Against her prompting, against the class's stunned reaction, Vincent struggled for an answer. It had to be something witty enough to lighten the oppressive climate, but also uncomplicated enough so that everyone was sure to understand. He could not think of a single response.
Finally, after far too long a pause, he said, "No, Trudy, I'm at least six years older than you and I'm also your teacher. I would say you have no chance."
Trudy, still beaming, remained undaunted by this answer. "Thank you," she said, smiling resolutely, bowing into her seat as if she'd just been granted a compliment.
After the hour had finished, the class president and vice president stayed behind in the room.
"Teacher Vincent, we apologize for our classmate," the president said. "She has a...a..."
"...a broken thing in her mind," the vice president interjected.
"What kind of broken thing?" Vincent asked. He was curious now that the room's tension had dissipated.
The president thought hard, rubbed her index finger and thumb together as if she could produce words with this kind of friction. The vice president flipped through her dictionary. They leaned their heads together and consulted a moment.
"Don't know how to say in English," the president said.
The class met again the following Thursday, a windy, overcast shadow of a day. Vincent arrived at the academy and as he made his way across the courtyard, he heard a timorous voice call out his name. He turned and saw Trudy jogging toward him from the east wing, holding her uniform skirt against her legs so that it did not flip unexpectedly in the wind. Apparently, she had raced well ahead of her classmates in order to gain his attention before he stepped into the building. She slowed to a walk, a prettily cautious stride, and smoothed out her disheveled hair, which had been cut unevenly in ragged layers, like a farmboy's.
"Teacher Vincent," she said, out of breath and looking down at the courtyard pavement. "I'm sorry I said the thing to you on Tuesday. I said the thing so my classmates would laugh. I'm sorry your face became pink. I think I must be a very stupid girl."
Her entire manner was one of such humility and overwhelming shyness that Vincent felt immediately uneasy for her. He suspected that her classmates had put her up to this apology. Perhaps they had all confronted her after the incident and made her feel far worse than was necessary. "It's nothing. Just forget about it," Vincent consoled her. "I knew you were joking."
Her eyes remained fixed on the pavement.
"Really," he said. "There's nothing to feel bad about now."
She sighed then and lifted her head a bit, the corners of her mouth creasing outward in a faint suggestion of a smile.
In class, Vincent drilled the students on their use of comparative adjectives. Cindy is honest, but George is more honest. Mary is the most honest of them all. The girls chimed along. Later, as he gave instructions for an upcoming speech assignment, he observed Trudy seeking his attention with vehement waves of her hand. He wasn't yet ready to begin taking questions. Still, there was something peculiarly urgent in the way she waited for him to call on her. She held her hand high and tracked him with a tenacious gaze.
"Teacher Vincent," she said aloud, interrupting the class. She had already risen to her feet, and Vincent decided against criticizing her for the interruption and hoped instead that this was some kind of attempt to redeem herself in the eyes of her classmates. "Yes?" he asked.
She cleared her throat and said, "Mary is a splendid swimmer, but George is a more splendid swimmer. Teacher Vincent is the most splendid swimmer of them all."
"That's correct," Vincent said. "That's very good."
Copyright © 2004 by John Dalton
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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