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on i go, to wonder and to learning

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September 2003 - Yekaterina Levin

It’s 6 AM, and you are half dressed, and pacing your apartment, having just finished combing the sleep tangles out of your hair.

You could barely sleep at all last night. You were too excited.

You heat up a bowl of oatmeal for yourself, and eat it while you pace around.

Do you have all the materials you need? Is everything in order?

Well, nothing is ever in order at your place. You've left paintbrushes, halfway spent tubes of acrylic paint, oil pastels, and charcoal pencils everywhere.

When you were younger, Irina (your sister) and Yaakov (your brother) would clean up after you. Even if your brother gave you an earful after the fact.

("Are you ever capable of being organized, Katenka?" he asked.

"Purrobably not.")

You look at the paintings on the wall of your living room.

One is of the family you were raised with - your mother, your father, and your two siblings.

This was long before Ira got married and had six children, with an seventh on the way (it would take you ages to paint all of them), and before Yasha stopped wearing his payot. You almost liked him better with those locks of hair. Probably the same way he liked you better back when you wore conservative clothing.

A point of familiarity, a point of recognition, a point of reference.

You'll go home, all the way to the place you started, for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. You know that public school isn't in session then.

Perhaps you and Yasha have outgrown making disgruntled faces at each other when you had to fast, but you know you'll be happy to see him, Ira, and your parents. You're not so small and young that he can pick you up and twirl you around anymore, but he is still your favorite person in your family.

After your parents found out from doctors that your problem was that you were hard of hearing, Yasha was the first one who tried to figure out ways to communicate with you. He studied up on ASL when it became clear that you would learn it at the elementary and middle school you were sent to. You derived your name sign from a gesticulation he made whenever he was addressing you, and you alone.

Not to be left out, Ira suggested your parents get you hearing aids.

The first time you heard your name aloud - Ye-ka-te-ree-nah - you almost fell over from shock. You were seven and a half. You said it repeatedly, over the next few days, as if you would never grow tired of hearing it.

So, with practice, you became a veritable polyglot, before you even became a teenager. Russian, ASL, Hebrew, and enough English for professional proficiency, but not enough for you to speak it without a heavy accent when you entered high school.

That's most of the reason why you studied this language so intensely, at both Stuy, and later, Columbia University. You wanted to learn more. You needed to learn more. And as it stood, William Shakespeare made no sense to anyone when you were a high school freshman, not even native English speakers. So you viewed trying to understand his words and nuances as a sort of ultimate challenge, one you rose to with astonishing ability.

"Eyes, look your last. Arms, take your last embrace. And, lips, O you, the doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss..." you recite, to no one in particular, except maybe the cat. 

You lean against the back of your couch, and survey your artwork again.

There's another painting on the wall, that of your other family, the one you acquired over your years of adolescence and young adulthood.

Marisol, Simon, Krishna, and Dolores.

You had used a polaroid photo of of the four of them, from Marisol's college graduation day, as a reference.

Mari smiles down at you, looking far surer of herself than she has since then. Looking sure of you, too.

Certainly surer than you feel at the present time.

To say that you’re at your wits end on the morning of your first legitimate day of teaching high school students - none of this student teacher nonsense, you are a real educator now - is something of an understatement. 

You’re approaching levels of neurotic you thought only Simon could achieve.

And while you make sure your olive-green blazer is pressed for the fifth time, and that your dress hangs right, he sends you a message.

He must be clairvoyant.

TA: Nervous?
AC: >:33 I know mew are but what am I? =^._.^=

Yes, it’s silly. But you’ve been best friends with the man for more than a decade, so you figure you’re entitled to be immature around him every now and then.

TA: II will be outside your apartment in twenty minutes.
TA: If you’re not ready two go by then, II am leaving and you can take the train two the Bronx.
AC: >:33 Well, that’s certainly doing a great deal to allay my hypothetical anxiety.
TA: There’s nothing to be nervous about.
TA: The worst thing we can do is fuck up royally and get fired.
TA: And eventually we’ll get tenure and they won’t be able two fire us even if we do fuck up royally.
AC: >:33 Mew were claways such an optimist.
TA: For all you know, twoday could be a perfectly fine day.
TA: Or purrfectly, as it were two you.
AC: >:33 I’ll admit that I did laugh at that.
AC: >:33 How’s Krishna?

