A cool exterior could be only defense against a tough world

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When Gina enters the classroom, I’m braced for her to be difficult. There’s no sweetness in her face, no childish desire to be liked. She radiates an air of defiance, even when quiet. Previous teachers tell me she’s mouthy and disrespectful.

She’s tall for a fifth grader, taller than me. Even at 11 she has the figure of a young lady. It’s rare that Gina wears a school uniform, and often that I scold her to cover her midriff. As the school year advances, it’s clear that she’s outgrown much of her clothing but not replaced it. Jeans are tight, shirts are revealing. I hesitate to say much; I’m not sure if her wardrobe choices are due to poverty or precocious fashion sense.

Her face is more unusual than pretty, but she knows how to enhance her features. More than once, I send her to the bathroom to wash off makeup. We have power struggles over what she insists is colored Chapstick and I insist is too colorful for the classroom. She gives herself French tip manicures with White-Out.

In a class in which half the students still believe in Santa Claus, she is an anomaly. I watch her talk to her friends on the playground, comparing tennis shoes and fake plastic fingernails, and talking about boys. Boys certainly notice her; they flock around her like bees to a flower. She gives them no encouragement, meeting their shy overtures with a face like a closed door. Over time, they shrug and go back to playing soccer, leaving Gina with her gaggle of friends. The little girls who circle her pick up her mannerisms and interests.

She’s frequently late, and often misses school on rainy days. I suspect she lives in Tijuana, but I don’t ask; I’d have to act on what I find out, and I don’t want to. I pull her aside and warn her that too many absences and tardies will trigger a home visit from a staff member to the address on file in the school office. Most students who live in Tijuana panic at the thought of being discovered using a false address, but Gina’s face is blank. She meets my gaze coolly and says nothing.

Her attendance improves.

Gina isn’t overtly disrespectful. In fact, she’s generally polite, saying, “Good morning,” as she walks in each day, and answering, “Thank you, teacher,” when I help her. She’s above grade level in most subjects, which surprises me.

At first, I praise her frequently, hoping to break through her icy demeanor. I tell dumb jokes, most of which net a head shake, a raised eyebrow, and if I’m actually funny, an exasperated “Ay, teacher.” It’s months before I see the hint of a smile.

For reasons I don’t understand, Gina hides things in odd places around the classroom. I find her writing folder behind a computer, a novel in the art supply cupboard, her math book under the sink. She’s frustrated when she forgets where she hid her belongings.

“Teacher, I did the math worksheet, but I don’t know where I left it.”

“It’s under the box of headphones. Gina, you have a desk and a cubby. Why would you put your math worksheet under a box?” I’m more amused than exasperated, but barely. Sometimes the school day doesn’t have room for me to appreciate the distinct quirks of two dozen little humans. She shrugs.

One day Gina’s backpack spills open and its contents fall to the floor. Among her belongings are items clearly intended for self-defense, items I can’t ignore. I send her to the office. There’s no danger to anyone in the classroom; I’m more worried about Gina than I am about the rest of us. Her face is expressionless as she’s led down the hallway. Her shoulders slump though, the first time I’ve seen a hint of defeat in her posture.

When she returns to the classroom, she’s closer to shaken up than I’ve ever seen her. I sit down next to her. “Do you want to tell me about what was in your backpack?” I fully expect her to say no, but instead she speaks softly.

“I’m afraid walking to school by myself.”

I wait for her to elaborate, but she doesn’t. Her face tells me her fear is real. It’s easy to forget that behind Gina’s precocious exterior, she’s a little girl putting up a tough front against a tough world. In all of our power struggles over clothes and makeup and a look that dares me, I have lost sight of how very young she is.

I put a hand on her shoulder. I expect her to stiffen, but she softens. In the silence I hope that she will learn that here, at least, is a safe place to be a child.

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