The Tea Party

 

It was about ninety degrees outside, a dry heat with a cool breeze that made the temperature seem a little lower. The sun shone, but then again, the sun always shines in East Los Angeles; sometimes, though, you can't see it when the smog and soot get in the way.

I looked out across the tables outside the school at the crowd gathered around the tables. Kids hands reached out to grab the cookies and chips like sharks honing in. Most wore their usual dress, a T-shirts, and jeans for the boys, or a T-shirts and stretch pants for the girls. I could pick out my students easily enough, the boys wore nice pants and, for most of them, their only nice shirt, long-sleeved or short, and a few even managed to put on ties. The girls, of course, wore their only nice dresses, usually a long dress that made them look older than their thirteen or fourteen years.

I walked over to the one food table not surrounded by kids and took a paper cup and filled it with luke-warm water. I'd insisted that if we were going to have a tea party, we had to have tea, so the kids had followed through and brought bags of Lipton tea. They couldn't quite understand why I insisted that they had to make tea if no one would drink it but me, so I told them I'd drink it though I honestly don't like warm tea very much. It tasted warm and different.

As I looked back on the food table, the feeding frenzy had dulled, and most of my students and their guests grabbed empty plates to fill with food and hurried off towards the tables in the back of the patio where their patients waited patiently enough. For their parents, the food was not the reason for coming.

"Where does the music go?" I turned and saw two ninth grade band students. I shrugged.

"Ask Jessica."

Jessica, a blonde-haired Mexican-American student, pointed towards the corner. "Over there. You can put your stuff up there. Whenever, you're ready to play."

I smiled. I could've told them where to set up; they probably even knew, but this wasn't really my show as much as there's.

"Hey, Fruit?" a ninth grader asked me. The loss of the "Mister" on my named used to upset me, but most students used my last name as a title. "Where's my poem?"

I shrugged and turned. "Ask Jose."

Jose, a blonde-haired boy answered. "Hey, look in the back. It's in the index."

Well, I knew that too. Gina spent almost three hours making that index and typing it out on the computer after school. Basically, this book ran 60 pages, actually a trifle shorter than the previous year's edition, but the quality seemed better.

"Hey, Mr. Fruit," I turned and saw Mrs. Bekker one of the other English teachers. She held up a copy. "This is great."

I nodded. "Tell that to the kids."

She proceeded to just as the two clarinets behind me started to play a duet. The kids never seemed to question when I insisted that we ought to have music at the tea. "Bring together all of the arts," I said.

As I sipped my tea, I heard a voice.

"I hear this is going to be your last Tusitala ?"

"'Fraid so." I held up the book. "But look at this? With kids like this as eighth graders..."

"It won't be the same without you."

I didn't want to think about that. I had told myself I wouldn't. I looked out at the crowd of students. Some of them I'd taught as eighth and ninth graders, and about 80% would be entering the Gifted and Talented programs at Garfield and Roosevelt. Another teacher once told me, "No wonder you get them to do that. You have all the brightest students." Looking out at them, however, I could remember that half of them had been kicked out of other classes. This was one reason each of them had to sign a contract to get in the creative writing section of 9th grade English. Some of these kids drove other teachers crazy, but whenever a student caused me problems, I would say:

"You're saying that you don't want to be here. Now let me just get out your contract....."

"No, no," Mr. Fruit, "I'll behave better. I don't want to leave."

Now I looked and watched them circulate among the crowd, saying "hello" in Spanish and English to the younger seventh graders, saying:

"You wanna sign up creative writing next year."

I wondered then if there'd be a creative writing program the next year. I'd been the one who wrote the curriculum, secured the computers, and taught the kids how to use them. In five years, I'd built the program to include thirty kids and make possibly the student best literary publication in Los Angeles.

"Hey, Mr. Fruit. This looks wonderful." I looked and saw our principal, Mr. Amarillas, sneaking in the back way from classroom 7A. "You look like you really outdid yourself this time."