You lived with Simon and Krishna for a year, after certain events in 2001 scared the shit out of them to the point where they didn’t want to let you out of their sight for long, especially since you went to school all the way downtown.

Not anymore, though.

You still have occasional nightmares of your ride to class that terrible day, where the N train abruptly stopped on the tracks between Rector and Cortlandt. After a while, the lights in the train flickered off, plunging you into almost total darkness. You thought you heard commotion up above.

Although you could have probably navigated your way to the nearest train platform, from all the years you spent tagging subway tunnels with your unique brand of graffiti - cats, cats in green - you decided to sit tight until someone with authority did something.

You didn’t need anyone else in the train to try to follow your lead, and end up getting electrocuted by the third rail.

Eventually, a few police officers with flashlights showed up to evacuate everyone through the tunnel, and into Cortlandt Street station. You followed them in the dark.

When you reached the platform, and got up the stairs to the outside, the entire Financial District was swept up in smoke. People sprinted past you, shoving and knocking you over once or twice. They knocked your little cell phone from your hands, where it smashed on the sidewalk and broke in the process. No way to contact anyone, then. Not even Ira, and you had spent the previous night at her house, babysitting her children.

In a dissociative state of shock, you walked from Cortlandt Street clear to 42nd before you could even begin to wonder what the hell had happened.

And when you tried to dial Simon's place from a payphone, his number was busy. You kept walking.

From there, you walked all the way to that apartment on the Upper East Side, while he, Krishna, and Marisol worried themselves sick over where you might be. By the time you got to Simon’s, it was evening, and your feet were bleeding, something you didn’t notice until Krishna pointed it out. He dug a pink plastic basin out of the closet, one you recognized from the times drunk Simon had puked in it, and filled it with warm water and a few drops of iodine. So you could soak your feet.

You’d walked a hundred blocks in stilettos - and later in your stocking feet, once you got to 63rd street and couldn't take the pain anymore, finally carrying your shoes in one hand - assuming the only walking you'd be doing that day would be from one graduate level class to the other, both of which were in the same building.

You stopped soaking your feet, ran a shower, sat in the bath, and cried, for either two hours or twenty years. The water was running ice-cold by the time Marisol and Krishna dragged you out of the tub.

A year later, you got your own apartment, and concluded that you preferred to be alone for the most part. You could draw and paint in peace.

While you like having close friends and significant others, and while you love Krishna, Simon, and Marisol more than life itself, you are a solitary person when you get right down to it. You’re a little like your cat, Ovid. Sure, you can be social and bask in attention when you want to, but not all the time. That's not your way.

Speaking of Ovid, you shoo him off your ironing board so you can fold it up and put it away.

You check your closet for a string of fake pearls that you might wear, and find one of Krishna's protest signs. This one is against the war in Afghanistan. You think you made it, since Krishna's signs were never particularly artistic without your assistance.

In another moment of reflection, you realize that you’re halfway dreading the day he decides to pop the question to end all questions. Not because you won’t accept. You will in a nanosecond.

In fact, if he doesn’t ask by next year, you’ll ask him yourself.

You remember telling Ira and Yasha that you were seriously dating a Black man, maybe even planning to marry him, waiting for them to object. You told them first, because you knew your parents hadn't forgotten the Crown Heights riots so easily. They might have thrown a fit if you told them.

"Well, my children need cousins to play with," Ira commented, in Russian. "It's not as if Yasha has any."

"My wife and I have been praying for children for years now," he said.

Most likely because you'd spent far too many years at Columbia, and grown accustomed to saying the first thing that came to mind, you said something... interesting. Worthy of Simon.

"Even I know you have to do a little more than praying in order to have children."

Ira stared at you like she couldn't believe her ears. Yasha burst out laughing.

