The Butterfly Cage

Fiction / Erica Kanesaka Kalnay

:: The Butterfly Cage ::

Samp­son arrives ear­ly. He scur­ries through the door and crash­es into me for a hug, his unzipped coat trail­ing like a cape behind him. Samp­son is fast. This fact is even spelled out in his IEP:

Emotional/Behavioral Chal­lenge 8: When Samp­son esca­lates, he may injure staff/peers and destroy prop­er­ty. He is also known to run away from super­vi­sion. He is fast.

At first, I am annoyed that Samp­son has cut into my prepa­ra­tion time, but he seems to be hav­ing a good morn­ing. I ask him to help me trans­fer the chrysalis­es from their jar to the but­ter­fly cage. The cage is made of mesh and shaped like a bell, sus­pend­ed from a wire frame. The chrysalis­es cling to our fin­gers and shud­der when we lift them. Samp­son and I touch them gen­tly to the branch­es inside the cage until they stick and go still. Samp­son holds one up at eye lev­el and laughs as it jig­gles. He looks up at me with an expec­tant expres­sion, his dark eyes wide and his mouth thrown open. He’s invit­ing me to laugh with him, wait­ing for it, demand­ing.

Samp­son has always loved the but­ter­flies. When the cater­pil­lars first arrived in their tiny plas­tic jar, I taped it at eye lev­el on a shelf in the explo­ration cen­ter, and he nev­er want­ed to play any­where else. He’d stand in front of the shelf, his back to the oth­er chil­dren, and get lost there for hours. From behind, he was just the del­i­cate shape of his skull under his buzz cut, his uni­form shirt half-tucked, and his hands wrig­gling through the air, mim­ic­k­ing the cater­pil­lars.

I’d asked the chil­dren to each bring some­thing for the but­ter­flies’ habi­tat. Most brought twigs and pine nee­dles and leaves in lit­tle plas­tic bag­gies. Cami­la brought a bag of blue peb­bles from the dol­lar store, the kind that usu­al­ly go inside a gold­fish bowl. Sampson’s grand­moth­er for­got to send him a bag­gie, and Samp­son lost it as soon as he found out. He spent the rest of the morn­ing in the safe room. When he was final­ly allowed to reen­ter after recess, he marched straight to the library and found a but­ter­fly “lit­tle read­er.” He held it up to me with both hands, like an orphan hold­ing up an emp­ty soup bowl. I was touched by the for­mal­i­ty of his offer­ing.

They need to learn about them­selves,” he’d said. “So they can under­stand them­selves.”

Okay,” I’d said, and placed the book next to where the cage lay in wait for the chrysalis­es to form.

When the oth­er chil­dren arrive, I call cir­cle time and place the but­ter­fly cage in the mid­dle of the car­pet. I’ve told the chil­dren to glue their butts to their spots, but every­one wants a clos­er look. Two lit­tle boys use adap­tive seat­ing that helps anchor them to the ground. The rest of the chil­dren lean as far for­ward as they can with­out their butts com­ing unglued. They remind me of a group of pen­guins hes­i­tat­ing at the edge of a cliff over­look­ing icy water. I know that one of them will take the plunge, and then the rest will fol­low.

Of course, it is Samp­son who does it. He reach­es into the mid­dle of the cir­cle and push­es at the cage. It starts to swing on its frame, and the chrysalis­es trem­ble.

Stop it,” I say. He was being so gen­tle an hour ago.

Samp­son gets back in the S.M.A.R.T. posi­tion. Straight back. Mouth qui­et. Atten­tive eyes. Rest­ful hands. Think­ing brain.

I take the cage around to each child and point to the chrysalis­es tucked behind the leaves.

What do you think those are?” I ask them. We read a book on but­ter­flies the day before.

They stare at me.

Poop!” says one lit­tle boy. That’s his favorite word. He likes the reac­tion it gets.

Ben­ji?” I ask anoth­er.

You can see the gig­gles bub­bling up inside Ben­ji. He wig­gles around to hold them in, look­ing at me with side­ways eyes.

Poop,” he final­ly says in a tiny, squeaky voice.

I look around the cir­cle for some­one to save me. Aside from Samp­son, Cami­la is my most aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly advanced stu­dent, a girl with long-lashed eyes and heavy cheeks. She always sits serene­ly amongst her squirm­ing peers like a lit­tle monk.

