Shirley Jackson. She was my debate teacher. Debate, for some reason, was part of the regular curriculum in 7th grade. After class, a group of us sat in a circle on worn-down student desks that were all a slightly different shape. The wooden tops creaked open to reveal old gum and carved graffiti. I eat L snack. Save me Van Halen. Shirley was an imposing and well-dressed black woman. She sat up on her teacher’s desk and proclaimed truths. She had serious insight into who we were as people at age twelve.
I think she told one kid that he was in tune with his body. He was an over-sexed redhead boy who wore sweatpants to bio so that we could always see his erections during lab period. But maybe I’m making that up.
I remember what she said to me: “You’re always going to speak your mind. Say what you think. For better or for worse.”
I had just transferred in from another private junior high school. My parents had pulled me out mid-year even though I had been in love, truly in love, with my 7th grade boyfriend and hadn’t wanted to transfer. I didn’t want to learn a new school, start over. But the math teacher at the old school came to class drunk, and I had told my parents about it. He stumbled in every day, sprayed cinnamon Binaca breath-spray in his mouth and put calculus on the board. We were supposed to be learning algebra. He would scrawl out derivatives, spray the Binaca, and then yell at us, “This is Mickey Mouse stuff! Why don’t you understand?!”
So my parents vetoed my social concerns and put me in the school with Shirley Jackson, where my best friend was a girl whose boyfriend was in jail, and her best friend was fourteen and had a baby daughter of her own and also happened to be the daughter of a celebrity, but where I had a very good math teacher.
When Shirley Jackson spoke to me about myself, I was horrified. I thought she was going to tell me something nice, like that I was a nice girl who said nice things. Did I really talk that much? The person she described sounded shameful and excessive. I had just started over, and I had already blown my shot at being the quiet and demure type. A few weeks in, and here was this teacher I very much liked and looked up to, saying: I see you, and you are loud.
Someday I will achieve my 7th grade goals. Someday I will burn off the need to speak up, the vexing animal spirit that makes me twitch until I raise my hand. Why am I still that girl? Someday I will be quiet and still, absolutely still, at the core of my being. I’ll be the girl that things happen to because she is pure. Because someday I will be dead.