Business as usual.

However, that said, married people are expected to cohabitate.

Though you could see yourself living with Krishna, you know how he is. He values your opinions too much, always asking you how a sentence sounds, if it’s concise enough, if he’s getting his point across. You were the one studying the English language, after all. He’s quick to apologize when he does, but he interrupts your creative flow sometimes.

And then there’s Simon, who stands over your shoulder while you’re working and asks you how your current piece is going, every half hour or so.

“It’s going,” is your standard response.

The exception to your “alone time” rule is Marisol, who is in her final year of graduate school. You can put up with her for extended periods because she’s equally quiet and inclined toward solitude. The two of you sit around in companionable silence, she studying and you sketching, or planning lessons. It’s probably why you worked so well together as roommates back in college.

Your phone vibrates again.

TA: Krishna’s still asleep.
TA: Lucky fucker doesn’t have two be at his assigned school until 10.

You don't exactly consider him lucky. If you didn't have to be at your school until 10, you'd probably spend the next three and a half hours ruminating.

Sighing, you consider the idea of wearing stockings with your dress, but it’s knee-length and you’re already wearing a jacket. You don’t want to overheat.

Simon shows up at your apartment almost twenty minutes later than he said he would, and by then it’s 6:55. 

You have a first period class to teach. You had wanted to learn the lay of the land before you launched into your first lesson, but you may not have time for that.

Hold on. Homeroom comes before first period during the first week of school. That’s not too big of a deal. To your understanding, all you have to do in homeroom is pass out schedules to your students.

You slide into the front passenger seat of Simon’s car.

“No sweatpants today?” you ask him.

He lives in undershirts and sweatpants when he’s not expected to be anywhere important.

“As it turned out, all my sweatpants were dirty, so I was tragically forced to dress business casual.”

"Oh, is that why?" you ask. You add, “don’t mew have somewhere around seventeen pairs of sweatpants?”

He shifts the car into gear and pulls out of his space in front of a fire hydrant.

“Twelve, at last count.”

You two continue back and forth like this for a while.

“So, what’s your first class to teach today?” you ask him.

“Homeroomology,” he replies. “Can’t wait to put the fear of God in my students, although I don’t think it’ll work. I got seniors for whatever reason. They’re not afraid of anything except college apps.”

Simon was afraid of far more than college applications by senior year, but that's not something you'll say to him. No sense in dredging up bad memories. 

“I mean, after homeroom,” you clarify.

“I have a prep period, and then I gotta teach Physics.”

You make a face, your nose wrinkling. You detest Physics. You were mandated to take a year of some sort of science in college. You took Physics, since Simon could teach you everything. And you still almost failed.

“What about you, Katya?” he asks.

“Furrst homeroom with freshmen, then 9th grade English.”

“Ah, yes, gotta teach those teenagers about The Catcher in the Rye, and Julius Caesar, and All Quiet on the Western Front and, uh…” He thinks. “What the fuck else did we read in freshman year?”

“Mew were a year ahead of me, so I have no idea.”

“Huh. I thought everyone read the same shit,” he muses. “On the bright side, I heard all the department offices have a never ending supply of coffee.”

“I assume mew intend to put that to the test.”

“You already know.”

Once you get to school, things seem to be going fairly well, at least until a young man decides to engage you in “conversation”.

“Hey baby!” he shouts. “What’s going on?”

You know you look young - places that don't card Marisol still card you, despite her being three years younger - but is he seriously mistaking you for a student?

The more you ignore him, the more determined he seems to engage you.

“What’s wrong? Didn’t you hear what I was saying? Are you deaf?” he asks, advancing on you.

You size him up. He's a little shorter than you, and can't be older than eighteen. Could you fight him if push comes to shove? Would you fight him?

(You've fought police before, haven't you? This guy doesn't even have a taser.)

You’d pull your little switchblade on him, but that would be a sure way to get yourself fired.

Then, some huge man walks by you, seemingly intent on continuing on toward the school. He stops at the last moment.

