(Previously published in Breathing the Page by Betsy Warland, 2010)
“You want a reading? Thirty bucks. Come in here.” She pointed to a sagging arm chair in a cluttered living room, then sat down across from me with a coffee table between us. I handed her the money.
“I don’t need to know anything about the past or the present,” I said. “Just the future, please.”
“I tell you what I see, I don’t do time lines.” She shuffled a grubby looking deck of cards and handed it to me to cut. “Use your left hand.”
She turned the first card over without a comment. Put down the second.
“Looks like you’ve been having a rough time lately.”
When she turned over the third, she shot a glance at me. I stared fixedly at the cards, which meant nothing to me and were blurring anyway.
“You’ve ended a relationship lately, lost someone important to you.” There was a faint question in her words.
“My husband. He died. Yes.”
I nodded. She put down the deck of cards. “But – why are you coming to see me?”
“Because you can’t say anything bad. Whatever you see can’t be worse than now. I thought, if you looked forward, you’d see something better, something that would… I don’t know, help me move on.”
It seemed perfectly logical to me but she stared in disbelief. Finally she shook her head, picked up the cards again and started laying them out and talking fast.
“You’re going to have a hard time for quite a while. Work is difficult. I see minor health problems that you might have to deal with long term. Not everyone around you is as supportive as they appear. Someone is going to demand a lot of you that you can’t give and that person will be very angry with you. Money will be okay eventually but you will feel a lot of financial pressure in the short run. You’ll be doing some travelling but it won’t make much difference to the way you feel for a few years. Christ. Look, give me your right hand.”
She had changed tactics so quickly that it took me a moment but I flattened my hand in hers. She stared grimly at the lines in my palm and then relaxed. “Okay, here’s some good news; you’re going to live to be over ninety.”
I burst into tears.
When the bus appears, I scramble on, along with a dozen others. Even though it’s rush hour there are still seats. I sink down, imagining my swollen feet heaving a sigh of relief, after standing all day. I swear my shoe size has gone up in the ten years I’ve been teaching. My eyes close.
The eyes snap open and I fix an automatic smile on my face. Someone has spotted me. I’m no longer just a thirty-something woman going home at the end of a long day. I turn, meet the black eyes of the squarely built man in the seat behind me. I don’t recognize him but I know who he must be. An ex-student from four, eight, maybe ten years ago.
He puts his hand over the back of my seat. “Luigi Antonelli, I was in your Grade 10 class at Harvey a few years ago, remember? How ya doing?”
I shake his hand. I don’t remember but it doesn’t matter. We exchange pleasantries – I’m fine, still teaching, you? Construction, Miss, with my cousin, Joe, remember him? Steady work.
I’m aware that other people are listening. Luigi’s voice booms. The rest of the bus is silent.
“Miss, there’s something I gotta tell you. You remember that short story you taught, the black kid shoveling snow off some broad’s sidewalk and she offs herself?”
I must look blank because his voice gets more urgent. “The one we had the fight about? You know, was the broad after him or was she – like – depressed?”
My smile fades. I do remember.
“I just wanta tell you, Miss, you were wrong.”
The woman in the seat behind Luigi bites her lip and stares out the window, apparently trying not to laugh. I feel myself flush.
“A Good Long Sidewalk”. It should have been a lesson on the way preconceived ideas can prejudice us to see everything through a certain lens. We really ought to be careful what we try to teach. Instead of dispelling racial stereotypes that particular day, I’d actually managed to reinforce one. The class ended up in a yelling match that lasted a whole period.
In the story, Carlyle, a black teenager trying to make a bit of money, offers to shovel snow off the steps and sidewalk for a middle-aged white woman, a stranger. It’s a lot of shovelling and a cold day; he figures he might earn $5. She offers him a cup of hot chocolate before he starts. He refuses, remembering what his father says about middle-aged white women: they only want one thing from a young black man. Although Carlyle is polite, the woman’s face falls, she thrusts the money at him and slams the door in his face. The next day his mother reads about the woman’s suicide in the paper. He wonders, then, whether accepting her offer might have changed the outcome. Nah, his father says, they’re all the same, white women – crazy.
Instead of seeing that the father’s prejudice has influenced Carlyle’s behavior, Luigi, and most of the white boys in the class, said the father had it right. The female students were marginally more open but the boys wouldn’t listen. The two black kids in the class looked at each other and then stared at their desks in silence for forty-five minutes. Did they feel unsafe? Embarrassed? I certainly did, by then. A few undecided kids ended up in Luigi’s camp. It was an educational nightmare.
That night I went home and thought about quitting. If my father, a high school principal, hadn’t warned me that teachers have to teach at least two years to know if they are any good, I might have.
In those days I took myself seriously. I still hoped that the kids I taught would end up in Ph. D. programs, win Pulitzers, become Shakespeares. I over prepared all my lessons, terrified that a few empty minutes might lead to noise, a riot, a break out, to conclusive proof of my incompetence. I marked assignments far into the nights. I worried about failure every day, not theirs, mine.
After that class I accepted reality: my school was an inner city school where parents were holding down two to three jobs, waiting for the day their children turned sixteen or got their Grade 12 diplomas and could quit school and start earning money full time. I learned to teach the students I had, rather than the ones I imagined, but I haven’t taught “A Good Long Sidewalk” again. The memory of that failure is too strong for me. I settle for trying to work through racial and sexual discrimination as situations arise between students and leave the literature to others.
Luigi is staring at me. “I’m right, aren’t I, Miss. Admit it.”
“Luigi, you can’t expect me to agree with you. I’m a middle-aged white woman. Of course I don’t think she wanted sex with that kid. I think she was lonely and wanted a connection, a brief conversation with another person. Male, female, black, white, old, young, didn’t matter. But …”
He’s shaking his head, looking at me with – what? Embarrassment? Is it possible he hasn’t thought of me as a woman at all, just a teacher?
“You are one stubborn broad, Miss.”
I grin. Sometimes it’s all you can do. “Yeah, Lui, I know.”
That night as I get ready for bed, I think – look, he remembered the class, years later. That’s got to mean something, right?