My mother presses a cold, damp towel against my forehead, kneeling down by my side as I hover over the toilet for the fourth night in a row. Between furious fits of purging and sobbing, I try to lighten the mood in the pink tiled bathroom by coining this thing night sickness. My mother rolls her eyes.
It’s been three days since I returned from Jamaica, but we haven’t spoken about Daniel. I’ve been delaying the talk both because it has been a hectic week at work and graduate school, and because I am afraid of my mother’s way of wryly, almost mockingly, judging a choice I have made that doesn’t please her. The few times she asks what happened in Jamaica, I shake my head, and run out of the door for work or class. When there is nowhere to run, I retreat to the bedroom I share with my grandmother, who doesn’t yet know about Daniel. She is concerned about all the time I am spending in the bathroom and crying in bed. She strokes my hair, while I lie on the sofa with my head in her lap. She makes me tea with rose petal jam. Alma asks nothing because she knows that there isn’t anything I won’t tell her, and that she will learn the cause of my grief as soon as I am able to put it into words.
She couldn’t imagine that I am vomiting because her great grandchild is in a place that deprives him of snacks when he feels happy enough to allow himself to run. What if he’s hungry, Alma? I want to say. What if he’s sick? What if someone has come to claim him? Tonight, the spasms are more vicious, compounded by a meeting with the principal who had called me into his office over the loudspeaker during lunch to share footage from a security camera that showed me exiting and reentering the building during my free period. He had told me he knew I had left for a cigarette break, which is unacceptable conduct, especially for an untenured first-year teacher. One more incident like this, and he would have to put a letter in my file, he had told me, and he would have no choice but to take disciplinary action.
He had reclined in his chair—legs spread wide apart, the spaces between buttons forming ovals to reveal his undershirt—and waited for me to respond. I had sat across from this malicious man with a sixth grade education, unable to open my mouth because however I crafted all I had to say to him, it would sound like a letter of resignation. Satisfied with my lack of a defense about having taken a five-minute cigarette break, he had asked for a doctor’s note confirming the sickness of which I had informed him in the early morning phone call and e-mail on the Tuesday we were supposed to return to work. I had told him that I didn’t have a note because I hadn’t gone to the doctor.
“Oh, I know,” he had said, sneering like a fat hyena. “One of the teacher tell me you wasn’t sick. She tell me you go in Jamaica. Next time, you should go in Santo Domingo. It’s the most beautiful country than Jamaica.”
I hadn’t wanted to lie. I had planned to take a personal day, but my colleagues had told me he would never approve, and cautioned that asking Dr. Romero for a personal day would mean either cancelling a non-refundable trip, or defying him by leaving for Jamaica without his approval. Confronted with the lie, I had found myself speechless again, uncertain whether it was more infuriating that this man could dare to intimidate and threaten a teacher this way, or that one of my colleagues had found it necessary to share with him the true reason I had returned to work a day late, which she had learned while eavesdropping on a conversation in the teachers’ lounge. She had been making copies. It could only have been Arelis.
I have never known what it means to silence myself out of fear. The man in charge of deciding whether I will hold down the job on which I am now relying to raise my child wants nothing more than to send me to the rubber room. A veteran teacher from one of the other three schools in the building tells me that it is all because of his brother, the district superintendent, who was charged with nepotism for appointing his inexperienced, questionably certified brother, but got away with only a two thousand dollar fine. Dr. Romero had stayed, his school exempted from annual quality reviews by the office of the superintendent. One such visit would shut down the school. But there aren’t reviews, and so, there he goes making unreasonable demands from teachers, insulting us in the privacy of his office, and sometimes, while we’re teaching in our classrooms. He refuses to speak with students except when they are brought into his office to be humiliated and threatened. He doesn’t know their names or the countries of their origin, but orders that a headshot of each student appear in a banner along the hallway wall, together with the flags of their respective home countries. Although Romero had intended the banner as confirmation of his omnipotence as the self-proclaimed ruler of a multinational empire, it makes him seem small. The photographs and flags in full color are a beautiful sight, and they remind us of the wealth of our community and the power of our individual and collective stories.