“The young lady isn’t interested,” he says to the kid, in the most polite possible tone. 

The boy goes four shades lighter, insists that he didn’t mean anything by it, and takes off running in the opposite direction.

You don’t blame him. This man is fucking gigantic, six foot six at the least, and built like he spends all his free time in the gym pumping iron.

He’s also dressed smartly, in a dark blue overcoat, and is going slightly grey at the temples. He has to be a faculty member. Maybe a gym teacher, although you’ve never seen one dress like that.

He turns to you, and his features are surprisingly calm.

“I’m sorry about that,” he says, in that same measured, soft tone. “You shouldn’t have had to endure such flagrant disrespect.”

“Um, thanks,” you say.

You exchange glances with Simon.

Without another word, the man turns and continues on to the main entrance of the building.  

You and Simon flash your identification when you get to the security desk, and go to the main office to clock in. You also collect the attendance sheets for your classes, a stack of delaney cards, and a book to put them in. 

Another teacher, one dressed in blue - you think she’s the one with the motorcycle parked in the faculty lot - takes notice of you quickly.

“Oh, you two must be new,” she says briskly. She looks oddly familiar. “C’mon, follow me, I have like twenty minutes to introduce you to everyone.”

She leads you into the faculty cafeteria, talking all the while. A few people look up when she enters, all of them men, and most of whom look like they’re presently embroiled in a game of cards.

“Alright, guys, these are the new teachers,” she says. “Don’t break them, ‘cause I don’t think we have the budget to get new ones.”

She turns back to you.

“What’re your names again?”

“Katya Levin.”

“Simon Cao.”

Simon sits down and tells the guys to count him in for the next round of whatever they're playing.

“Sounds good," the woman says. "I’m Masae Sakamoto, and I teach math."

She points to the guys. “That’s Iggy, the one in the brown, and Chemistry is his thing.” At Iggy’s frown, she adds, “okay, so his name’s Ignacio. You can call him Iggy.”

“Masae, I despise that nickname.”

“I know.”

She keeps going, pointing to another man, the one you recognize from outside.

“Farzin’s the big guy. He teaches Physics, Comp Sci, and Technical Drawing.”

Now that he’s removed his coat, you can see his muscles better. He is positively jacked. You kind of want to ask if you can touch them, to see if they’re real.

Well, obviously they’re real, you idiot, a little voice in your head says to you. 

“Pleased to meet you, Katya,” he says.

His hand practically swallows yours up when he shakes it, and you’re half scared he’ll crush it. But his grip is gentle.

“Nice to meet you, too,” you reply. "And, thank you, for earlier."

"It's no problem at all," he says. "What will you be teaching?"

"English."

"Is that so?" he asks, interested. "Obviously, you studied it in college, then."

"Yes, I did. Major in English, minor in Education."

He asks you a question, one you don't fully catch because you weren't facing him with your better ear.

You ask him to repeat himself, informing him that you are rather hard of hearing.

"Who was your favorite to study? Author, I mean," he says. 

Simon makes a few gestures behind him, ones Farzin cannot see. Something to the effect of warning you against getting hit on by the older man. But you don't think he's hitting on you. He seems genuinely interested in what you have to say, and you can almost always tell the difference between the two.

"Edna St. Vincent Millay, purrobably, but she was a poet fur the most part. In terms of more contemporary fare, purrobably Alexie."

"I'm more partial to the Victorian era, myself, if we're going by the western tradition."

"Can't imagine mew reading Oscar Wilde," you say, with a grin.

You can't. He seems far too proper for that.

"Indeed, not. I'm more partial to Thomas Hardy."

You want to ask him if he's into the likes of Swinburne, but if he isn't, he won't get the joke, and if he is, he might lose whatever respect he may have developed for you.

Meanwhile, Simon finds the coffee pot and practically upends the whole thing into his thermos. You are not in the least bit surprised. 

Masae points to the last guy in the group.

“And that one in the stupid violet sport coat is Alessio. He teaches History.”

“My coat is not stupid,” Alessio protests. “Do you have any idea how much it cost?”

