Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Announcement

When Thursday morning announcements started over the PA, it wasn’t the voice of Vice Principal O’Brien with today's lunch menu lunch menu or his usual reminder that respectful behavior in the hallways is ‘a good way to finish a good week well.

“Alright y’all this is Tameka Ritts”—the students whooped in recognition—“and you know I don’t play so listen lemme tell you it ain’t right that Miz Wilkes is in trouble jus cuz she was behind us when we walked on Friday—”

When their classmate mentioned last week’s walkout protest, seniors in their homerooms began to whoop more loudly. The school board had recently folded to external pressure, and replaced the hallway soda machines with fresh fruit dispensers. The seniors in their outrage and their nothing-to-lose mood, had cooked up a walkout, spreading the word with Facebook and SMS.

At eleven-eleven in the morning, twenty seniors and nearly a hundred underclassmen left their classes, and went outside to gather at the school welcome sign. Some inside operative had changed the electronic team-pride signboard to read HOME OF THE COKE NAZIS. Cars honked; freshmen yelled earnest, profane slogans in defense of cola freedom. Tameka had worn a Coke-red bikini to school under her street clothes, and soon after the protest began she’d stripped down and drawn a white swirl across her drum-tight torso with body paint.

Several teachers were sent outside as well, to preserve calm if not order. Ms. Carrie Wilkes wasn't one of those assigned to monitor the walkout, but was there nonetheless. Juniors in her AP History course had often heard her compare the protests against U.S. troops in Iraq to the bygone demonstrations one used to see on university campuses, against sweatshop-made collegiate apparel and low wages for the janitors. The previous fall, she’d been involved as club advisor when the Interact Club organized a boycott of Danon, Bic, and Michelin, to push back against the French nuclear testing in the Pacific

“—and she had our back when the administration”—she continued with a challenging sneer—“wouldn’t respect our assembling and say what we gotta say. She’s the best teacher this school has and they mad crazy to try to pluck her like a flower and plant a thistle like she says—”

Students in Ms. Wilke’s fourth-year homeroom responded in a variety of ways. Several kept their heads down, focused on their phones with the kind of concentration usually reserved for deciphering cuneiform. Many kept listening with their heads, energized by scandal, as if waiting to see how long Tameka could keep talking without getting pinched. A few turned their heads toward Ms. Wilkes—if not admiring her liberal attitude toward student activism, then impressed with her involvement in this brief furor. Ms. Wilkes blanched.

Another voice could be heard in the background of the room at the other end of the PA, growing louder as its speaker approached the unseen microphone: Mr. O’Brien. “That is absolutely enough Miss Jones get your hand off that mic right now no don’t move over there put that mic down and give it to me sit down sit down.”

Tameka was talking over him as he attempted to shut down her broadcast: “No I gotta be heard like Ms. Wilkes said don’t you put your hand on me don’t you dare touch me who do you think you are you can’t touch me you ain’t my master no I won’t they gonna take away prom we gotta rise up don’t Mistah O come on—”

Her voice vanished abruptly, and O’Brien came on. “Alright, folks, settle down. The insurrection”—more whooping—“has come to an end. I expect us all to work together so we can finish our good week well. We are out of time this morning to share community news, so please wait for your homeroom teachers to release their classrooms. Let’s begin first period on time, and with respect for our responsibilities.”

From his poster to the left of the classroom door, Abraham Lincoln stared out at them with a saying written across his upper chest: “Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better.” On the other side of the whiteboard was a poster that brought a little heat on when she first arrived two years ago—O’Brien had erroneously called it a bugbear. From that poster, Malcolm X looked fiercely out the windows, beyond the senior parking lot and the tennis courts. His admonition was written in the space around his head like a corona: “If you don't stand for something you will fall for anything.”

In Ms. Wilkes’ room, and only her room, the ancient call-box squealed, announcing an incoming call from the school office. Her students stopped chattering, all turned their attention to her. Some parts of her face became paler; others flushed a painful-looking red. The space between her eyebrows was drawn into a deep notch, and was an especially bright crimson. She walked the few steps from her desk to the wall, and picked up the receiver. Whatever voice was on the other end delivered its instructions; she nodded wordlessly, and exited the room without looking again at the students.

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