Symphony 102

“She wears too much make-up though.”

Neil had thought so himself; it was thick enough to make Neil suspect that she had some facial disfiguration she was trying to cover up. Still, this seemed a strange observation for her daughter to make.

“She didn’t used to wear so much, until her latest boyfriend came to live with us.” Lisa’s voice was shocking in its bitterness; then she bolted away, touching her mother on the shoulder as she came up to help her.

Another brick fell into place, and Neil’s edifice of speculation came into tighter focus. The stories Lisa had written suddenly made more sense.

Had Jesse Herrera’s mother worn too much make-up during those last years when her beloved Miguel turned abusive?

Did Judith Cobb’s boyfriend hit Lisa as well as her mother? 

Neil felt his heart as a cold lump in his chest.  It was the cold of helplessness.

The children returned with the last bell. Heather Sanchez reached for a cookie and Judith fended her off with a laugh. She gave the girl a hug in passing, and three other children made mock passes at the refreshments, then drew back laughing.

Jesse’s attempt was real; he caught up two cookies, and dodged Mrs. Cobb as he made his way back to his seat. Neil barked at him and he shot Neil a dirty look. Black helplessness spread through Neil; all he had tried to do was coming to nothing!

Rabindranath snapped, “Jesse, stay out of the cookies.”

“Make me!”

Lorraine Dixon added, “Oh, stop being a jerk, Jesse.”

“Who are you calling a jerk?” Jesse stepped forward, scowling.

“You, Jerk. She’s calling you a jerk, ’cause you are one.” This was Hector Van Vliet, who hadn’t volunteered twenty words all year. A hulking thirteen year old who had been kept back twice, he was also a shy, gentle child whom the other children did not fear even though he towered over them.

In that instant, the slow building anger of the whole class came to a head. They had had enough of Jesse Herrera. Every child’s eye turned on him with brimming hatred.

Before Neil could intervene, Jesse stepped right up to Hector and spat in his face. Hector went pale. He drew back one massive fist and swung at Jesse.

Neil caught his fist in mid-air and spun him around, but Hector was fully inflamed now and continued to struggle; he struck at Neil with his fists, connecting twice. It was all Neil could do to handle him.

Jesse had cowered when Hector swung; now he rose up and punched him in the back while he was struggling with Neil.

Joaquin Velasquez cursed in Spanish and tackled Jesse. As they went down, Humberto and Aaron joined him, kicking and punching at Jesse as he and Joaquin rolled on the floor.

Neil shoved Hector back and shouted, “Stop it!” at the top of his lungs. The room reverberated, but the boys struggling on the floor were too far gone to stop. Neil grabbed Humberto and then Aaron and tossed them back, then dragged Jesse and Joaquin up and held them both at arm’s length.

Slowly the class grew silent. Judith Cobb stood wide eyed with shock. The children’s eyes were steady and flinty hard; the eyes of a lynch mob; and they were all directed at Jesse Herrera.  more tomorrow


I promised an honest novel, and this post may seem excessively melodramatic. I have never had a free-for-all in my classroom, although I’ve broken up plenty of fights on the playground. I also spent several months teaching my class while listening with one ear for problems in the special needs classroom through a connecting door. There was a child in that classroom whom we knew to be violent. He eventually exploded and I had to go in and pull him off his teacher. I was young and male; his teacher was old and female. He was expelled.

Nothing in this post is unrealistic for thirty-plus young mammals jammed into a tiny classroom for months on end.


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