Chantay Martin sat on top of her desk, her back to me. A tight Old Navy T-shirt covered in rhinestones was riding up her thin brown back, exposing a baby-blue thong.
I leaned over and whispered firmly in her ear. “We had a deal and you aren’t holding up your end of it.” She yelled back, “What deal, mister?” in the kind of teenage voice that adults dread, belligerent, manic, almost painful at close range. She was chewing a wad of purple gum with such force and speed that she seemed to have a piston implanted in her jaw.
It was 10 minutes before the 3 o’clock dismissal bell on a scorching hot September afternoon on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. A single oscillating fan strained to cool the classroom. Its white plastic head dutifully panned back and forth on Chantay, 30 other high school freshmen, and me, their anxious new teacher. “Our deal that was that you do your work and I won’t call you out in public. ‘No more drama,’ remember?” I said in a desperate whisper, quoting a Mary J. Blige song — a pathetic attempt to find a sliver of common ground between a 43-year-old gay white guy from Chelsea and a teenage black girl from the projects of Bed Stuy. I was only five days into my new career as a ninth-grade history teacher and precious little in the way of learning was getting done.
Chantay continued holding court with a group of her “gurlz,” their chatter getting louder by the minute. The geography work sheets they were supposed to be completing were left untouched in a pile. At least the other groups of students had bothered to humor me by passing the papers out before ignoring them.
I shot Chantay a fierce look. She returned it with a light smile, as if she were on a talk show and had given the host an amusing answer. Our deal was clearly off and I was angry, so I resorted to some old-school yelling. “Chantay, sit in your seat and get to work. Now!” I punched out the last word in what I thought was a strict teacher voice.
Crack! On the other side of the room, someone had hurled a calculator at the blackboard. My head snapped toward the trouble; it wasn’t the only problem. A group of boys were shoving each other near a new laptop. Two girls swayed in sweet unison and mouthed lyrics while sharing the earphones of a strictly forbidden iPod. Another girl was splayed over her desk, lazily reading Thug Love 2.
I heard Chantay’s distinct cackle again and turned back to her. She was now standing on top of the desk, towering above me like a pro wrestler on the ropes about to pounce. Her head was surrounded by a constellation of world currencies that hung from an economics mobile I had painstakingly constructed over the summer. I started to feel queasy and light-headed. No. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.
“Chantay, sit down immediately or there will be serious consequences,” I barked. All eyes were now darting back and forth between us like spectators at a tennis match.
She laughed and cocked her head up at the ceiling. Then she slid her hand down the outside of her jeans to her upper thigh, formed a long cylinder between her thumb and forefinger, and shook it. What the hell was she doing? She looked me right in the eye and screamed:
“SUCK MY FUCKIN’ DICK, MISTER.”
Stunned, I stood frozen in front of the class as it erupted. I didn’t know a roomful of humans were capable of making that much noise. It sounded like a Hollywood laugh track times a hundred, a torrent of guffaws, lung-emptying laughs, and howls. Exhausted from laughter, the rabble paused and then:
“Oh no she di’int!”
“Man, he can’t even control the girls.”
Jesús, Chantay’s bad-ass boyfriend glanced at her and grinned like an impresario, proud of the talent he had cultivated.
I’d always admired a filthy mouth, especially on a woman, and for a second I thought, Touché, Miss Martin. If you have a dick, it is certainly bigger than mine. Well played. Very original. Then I suddenly remembered I was not in a bar talking smack with my friends. This was a classroom. I was her teacher. She was my student. I yanked in a quick breath and frantically searched for a powerful, professional response. If I were to go ape shit, it would show that she’d really got to me. If I underreacted, I would appear passive and invite more trouble. But nothing came to me, nothing at all. I stood there paralyzed and afraid. My now trembling legs were hidden inside my brand new pair of Dockers. I was so unfamiliar with the feeling of fear that I barely recognized it.
In one fell swoop, Chantay fingered me not only as gay, but as her bitch; her power emanating from a penis she didn’t have.
And, sadly, because it was a girl who’d staged this, it was viewed even as a greater humiliation for me. So much for the girls being the “easy ones” to control. Even the way she blocked the scene was strategic, with her towering on top of her desk while I circled helplessly below. The final touch was that she didn’t even know my name. It wasn’t worth remembering, just “mister” would suffice.
I should have simply walked out of the building, hailed a cab, and gone to the unemployment office. I had sunk the eight ball on the first break. Game over.