Students started filling the hallways after the afternoon bell rang. The first one. Shari, Felicia, and Nasir were all singing from the literal tip of their lungs. Loud, obnoxious in a sense to any adult that had to warm up their cold lunch in a microwave. Anyone who hours before that had to wake up to their morning alarm ringing.
That other bell, the one that marked the end of transition where kids needed to be seated in classrooms for afternoon attendance was like forty-two, forty-three seconds away. I could tell. I worked at the same school, in the same building for six years. After six years there are things like the timing of bells that have an innate way of growing into a teacher’s timing and expectations. Into a teacher’s values. Bells have become my self-preservation. Only in between those bells, we allow a slice of ourselves to exist.
Laila understood this about me as she walked towards my classroom after that first bell rang. I heard you! My, my, my. That, that, that. She was near the door with thirty-one seconds left before that second bell rang. That, that, that. Theirs, theirs, theirs. She also has learned this about school too. We, me, them, that, theirs…we all tell them their smart if and when they show us that they know that. Laila knows that.
She said, “I’m not involved in that, Mr. Morris…That’s not me this time.”
This time. What does this time mean at the end of confessional sentences coming out of a 14-year-old girl’s mouth when speaking about friends, students, coming back from lunch and singing songs with less than 41 seconds until they’re supposed to be seated at their desks? Laila arrived at the doorway nine paces before her singing friends. She knew how to do that. I know that she knows that I know she’s learned a thing or two about school.
“Did you go out to lunch with them, Laila?” I didn’t even really look at her when I asked her. I looked at her when she started to respond. “Yeah, of course. You know that, Mr. Morris. We go out to lunch together. Everyday.” She didn’t look at me when she answered. We both were watching her friends happily singing away while unlocking their locks to their lockers. That second bell rang. They were still singing. We were still staring. “Laila, get into the classroom. The second bell rang. I’m ‘bout to take attendance.”
“Okay. Mr. Morris.”
There’s an immeasurable thing that occurs in between remembering and writing memories down. A similar gap occurs when teaching and remembering how to teach. An equivalent gap happens to kids who understand the difference between acting like kids and performing like students in front of teachers. Some students grapple with it and get it on the spot. Some kids never get it and only realize it after when they are on porches with friends, half drunk, talking about that time Mr. SoAndSo said this or did that. Some just say, “I know, Mr. Morris” to the teacher in a way that makes their teacher know that they know. Those kids are smart. I like to think that some of those other kids know both ends of that dichotomy and come back from lunch singing songs because they know. Because they know, too. So they don’t give or break or bend. In a good way. Because they know. Those kids are smart, too.
For right now I think Laila is smarter than Shari, Felicia, and Nasir. But I don’t know. I know that they’ve learned and thought about ways to break or bend. But, I do know them. The same way Laila thinks she knows me enough to dissociate herself with her friends and pronounce to her teacher that she isn’t them. I think I know her well. Shari, Felecia, and Nasir too. But I help her more, between those bells, because I know her more and I think she knows me better than those other kids actually know me. Because I know that teaching comes down to bending, breaking and re-molding. I mean, they came back singing after lunch. Knowing. Not broken. Never bending. But I wanted to tell Laila that there ain’t nothing wrong with singing after a lunch and coming back into a building still singing. Unmoulded in a way. Adults never do that. I really sometimes deep down want to do that. But I never do. I don’t know if she know that. I wonder if those three other kids, who came back singing, know that better. Never knowing that they’ll never know what it means to break.
I never actually know so I never actually do because I’ve learned how to live in between those bells. That’s what I’ve been taught. That’s how I learned how to teach. The bells alone ring so loud that I automatically know what they are supposed to mean. Sometimes I forget what it means to live outside of them when I am immersed inside of them every day, all day, until they stop ringing. To still be still, and moving flexibly at the same time. Laila told me, without telling me, she heard them. Those other kids told me the same thing. But they didn’t say it to my face. They told me another way. They sang. They sang through those bells. And kept singing after those seconds after the bell rang silent. And then they stopped singing. They knew it was time for afternoon attendance. They came into class. They knew I heard them so I could never mark them not there. They’re there. All of them. I call names and say, “when you hear your name, say here.” They all do. I have to decide on what I should listen to more.