so I kept Belinda in at recess. I made her wash all the desks and pick up all the garbage from the floor. That’ll teach her, I thought to myself. Belinda, though, was smarter than me.

“I like cleanin’, Mistuh Buhsell,” she said. “Can I do this every day?”

On the third day I caught Belinda fighting with José. I walked over to their table and asked what the problem was.

“She keeps on calling me a bad word,” José said, and, after I pressed her for the truth, Belinda finally nodded that she had. Being the smart, perfect-resolution-minded new teacher, I asked José to whisper the bad word into my ear.

“She said I’m stupid,” he said, and I was relieved to hear that at least Belinda had toned down her language. Baby steps toward improvement, I told myself. Belinda wrote standards after school while I gave her another lecture on behavior.

“Belinda, no matter what happens today, just remember that tomorrow is a new day,” I said. “Make sure you always keep your head up and try your hardest, and you’re bound to improve.”

The next day I caught her fighting with José again. Exasperated by this time, I shouted across the room why they were fighting. Again, José said that Belinda had called him a bad word.

“Stop calling José stupid, Belinda,” I yelled across the room.

“I didn’t call him stupid, Mistuh Buhsell,” she yelled back. “I called him a (expletive) (expletive)!”

That was it. Belinda had finally earned a nasty call home to her mother, but Belinda informed me that her mama did not have a phone. She even smiled when she said it. Determined to win this battle, I told Belinda that I would walk her home after school and talk to her mother in person.

And for the first time all week, Belinda became silent.

The rest of the day she just sat still in her chair. Eerily still. The calm before the storm, I thought. At any moment I anticipated Belinda to smack somebody next to her or throw something across the room, but she just sat in a trance.

“It’s not going to work, young lady,” I told her. “You already earned a walk home, and behaving now isn’t going to change that.”

Belinda just sat quietly, even with the kids around her teasing her. For the first time since I first set my eyes on her, Belinda was just a cute little girl sitting subdued in her seat. I could not help but feel a bit of sympathy for her, but I had been told that the only way I would survive as a teacher was to stand firmly by my decisions. So I simply ignored her drooping eyes and frowning lips.

When the final bell sounded, Belinda made a dash for the door, but I reminded her of our appointment. Her shoulders slumped in defeat. She gathered her things, I took her by the hand and we began the arduous two-block journey to her house. Along the way it seemed like all of the neighborhood knew Belinda, and this did not appear to be the first time they had seen a teacher walking home with her.

“You in trouble, Belinda?” an old man yelled from his lawn chair on a porch.

Belinda dropped her head.

“Oh, Belinda,” said a woman breast-feeding a baby and trying to hold on to two other little ones by her waist side. “Yo mama’s gonna whup yo behind.”

That remark got to me almost as much as it got to Belinda. She just continued to lead me along the sidewalk with her face focused on any weeds or cracks disrupting the surface. Meanwhile, I was nervous as could be. “What kind of teacher am I?” I thought. Here it was only four days into the school year, and I had lost control of a three and a half foot seven-year-old. What on Earth was I going to say to her mother?

I was trying to reassure myself that I was doing the right thing when Belinda took me through the gate to her yard, which looked more like a trash heap. The bark of a dog the size of a big rig could be heard from inside the house. I let Belinda go inside to get her mother while I waited on the porch. Curious onlookers watched me as if I were an alien who had just landed in a spaceship. I politely smiled, nodded and waved before focusing again on Belinda’s front door like a struggling insurance salesman.

“Where the hell you been, girl?” a nasty voice screamed from somewhere in the vicinity of the direction Belinda had just gone. Babies began crying loudly inside the house.

“My teachu’s here,” Belinda said softly, and I still could not see inside through the heavily-barred front door.

There I stood on the doorstep, feeling totally helpless and uncomfortable. What was I doing here? Everything about this situation felt like a scene from “Cops.” I was going in uncharted waters and had no idea how to handle these circumstances. I still wanted to stick to my morals, though, and show Belinda that I meant business.

“Hello,” I heard the burly voice say from behind the door, and it sounded more like a “What do you want?” than a salutation. I could barely make out the outline of a disfigured shadow behind the door speaking.

“Uh, I’m Mr. Brassell, Belinda’s teacher.”

“What’d she do this time?”

All I could envision in my head was a picture of Belinda getting a “whupping.” Now, I had visualized this with pleasure before, as I thought a spanking could do Belinda some good. Hearing the anger in her mother’s voice, though, I feared Belinda might be in for more than the fanny whacks my father had delivered to me when I misbehaved as a boy. Could I bear to be responsible for Belinda’s whuppin’?

“Well,” I stumbled. “I did not come to tell you what Belinda is doing wrong. I came to tell you what she is doing right.”

I had decided to try a different approach. There was no response from behind the door, so I continued.

“Belinda really likes to participate in class,” I said, searching for whatever true, positive comments I could find for Belinda.

Still no response.

“Belinda is also always at school on time, and I wanted to thank you for that,” I said. “I really appreciate your support.”

The door opened, and a rather skinny, short woman smiled at me. She was in her thirties but looked like she was in her fifties and had scars all over her arms and face. I could finally catch a glimpse at the inside of the cramped little house’s floor décor: used 40-ounce malt liquor bottles, crumpled newspapers and fresh “doggie deposits.” The most unique odor invaded my nostrils, and, for the first time since I had been on the porch, the dog-barking and baby-crying subsided to a minimal tone.

“I’m Ms. Johnson,” she said, and she offered me her hand to shake. She was practically blushing as she began fidgeting with the curlers in her hair.

She apologized for not offering me to come inside, but my unannounced visit had caught her on a “cleaning day.” I smiled and tried to ignore the stench of liquor on Ms. Johnson’s breath. I simply stood in her doorway and described every positive thing that Belinda had done over the past week – from sitting quietly as she did her independent work to helping clean the room. I failed to mention that Belinda only sat quietly when I put her alone in “jail” or that she cleaned the room during recess as a punishment for bad behavior. It seemed to me that Ms. Johnson had heard those stories about her daughter too many times in the past.

“Well,” I concluded, “It was really nice to meet you, Ms. Johnson, and I hope you feel free to come visit our classroom anytime.”

Now it was Ms. Johnson standing uncomfortably in the doorway with the neighbors staring at her.

“My Belinda’s helpin’ other students in her class,” I could hear Ms. Johnson yell to an old lady next door as I walked away. “Her teacher says she’s really improving.”

The next day at school Belinda gave my knees a big hug.

“My mama bought me a new backpack,” she said with a smile bigger than her tiny face could hold. “And she said she’d get me a new dolly if I get good grades in your class.”

“Are you going to try harder to get along with other people in here?” I asked.

“Yes sir,” Belinda said, and she continued to hug my knees. “You the best teacher.”

That made me smile. I had completed my first week of teaching, and despite all of the questions I had in my head, one positive comment from one little seven-year-old made all the difference in the world to me.

This was what I would come to know as the inner-city teaching experience.

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