Non-fiction selection from the 2007 issue
I Eat My Pets
by Jessica Bacal
“Ms. Levine?” Mirna whispers to me in the school’s concrete playground. “I brought my brother’s baby duck.” Mirna is a plump fourth-grader with dark skin and huge, long-lashed eyes. When my first year of teaching began, all of her clothes were too small for her—and now they are even smaller.
“Mirna,” I say, “I thought I told you not to bring it.” Mirna just smiles, ignoring me. She has never looked so happy, not once this entire year. She has her arms around a plastic tank, hugging it close to her body, so I have to ask, “What’s its name?”
“We don’t have a name yet. It’s just Duck.”
“Well Mirna, I’m serious. Is your brother in the yard?” Mirna nods, pointing to a pudgy older boy in a black, puffy jacket. “Go and give it back to him.”
This is not one of those stories about how I went to teach fourth grade in the Bronx and learned-as-much-from-the-children-as-they-learned-from-me. It’s not a story about how I helped them, because I don’t believe that I did. I was twenty-four. I slowly became overwhelmed by the children in my class, by their needs, by their families’ needs. Sure, at times I loved them and at times maybe they loved me. I still remember a card that I received from a girl named Lisette: “Dear Ms. Levine, You are special and nice and exciting.” I remember those exact words because Lisette captured the essence of the teacher I wanted to be. And sometimes I felt like that teacher—in the fall, when kids wrote and illustrated books, and then read them at our “publishing party.” I felt special and nice and exciting on that day. But by spring, the same Lisette announced, “I don’t like you anymore, Ms. Levine.” Other children were less subtle: “I hate you, Ms. Levine,” said Kaya, when I forced her to come out from hiding in the coat closet. And by spring I thought, I am hatable. I wanted the year to be over. I wanted out. I had little patience left—sometimes I didn’t even feel a fondness for my class. And sometimes, I hated them.
In the classroom, I get a better look at the duck, whose tank Mirna has placed on a bookshelf. It’s a tiny, scrawny thing with yellow fluff clumped in patches. Its tank is a rectangle of dingy plastic with a few inches of gray water on the bottom. The water sloshes when Mirna carries it to the meeting area.
“I got this duck for Easter,” Mirna says quietly. She holds the tank away from her body and does a brief pan-shot around the room. Kids lean forward—they’re in a circle—and I tell them to move back, that Mirna will bring the tank around.
“Why’d you, um, get a duck? Like, in the first place?” Hector asks, and I think, good fucking question.
“Because it was Easter on Sunday,” says Mirna. “And sometimes, people get baby ducks for Easter. My mom had said for a long time that she was gonna get us one, and then finally she did.”
“That ain’t no duck,” says Dimani. “That’s a skeleton. Look how skinny he is! Ms. Levine, that’s a skeleton duck!”
“Dimani, please raise your hand.”
“I’m gonna eat that duck for dinner, Ms. Levine,” Dimani says. “I’m gonna cook it in a pot.”
Mirna pulls the tank close to her chest, the gray water swishing, and the duck seems to lose its balance. It slides across the bottom, making a strangled sound.
“Dimani,” says Tami, a tiny white girl with a Bronx accent who can’t pronounce her rs, “Don’t say that. That’s not nice to Mihna. It might huht huh feelins. Right, Ms. Levine?”
“Right. That duck is Mirna’s pet.”
“I eat my pets! I ate my cat, I ate my dog,” John says, ticking them off on his fingers. His one lazy eye makes it like he only half-sees the duck. I wish I could avoid seeing it, too. I tell them that the meeting is over.
The kids have writers notebooks, which are supposed to make them feel like “real writers,” and it works for some of them. Mergim is writing about his grandfather in Yugoslavia. Jennifer’s story is about going to the movies with her mother. Dimani is writing about the morning when he woke up and his bike was gone because his stepfather had sold it during the night. A few times, Dimani’s agreed to go and talk to Suzanne, the guidance counselor, whom all kids seem to love. She doesn’t repeat what he says, but when Dimani’s mother comes in—a tiny woman with a bony face and glazed, sunken eyes—Suzanne says, “That’s crack. She either was or is.”