When I had first begun to discover the nature of this man, I had scoffed and said if need be, I would haul him to court and shred him to pieces with abundant evidence of incompetence and corruption. How could this fool have more power than the intelligent, experienced, well-meaning educators who work for him? How could his word, which rarely makes sense and has never been righteous, outweigh ours, if we were all to speak up? But within months of working for him, I begin to see the horror in his interactions with teachers, and, in part because I speak up, quickly become one of the teachers he systematically targets and intimidates. And now, halfway through my second year at Global Family High School, I fear him the way I have never feared another person, which infuriates me because I can’t accept that a man of such frail character wields enough power to silence and paralyze me.
The few colleagues I have befriended often remind me that he has sentenced many an innocent, dedicated faculty member to months, in some cases years, of exile from the classroom, effectively ending their teaching careers because, as everyone knows, the rubber room is where teachers go to die. My colleagues try to explain that, as difficult as it is to come to grips with this, Dr. Romero will win any battle because he has limitless powers, and no oversight. All there is to do is to love our students, be good teachers, and ignore him.
Ms. Miles, who is always perfectly poised, coiffed, and eloquent, tells me that this is one situation where it is wiser to heed a fear than to conquer it. Although she asks me to please call her Angela, I can’t bring myself to speak her first name. English doesn’t allow for the distinction of those we hold in esteem, and addressing her formally is my way to avoid leveling her to those of us just recently out of our college diapers. I often wonder how a woman of her intelligence and dignity can work for this brute. I feel ashamed—the way a woman might feel watching another take a beating, her own hands tied, mouth taped shut.
“Trust what you feel about him, Maryam,” Ms. Miles tells me in the teachers’ lounge, speaking softly not because she doesn’t want to be heard by the other teachers, but because this is how she always speaks. “If you’re terrified that he is going to get you out of the classroom, it’s because he can, and he will.”
I grew up in a Soviet republic, where everyone was always afraid, and where punishment by figures of authority often came in the form of shaming and intimidation. I am in America now, and am not supposed to fear authority. So, I correct him in a staff meeting when he refers to Egypt, London, and Boston as countries. Once, I ask whether he really is a doctor, and if so, in what field he holds a doctorate degree. He doesn’t respond. When he makes comments about “our African American students,” I remind him that there are none in our school, since we only serve recently arrived immigrants, and that the students to whom he is referring are African. Each time, I realize that he truly doesn’t understand my point.
I’ve learned that this man is capable of anything, that he is governed neither by reason nor a conscience. He has instilled a fear so deep in me that I tremble in his presence, and develop a habit of vomiting in the trashcan on the way to the Gun Hill Road subway station for the third of four train rides that constitute my daily commute. I have come to accept that if there is any chance of bringing to light his failings, it will happen only at the expense of earning permanent certification in teaching. As much as the warrior in me wishes to rise and crush him, every day fills me with greater certainty that even though I had stumbled into the classroom accidentally, I am meant to teach. I feel that working with young people is my purpose, and no victory over Romero would be gratifying, if it were to leave me without a key to my classroom. Being an educator also happens to be suitable evidence for establishing my fitness to raise a child. Considering Daniel as a factor in the equations of my decisions makes me feel grounded in motherhood, at once the most daunting and empowering feeling I have ever known.
I casually mention my boy to friends, fellow teachers, and graduate school classmates, as mothers do, even though all I have of motherhood is one embrace on an early October evening. But you just started teaching, they say. You are single. You live in a one-bedroom apartment with your mother and grandmother. You don’t even know if he is available for adoption. He might be gone by the time you return. All this is true, but none of it matters. I repeat that I am Daniel’s mother, and that I have to bring my son home. This is all I know, so it’s all there is to say. These words become my mantra, and I recite them on the 6 train to the South Bronx, in the corner of the teachers’ lounge, in the moments when my classroom is silent but for the sound of pencils dancing on paper. I speak them as I open my eyes to greet another day without my son, and always, as I lay my head to sleep, dreading equally the possibility of a dream in which my son is absent, and one of those in which he is so close that I awake expecting to be inches from his smile. Between dreams, the Universe insists that I am Daniel’s mother, and so I carry on, following the omens that pour down on me like a meteor shower, too magically to be ignored.