“Way more than you should have paid for it,” Masae fires back.

“That’s rich, coming from someone who wastes money on tattoos.”

You don't see any on her, but she might have covered them up.

“Yeah, but there’s a difference. My ink looks good, while you're wearing a pimp coat on the first day of classes.”

A woman you hadn’t noticed before gets up from her seat, and puts herself between Masae and Alessio, by way of interfering in their argument. 

Her proportions and mannerisms seem highly familiar - as familiar as Simon’s, or Krishna’s, or Mari’s - but you don’t understand why, until she turns to gaze at you.

“Dolores!” you exclaim, dashing forth to embrace her. 

You’d forgotten she was a guidance counselor here.

She laughs, holding you just as tightly.

“It’s wonderful to see you,” you say.

“And you, as well. You’ll like it here. Ready for your first day?”

The thing about Dolo is that you can always be honest with her.

“I’m nervous as all hell,” you confess.

She puts a hand on your shoulder.

“Don’t worry. We were all nervous when we were in your position. Weren’t we?”

The guys nod.

“I wasn’t nervous,” Masae insists.

Dolores raises an eyebrow.

“I remember the day you started teaching here, and yes you were. So nervous that you wanted to cut your own Algebra class.”

Masae gives her a faint look of distaste as if to say, “you didn’t have to go that far”, but Dolores presses a quick kiss to her cheek, and all is forgiven.

That’s right, Masae is Dolo’s on and off girlfriend. That's how you know her.

You and Farzin continue to talk about literature, which is rather pleasant, considering that he knows a great deal about it. Then, he glances at his watch, and informs you that it's nearly time for all of you to get to your classrooms. Simon, who was playing blackjack with Ignacio and Alessio, loses for the fourth time and curses loudly.

And since the English department is right above the Math department, his homeroom being in latter area, you walk him there and wish him luck.

"Fucking seniors," he remarks. "I'm going to need it." 

Then, you make your way to room 207, which is where you’re supposed to be for both homeroom and first period.

You open the new box of chalk on your desk, take out a stick, get accustomed to its weight, and begin to write on the upper left corner of the board.

Thankfully, the chalk doesn’t squeak against the board. You hate when that happens.

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2003
Official Class 109
Miss Levin

Your students file in, in dribs and drabs, after the first bell rings. You hear a girl in the hallway, yelling ebullient greetings at what must be friends of hers, far louder than should be necessary. Her voice takes up the whole hall, cutting through the din of students shuffling around to the appropriate places. And when she comes into your room, she takes the seat smack in front of your desk.

She’s short, with light brown hair, and freckled, tanned skin.

You have to admit that you like her sweater, which is olive green, with two cats on the front. You'll ask her where she got it later.

You open the folder you have, and look over your attendance sheet. Thirty students in your homeroom.

The late bell rings, four minutes later. By then, you have twenty-six of them in your class.

You figure now is a good time to start as any.

“It’s so nice to see so many faces here,” you begin. “My name is Miss Levin, and I’m your homeroom teacher. This is the homeroom fur official class 109. If you’ve been assigned to another official class, please tell me sooner rather than later, so that we can ascertain where you should be as quickly as pawsible.”

Ascertain, you think, is an SAT word, even if these kids won’t be taking that exam for two years yet. 

And you don’t know that you’ve begun to sign as you speak, until the girl in the front starts to sign right back, her face lit up with joy.

“Are you going to be our teacher for the rest of the year?” she signs. 

“In all likelihood, yes,” you reply.

She seems relieved.

(You remember your first day of 9th grade. Your sweater, your long skirt, your hearing aids, and your overwhelming anxiety. Your first time being in a regular school.)

You say a bit more to your students, about how high school might be difficult, but you think all of them are more than up to the task of doing well, if they apply themselves. You inform them that there are a plethora of extracurricular activities they could sign up for, seemingly one for every interest under the sun.

Then, you start passing out schedules.

A few names in, you call for "Captor, Mituna," and a curvy girl with teal eyes asks you to give her his schedule, so she can give it to him later.