Today Dimani stops writing, stands up and walks to the reading corner, where he begins taking out the thumb-tacks and pushing them back in. I try to ignore it, but then he is holding a tack close to Tami’s cheek and she’s yelling, “Stop it!” I rush to the corner and lunge over the bookshelf. I mean to put my hand on his shoulder and nudge him away, but I nudge so hard that he falls backwards onto the floor. We both know I have done something wrong.
“You pushed me!”
“I’m sorry—I didn’t mean to make you fall.” I keep my voice calm and even, though my heart is beating quickly. “I thought that you were about to poke Tami—”
“It’s child abuse,” says Dimani. “I’m telling my mother it’s child abuse!”
I know he could say that, and maybe he would be right. Maybe I wanted to push him. It’s incredible how easy it was—his little body so light and small, falling over with hardly any effort.
Mirna’s brother has still not come to collect the duck.
“Do you need to feed that duck?” I ask Mirna, who is bent over her notebook, writing furiously.
She nods. “We fed it some bread this morning.”
During math, it begins to make the little noises again, like groans deep in its throat.
“I think that duck needs something,” I tell Mirna.
“No, he’s okay,” she murmurs. “He just does that.”
At lunch, I tell Mirna to find her brother—he has got to come and take the duck out of the room. I eat with Leila Foster, the other fourth grade teacher, and listen to one of her cursing tirades. I want to like Leila, since her classroom is next to mine, and she’s often the only other adult I see all day. I’ve come to depend on our lunches away from the students, during which we periodically listen to each other cry. But I often come away from these lunches feeling depressed by the things Leila says.
“I wanted to tell him, if you’re going to be a little piece of shit and ruin my day, than go right ahead. Fuck you!” Leila is talking about Morris, the most difficult kid in her class.
“Mmhm,” I say. I wonder if you have to turn into Leila Foster a little bit, not thinking about what is going on under the surface with a difficult child, not thinking about your own role in your problems with that child. I can imagine becoming like that if I stay here. I can imagine becoming like some of the older teachers, obsessed with my pension, calculating how many years I will have to work to get the most money when I retire. Never before have I imagined myself as that kind of person—bitter, uninspired. When I envisioned myself teaching in my own classroom, I predicted it would be a warm, creative environment where kids felt inspired, challenged, and most importantly, safe.
In the world outside of school, people want to hear stories about just how inspiring I am, and about how cute the kids are. “Fourth grade,” they say, “That must be fun.” Then they get this pleased, expectant look. For example, on the night that my new boyfriend took me to meet his friends at a bar, the friends asked about my job. I knew the kind of story they wanted, but I began telling a different kind before I could stop myself: “Well this week, we were trying to do math with these special geometric blocks, and this kid Dimani wouldn’t stop throwing them at other kids and wouldn’t leave the room. I called the principal’s office but no one was there, which meant that I was supposed to call the security guard, which I did. When Carlos came—he’s the guard—Dimani hid under the table and Carlos had to drag him out by his feet, yelling and kicking, and carry him away.” I didn’t even get to the part about how the guard had deposited Dimani at the empty principal’s office, and how Dimani had come back and stood outside of the classroom. I’d locked the door, but we could see him through its vertical floor-to-ceiling window, and then we couldn’t see him because he’d begun kicking the door with what sounded like all of his might, then throwing his little body against it, making repeated thumps that rattled the door in its frame. The reason I’d stopped telling the story was that I saw their puzzled faces—it wasn’t what they’d wanted to hear.
After dinner, the boyfriend walked me home and asked, “Why did you have to tell that story? You have others, and that one makes you sound so harsh.”
I didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t the first time that I’d locked Dimani out, other kids trying to work through his desperate, angry pounding. I thought: A better person would have a more uplifting story to tell. Even now, I imagine that a better person would write a story other than this, would have somehow prevented the ending.
After recess the kids have Tai Kwan Do, which is supposed to teach them grace and control. Mirna’s brother still hasn’t come for the duck, and so she takes it down to the movement room with her backpack. The kids will be dismissed from there.
When I go to retrieve them after forty minutes, the door opens to shouts and cries. Mirna is holding the tank and her duck is slumped strangely at the bottom, a yellow heap in the gray sludge. She is bawling, her mouth open, her huge eyes looking at me and then away.
“My duck! They killed my duck!” she cries, pushing into the crowded hallway.
I want to follow her. I want to gag.
Dimani comes out saying, “That duck is dead!” He’s smiling. “She’s got a dead duck! Dead duck!”
Tami says, “Ms. Levine, they was shaking the cage and the duck was falling all ovah the place.” Where was the Tai Kwon Do teacher?
Lisette says, “They were being really bad, Ms. Levine,” and now I am trying to figure out whether Mirna has gone into the hot, even more crowded playground.
There: She is fleeing but still in the hall, the duck’s tank clutched to her chest, and then I see—thank god—the guidance counselor. I grab her arm.
“Suzanne! Mirna brought her duck to school and now it’s dead. I think Dimani just killed it.” I don’t know what I’m hoping for—that she’ll rewind the entire day, or at least follow Mirna with me, help me figure out what to do and say. Do we call Mirna’s mother? Do we help her tell her brother that his pet died during the day? I point to Mirna, who is sobbing and pushing through the crowd of children, but when Suzanne sees her, she burst out laughing, covering her mouth, her face turning red.
After a year of teaching at the school, I was done. I gave different reasons to different people about why I was leaving.
The easy, concrete reason: My commute from Manhattan’s West Village to the Bronx took over an hour. I had to leave before seven each morning, and got home around seven each night. It was exhausting.
The self-congratulatory reason: I’d realized that a Masters degree in education hadn’t prepared me to teach. I wanted to work in a great school where I could internalize what it was to be a good teacher before offering myself to the public school system.
And finally, the no-bullshit reason: It was too hard. It was hard to feel inadequate in the face of the huge needs, both material and emotional, of some of the kids. It was hard to teach kids at such varied skill levels, from those who barely knew the alphabet to those who read novels. And it was hard to have initially inspired kids’ trust, and then become so overwhelmed over the course of the year that I hardly cared when I yelled at them.
I might have become a better teacher if I’d stayed. I might have learned to distance myself from things that upset me. I might have even have learned how to help kids. But I applied to a small, progressive private school that was right in my neighborhood. This school hadn’t even responded to my application during the previous hiring season, but now they were impressed by my year of teaching experience.
“I’m not going near that thing!” Suzanne says. “I’ll be sick.” And watching Suzanne’s reaction, I’m horrified to feel my own face smiling crazily, uncontrollably. I turn away so that Mirna won’t look over and see my expression. I wouldn’t be able to explain—and of course, she wouldn’t want to hear—that the reason I’m smiling is complicated. It’s not funny, what has happened, it’s horrible. But it’s also absurd. And it’s ironic that even Suzanne, whose job it is to handle these kinds of situations, finds this one to be too much. I’ve always admired Suzanne. I’ve thought she was empathetic and kind when talking to the kids. She deals with fistfights, hidden weapons, truancy, abuse. But now she’s drawing the line, giving up on dealing with Mirna and her dead duck. This is troubling to me, but it’s also a relief—because if she can’t deal, then how can I? Maybe I can’t. Maybe I don’t have to.
I have been trying all day to look away from the baby duck, trapped in its dirty, airless space. But now Mirna is crying and wading into the crowd, holding the tank with the dead duck high above her head so that even though I haven’t followed her, I can still see it.