We are in tenth grade and she cannot be older than thirty. She is new to our school as we are new to womanhood and when boys in class cut us off, she does not even glance their way. Her eyes remain fixed on us, even as our voices dwindle, and she doesn’t tear her gaze away until we finish our thoughts with a period. When our voices dance into octaves, concluding our thoughts with question marks or apologies, she lifts a manicured eyebrow and shakes her head to coax us onwards to a resounding conclusion.
Her personal life is infinitely interesting to us. She does not wear a ring, but we think she is too pretty to not be married. We also know she would find deep flaws in that line of thinking, but we can’t bring ourselves to care too much; outside her class, we learn quickly that pretty is the best thing we could hope to be. We wonder if, when she looks in the mirror, she is happy with what she sees. We wonder if the men in her life treat her well. We wonder how she comforts her friends when the men in their lives don’t treat them well. We wonder if she thinks about us when we are not at school. She assigns exuberant amounts of weekend homework, and though we never discuss it, we think that is deliberate. We think and hope that she wants us safe in our rooms on a Saturday night, kneeling over a textbook instead of some boy.
She assigns more homework than any other teacher, and though we text each other nightly complaints — how much time does she think we have to spend on her class? — assignments are always finished in cherubic yearnings of “good job!” scribbled across the top in red ink. We exist in a constant state of anticipating praise, of batting our eyes and shrugging down our shirts and hoping to be good enough. In her class, praise does not come with soreness and pain. In her class, we do not ice our throbbing knees with praise, but paste it in our notebooks as a reminder that she cares.
The boys in our class do not like her much. They say that she is a bitch, and though we can’t quite articulate it, we know that they cannot think of any other words to insult her. Once, when she raised her arm to write on the whiteboard, she revealed a small stain of dampness under her arm and the boys snickered. She did not notice, or if she did, she didn’t react, and we stared at her, wondering how she was able to be so unabashedly human.
She does not say anything when one of us leaves the classroom with crinkling plastic up our sleeve, or comes in ten minutes late with red-rimmed eyes. She does not hide her horror when we recount what the old math teacher whispered as we left the room. She does not apologize for cursing, does not apologize for anything.
Imagine Jennifer… we start our sentences, draped over each other in the library or on the bus. The latter half usually involves something sexual or banal — as we learned quickly, some things were both — and it is unclear which is more exciting. Does she have three emergency Midol, two tampons, and a Hershey’s Kiss tucked in the front pocket of her bag? Does she refuse to go down on boyish men, ask them why they want her mouth for their pleasure and not her words?
We wonder what she was like in tenth grade. We wonder if she looked down at her thighs and wanted to disappear, if she cried while getting her bikini line waxed, if she drank too much and did homework on Sunday with a hangover. We wonder if she was always the way she is now, and deep down, we hope not. We hope she found it somewhere, and we hope that it’s out there for us too.
Jordan Ferdman is a junior in high school. She is passionate about the usage of the word “girl.”
*At the author’s request, payment for publication was donated to the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund : https://brooklynbailfund.org/donation-form