I led him towards the front way where Gina and Jessica were dutifully greeting each and every visitor.

"Here's someone I really want you to meet."

"And who's this?" he said, taking her hand.

"This is Gina Caccioppo, my assistant coordinator."

"Oh, I know Gina," he bowed slightly.

"And this is my student coordinator, Jessica Moreira, ."

He bowed slightly again as he took her hand. "Oh, I know Jessica very well. She's always writing me notes."

Jessica smiled slightly. One requirement that I'd lain on my coordinators is that they write had to write all communication, including those to the principal; all I would do is counter-sign them, so he truly had seen Jessica's name many times on items ranging from excusal slips for awards assemblies to the certificated he'd signed for all the published authors.

I looked through the book again. I remembered that I'd taken up the job of producing the Tusitala only because no other teacher was willing to do it. Back then, the three Gifted class' students had dominated the books contents; now, fully 25% of the book came from my students in the creative writing class, out of forty classes in the school. Then there was the editing, the typing, keeping 700 stories, poems, and plays straight, the artwork. Truly they owned this book.

As I looked at Jessica, I also remembered that, strangely, all five of her poems had disappeared after having been judging winners. Somewhere, in 1400 sheets of paper we'd lost her best work. This kind of thing had happened before, but Jessica's disappeared after we'd told students to dispose of their extra copies. The final day, when we were doing the final editing of the book, I said to her:

"Jessica, this is the last page, and it's going to be blank. We've got to put something here. Write a poem."

She flushed. "Now?"

"Now," I insisted.

"But why can't you just write something?"

I frowned. "Look, Jessica you wrote five poems that we were winners. I think you can write another one."

"But then I had...."

"Jessica."

"Can you at least give me an idea."

I shrugged. "Alright. Alright. I'll give you the first line."

I looked at the back page again at Jessica's poem.

You didn't tell me the truth

when you said writing this poem

was going to be easy.

You didn't tell me the truth

when you said geometry

was going to be easy.

You didn't really tell me the truth

when you said doing this book

was going to be easy.

And as a matter of fact:

I think you're a LIAR!

But I did it anyway.

I looked out into the crowd. That could the motto of this particular class. I looked at Harold, who's mother was in the hospital with a terminal illness and lived with his stepfather whom he hated. About the only thing I could think of that Harold liked was my class and playing baseball. When a week earlier, we'd challenged the 8th grade gifted class to a softball game, Harold scored every single time he got to bat. The final scored ended up about 35 to 5 and ended any illusions that the creative writing class was a bunch of nerds. In the gang neighborhood where Harry lived, being involved in softball, and not gangs, was a major positive achievement, especially to the student considered most difficult in the school. Harold once asked me to be coach of his CYO team. Now he and Arnold were wearing nice shirts and ties and acting positively-civilized.

"Mr. Fruit?" Gina said. "We want you to read your poem." This referred to the poem at beginning of the book. Gina was the one that had organized the surprise farewell party the week I announced I was leaving California.

I shook my head. No.

"Aw, come on." She pleaded. "You're leaving, so what does it matter? Please. We want to hear it."

"Alright," I said, and my class managed to get everyone, the students, the musicians, the parents, even the other teachers, to be quiet so that I could almost hear myself breathing.

"It's got an extra syllable in one line," I apologized, swallowing:

"A SHIPMASTER'S FAREWELL

Oh little book with sails of white,

Bright words, not crosses, grasp the breeze,

No guns, but stories on your decks,

And rhymes do fill your cargo hold,

Sail into tomorrow!"

I wondered where these students would be ten years from now.

"Oh little ship with printed flag;

Your decks are manned with youthful crew,

That give off life, like poetry,

And call out proudly to the world:

"Sail into tomorrow!"

I looked off, towards the city, towards E.L.A., and I could see nothing but beauty.

"Oh ship called Tusitala book,

You carried me to golden lands,

And showed the beauty of our school.

I watch you sail into the sky:

Sail into tomorrow!"