December 21, 2018 by The Citron Review
by Kerry Graham
It’s time to call his grandma. I haven’t seen him in I-don’t-want-to-count-how-many days, and I know his other teachers haven’t, either. I know his grandma will tell me something I do not want to hear, but I need to talk to someone else who loves him.
For the first quarter, second, and third, he was present. Fully. Punctual, diligent, reserved, he made me believe—or maybe it was just hope?—that before anything else, he saw himself as a student.
But my other kids say things about him that I do not know how to understand. “He real mean, Ms. Kerry,” they tell me. “He just do it when no one around.” One day, when I hear them talk about him brutally beating someone, all I can do is shake my head. I know that’s not who he is.
Now, though, I don’t know where or how he is. Every day I look at his empty seat, I think of what he wrote in his journal. About his loved ones, lost. About how he and his friends do not say goodbye without adding, “Be safe, bro.” I don’t remember if, the last time I saw him, I told him I was glad he was safe. If I told him to stay that way.
When I call his grandma, I tell her about him missing class, and she immediately apologizes for the morning he woke up not feeling well. As she recalls his symptoms, I listen because I don’t know the best way to say what she does not want to hear. Somehow I clarify—this is about more than a sick day. I believe her when she assures me that tomorrow I will see him, on time.
Before the bell rings the next morning, I do, in fact, finally see him after I-don’t-want-to-count-how-many-days, at the doorway of my classroom. I hug him. Hard. I hug him hello; I hug him welcome back; I hug him I’m glad you’re safe; I hug him please don’t forget what you said yourself: school gives you so much more than the streets.
I can only hold him in that moment, however, and before the school year ends, he misses several more days. Each day, I worry and pray and hope. I don’t know why, but this time, I do not call his grandma.
At the start of summer, he writes to me. “Thanks for teaching me this year,” he begins. “I appreciate everything you did for me.” He tells me he loves me, and his words are the hug I wish for. Especially now, in the weeks when the sizzling streets are at their worst. When we read more headlines about more homicides. When we see more and more makeshift memorials.
When I know that’s not who he is, but know, too—in Baltimore, that does not matter.
Kerry Graham lives, teaches, writes, and runs in Baltimore, Maryland. Her work has appeared in The Three Quarter Review, Gravel, Spry, A Quiet Courage, and Role Reboot, among others. Connect with her on Facebook.