"He's gonna be late anyway," she says.

The thin girl next to her, dark-skinned, with eyes the color of jade and the longest set of box braids you've ever seen, scoffs at her.

"Seriously, Latula? On the first day?"

"I think he overslept," Latula replies. "Did you see him on the train?"

"Nope."

Latula snorts knowingly.

"So am I right, or am I right, Pomary?"

"I can't even believe this crap, I swear," she replies. 

Later, you call for “Leijon, Meulin”, and get no immediate answer. You call again.

You glance at the girl in the front, who isn’t watching you at the moment.

You tap her desk, and fingerspell that name to her, checking to see if she’s the student you’re looking for.

She nods, gives you her sign name by way of properly introducing herself, and takes the schedule from you.

“Thank you!” she exclaims aloud, startling the boy sitting in front of her.

“Christ almighty,” he says. “I know you have no idea how loud you are, but could you keep it the fuck down?”

Ampora, you think his name is. Cronus Ampora.

“How about mew keep it down, and watch your language while you’re at it?” you ask him, rapidly getting pissed off. “Otherwise mew just might be the furrst person to get detention fur this school year.”

He shuts up. Well. That worked.

You don’t know if you’re allowed to give detentions on the first day of school. You don’t even know how to give detentions yet. 

There’s another kid sitting in the back - “Makara, Kurloz” - whom you hadn’t noticed immediately.

He glances up when you call his name, and comes to collect his schedule. 

But instead of asking you the question he has, he signs it.

“Where’s room 324? My first class is there.”

You haven’t learned where everything is yet, so you’re not completely certain, but you tell him that you’ll find out.

“Thanks, man.”

“What class is it?” you sign.

“Biology.”

You do know where the Bio department is, and consequently give him moderately shitty directions as to where he should go. You tell him that if he gets lost, to just come back to your room, and you’ll find a way to set him straight.

There’s not much time left in homeroom once you give out the last schedule - “Zahhak, Horuss,” - and answer questions a few of your students have.

You elect to let them out early, so they have ample time to figure out where their real first period classes are.

Everyone files out, except for Meulin, who stays right where she is.

She stares at you, curiously.

“I dismissed you guys so you have enough time to find your next classes,” you sign, just in case she didn’t catch when you said it.

“My first class is right here, according to my schedule. Freshman English, right?” she asks. “Room 207?”

You nod.

“Do you want me to leave until the bell rings, then?” she asks. 

“No,” you decide. “You can stay, if you want. We’re not even going to do that much today, except for going over the–” Great, you’ve forgotten the sign for "syllabus”. How did you ever manage that one? You spell it out for her.

“Guess I won’t need my interpreter for this class,” she signs with a small smile. “Unless you think I will.”

“I’ll sign as I lecture,” you tell her. “It’ll be difficult when I’m writing things on the board and can’t face you, but we’ll try to make do. But you might need your interpreter in order to follow the discussion. I can’t teach and tell you what the other students are saying at the same time.”

“That makes sense,” she replies. “"What should I call you, Miss Levin?”

She fingerspells the last two words.

(You think of yourself in 9th grade, again. How much you would have liked to have a teacher who knew how to fully communicate with you, whether you had your hearing aids in or not.)

So you give her your sign name without a second thought, before you even have time to wonder if you’re allowed or supposed to.

What are the rules about this?

Since when do you care about following the rules?

“Okay,” she signs, trying out your name afterwards. No one's signed it that fluidly in years.

“If you need anything, Meulin, feel free to come by my classroom, assuming I’m not teaching,” you reply. “There’s a sign on the door of room 207D that has the schedules for all the teachers in the English department, just so you know.”

“I will,” she says. "Thank you."

You turn back to the board, and write "Welcome to Freshman English" in gigantic lettering, in preparation for your class.

By way of getting to know her better, and figuring out what level she's at, you ask her what her favorite book is.

And she doesn't have one. She has more than she can count on both hands.

You get the distinct impression that you're going to enjoy this year.