“Are you sure I have to go? There’s only six weeks and three days left of school anyway.” Jaime twisted the straps of his new backpack around his hand. “I can help you with your work, Tomás, I know I can.”
The large brown building seemed to have been dropped from space into a field of cacti and scattered bushes that the locals called trees. The glass gleamed from the windows and the stucco and brick walls still had that new, un-broken-in, graffiti-free look that made the whole building less welcoming. New in every way. But to Jaime Rivera, who was used to chipped cinder blocks and slatted windows that opened and closed with a hand crank, this school building looked completely alien.
Tomás put an arm around Jaime’s shoulders but kept
driving down the two-lane highway toward the solitary building in the middle of the desert. On his other side, his cousin Ángela shifted the new backpack on her lap to reach for Jaime’s hand.
“I’m scared too,” she said just loud enough for Jaime to hear.
They’d talked about it all week. Tomás and Ángela. Mamá and Papá back in Guatemala. Even Abuela had her one-minute say in it. Everyone agreed, “The children need their school,” and “They should be grateful for this opportunity.” It’s not that Jaime didn’t want to go to school. It’s just that going in August would be better than going now, today, in the middle of April.
Today. Only a week after coming to live with his brother, Tomás. Only a week since he arrived in southern Nuevo México. A week since he and Ángela had crossed la frontera into los Estados Unidos.
Tomás parked the truck in a big parking lot near the glass front door. These people really liked their glass. “Alright. The sooner we do this, the sooner you’ll see everything’s going to be okay.”
Jaime didn’t believe him. He glanced at Ángela and then scooted out of the driver’s side door Tomás held open for him. With a second slamming door, Ángela got out too. At fifteen, she was going to a different school, one ten minutes away and in the middle of town. They’d driven
past it yesterday when they’d gone grocery shopping. That school at least had character, with its old paint and holes in the fence. Not like this prison with its fence of pointed iron rods to keep kids trapped, as if there were anywhere to go from here.
They walked together, Jaime clinging to Ángela’s hand again and Tomás leading the way. Through the glass front doors they came to another set of glass doors, which were locked. You needed to be buzzed in or have a special pass to get through those doors. Definitely a prison.
All the paperwork had been filled out already, and there was nothing stopping the inevitable. Even the lady to escort him to his cell, a young woman with dyed maroon hair, was present.
She entered through the locked glass doors in ripped jeans and at least three shirts layered over each other in a punk-rocker sort of way. “Hi, I’m Ms. McAllister. Do you speak English?”
Jaime understood enough to shake his head no.
This “Meez Macálista” didn’t miss a beat. She switched to decent Spanish even though she was a gringa. “Don’t worry. The Spanish teacher is sick today but I can help you out. Say good-bye to your dad and—”
“Hermano,” Tomás corrected, and then continued in English as he held out a hand. “I’m his brother, Tom.”
At his side, Ángela gave Jaime a look out of the corner
of her eye. Tomás liked to show off that he spoke near-perfect English, but they were still not used to him being “Tom.”
“Mucho gusto.” Meez Macálista shook his hand and continued in Spanish. “Let’s get him to class. You can pick him up at three o’clock outside the glass doors. Sixth graders don’t need to wait with a teacher.”
Ángela wrapped her arms around Jaime as best she could with his bag protruding from his back. The bones of her back stuck out more than they should, more than they used to.
“You’ll be okay,” she whispered in his ear with a sniff that held back tears. “I wish you could be with us to drop me off at my school.”
Jaime let his hands dig into her spine and wing bones. “I’ll be there to pick you up.”
Tomás hugged him too, and then he and Ángela left the office through the glass door.
Meez Macálista let him watch until the truck was completely gone before putting a hand on his shoulder. “Come. Mrs. Threadworth will be wondering where you are.”
She used a plastic card around her neck to open the locked glass door and walked down the vast hallway.
“Unfortunately, our school district doesn’t have much money,” the teacher continued talking in Spanish. “It’s probably too late in the year to get you a special class to
help you learn English, but hopefully, it won’t be too hard for you.”
Nothing Jaime saw seemed to indicate they were a poor school district—they had plumbing and electricity after all. On the contrary, it was one of the most well-maintained buildings he’d ever been inside. It looked just as new as the outside, with shiny floors that would make you slip if you where only wearing socks, and walls without chips or dirt smudges. Next to each classroom was a large bulletin board with class projects on display—maps labeled with all the states of El Norte, essays in English written in the best handwriting possible, the kindergarteners showing off their capital and lowercase letters. When Meez Macálista stopped, they were in front of a door with pictures of science projects. Jaime gulped. He’d never been good at science.
Meez Macálista knocked on the door and then entered without waiting for permission.
Four rows of six desks were squeezed into the room, where all but one desk was filled. Twenty-three pairs of eyes stared at him like he was some kind of alien. He ran his hand through his new crew cut and felt the sharp spikes of too much hair gel.
“Come in.” The teacher gestured with her hand as he entered. Her voice was deep, and with just those two words, Jaime knew this was not a teacher to upset.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
A few of the twenty-three pairs of eyes blinked and continued to stare at him. Which was the way out? Two rights and a left and he’d be by the glass doors? He wasn’t sure. Just as he wasn’t sure whether the glass door was unlocked from the inside.
“He doesn’t speak English,” Meez Macálista volunteered, and then returned to Spanish. “Mrs. Threadworth asked what your name is.”
Great. Now the owners of the forty-six eyes thought he was stupid as well as alien. “Jaime Rivera.”
His teacher continued in English, “Where are you from?”
He shifted from one foot to the other. If he told the truth they might guess he didn’t have any papers. But if he lied, he’d never be able to convince them he spoke good enough English to be from here. Back home, in his regular school, he’d learned some English but he wasn’t like Tomás and Ángela. Languages didn’t come easily to him.
He understood more than he could speak and knew what Meesus had asked, just as he had the first question. He forced his mouth to answer. Just to prove to them all he wasn’t stupid. “Guatemala.”
“And how old are you?”
The panic rose more than ever. He was pretty sure he understood the question, it was the answering he wasn’t sure about.
As expected, all twenty-three mouths burst out laughing. Jaime could feel his face burning and wondered if he’d accidentally said a bad word.
The teacher said something that made them quiet down and then turned to Jaime, said something else, and pointed to the empty desk in the corner next to the window. He took the hint and squeezed his way to the desk. From the front of the room, Meez Macálista, his only Spanish ally, waved good-bye and left.
The teacher continued talking and writing things on the whiteboard. He didn’t even know what subject she was talking about. The eyes no longer stared at him but the kids also didn’t have books open that gave any indication of what was going on.
Jaime glanced from the clock (only 8:52) to the window. Right away he noticed it was just a pane of glass—there was no way to open it. Back home the school’s slatted windows were always open during the day to let in light and a breeze. How he wished for a breeze.
Outside on the ledge sat an interesting bug. Dark, six legs, and antennae. If he dared, he would pull out his sketchbook and draw the insect. Instead, he traced the outline on the desk with his finger. No, not six legs. Only five. One of them must have broken off.
He was just adding pretend leaves to his drawing when
the teacher dropped a book on his desk that squashed the invisible bug.
The teacher must have said something along the lines of “read this” and then returned to the rest of the class. Jaime lifted the book but all he saw was an old metal desk. No bug drawing. And no more bug outside.
The book was one of those first word books for babies that had a picture of something and then the word underneath. Except reading in English wasn’t exactly the same as reading in Spanish. At least he already knew that “or-se” was really pronounced “horse” and “beerd” was really a “bird.” Still, he kept at it through 9:14 and 9:39, until disaster hit. He had to go. Bad.
“Meesus?” he asked while raising his hand.
“I go bat-rume?”
She waved in the direction of the board and said something he didn’t understand but sounded like “seen out,” which didn’t make any sense. Maybe it was her who hadn’t understood.
“Meesus? I go toh-ee-let?”
This time what she said sounded more like “sign out” but he still didn’t know what that meant. He crossed his legs. 9:56. Time to be more blunt.
The twenty-three mouths laughed and then the twenty-three pairs of eyes turned to sneak glances at him before laughing again.
“Please sign out.” And again she nodded toward the board.
He squeezed his legs tighter. Okay, “please” he understood, no problem. And “out” meant outside. But it was that “sign” word he couldn’t figure out, and the whole whiteboard pointing was a complete mystery. Maybe the outhouse was behind the whiteboard? But he remembered passing the bathrooms on the way to the classroom.
10:09. He couldn’t hold it any longer.
“Meesus!” He ran for the door without waiting for her response. But his movement relaxed his muscles and before he made it to the door, he felt wet warmth trailing down his legs.