She looks at me, her mouth hang­ing open. “Bug?” she says.

Nah!” Samp­son is sit­ting beside her. He’s so angry that he ris­es to his feet. “It’s called a pupa. You a bunch of god­damn fools.”

The oth­er four-year-olds stare at him. “Yes,” they seem to be think­ing, “Poop-ah.”

Fuck­ers!” Samp­son adds, for effect.

Samp­son, do you need a time out?” I say auto­mat­i­cal­ly.

Some­times I think Samp­son hates the robot­ic way I respond to his behav­iors more than the actu­al orders. “Come on,” he seems to say, like a lit­tle dev­il that buzzes around my ears. “Admit that you feel some­thing. Admit that you hate me.”

He drops his butt back down onto his spot and shoots me his evil eyes. When the oth­er chil­dren do that, I want to laugh at their child­ish hos­til­i­ty, but with him, for a sec­ond, I think I see a flash of true mal­ice.

I con­tin­ue with the les­son. I teach the chil­dren a poem about the but­ter­fly life cycle. I teach them to do the “but­ter­fly hand­shake,” where two peo­ple link thumbs and wig­gle their fin­gers side by side. I tell them what a “but­ter­fly kiss” is, how one per­son bats their eye­lash­es against anoth­er person’s cheeks like a butterfly’s del­i­cate­ly beat­ing wings.

When you go home today,” I say, “you can give them to your mom­mies and dad­dies and the peo­ple you love.” Many of the chil­dren don’t live with their birth par­ents, so I’m usu­al­ly care­ful to add that.

Teacher, Samp­son is both­er­ing her,” says one lit­tle girl, and I look over to see Cami­la with tears run­ning down her cheeks, hug­ging her chub­by arms over her lit­tle pot­bel­ly. One arm has tiny stab marks from a ball­point pen all over it. I’m amazed at how she’s not cry­ing out loud. Samp­son has a pen in his lap. He must have tak­en it from my clip­board. He looks away. Not to play inno­cent, but to dis­miss me.

Get up,” I say. I get up myself. I am tow­er­ing over him. This is some­thing I’m not sup­posed to do. I should be stay­ing at his eye lev­el and speak­ing calm­ly, deesca­lat­ing the sit­u­a­tion.

Give it,” I say. I twist the pen out of his hands.

Samp­son kicks me in the shins, and then I’m not sure what I feel, pain or anger, because I’m not allowed to feel any­thing any­way. There’s a pro­ce­dure for what has to hap­pen next. I’m sup­posed to become the adult in one of the line draw­ings in the Cri­sis Inter­ven­tion Man­u­al: “How to Restrain a Child Under Sev­en.” The draw­ing shows you how to sink to the floor and hug the child from behind, how to keep the child’s arms crossed over his chest. The child’s left hand in your right hand; his right hand in your left. I do this to Samp­son. I am sup­posed to wait for back­up, some­one to clear away the oth­er chil­dren and any dan­ger­ous objects. We are alone. My assis­tant has been pulled into anoth­er room, as usu­al. Instead, the chil­dren act of their own accord, herd­ing them­selves silent­ly to their table spots by instinct. At any oth­er time, I would have found their obe­di­ence touch­ing.

I’m sup­posed to count in my head to calm myself. I count to 100. With each num­ber, the wait­ing seems to become more impos­si­ble. Samp­son kicks and thrash­es beneath me. The mus­cles in my arms start to tire. His hands are so small and unformed that they feel like Play-Doh in my own.

*

When Sampson’s grand­ma comes to pick him up at 3:00, I am sit­ting at the art table with two lit­tle girls who string Froot Loops onto yarn in an after­noon daze.

Get your coat,” Sampson’s grand­ma says by way of greet­ing. Samp­son is splayed like a sea star in the library, count­ing the lights bulbs on the ceil­ing. His morn­ing episode has tired him out. He gets up and grabs his coat and back­pack from his cub­by. Then he paus­es and comes back to give me a hug. He is the kind of preschool­er who seems to hug you with his whole being. The sur­pris­ing strength of his squeeze almost stops my breath.

I told you to hur­ry up,” says his grand­ma. She is a tall, black woman, young for a grand­ma. I’ve nev­er seen her speak any­thing but orders to Samp­son, but unlike some of the oth­er guardians, she takes time off from work to come to every IEP meet­ing. When I lost my voice in Novem­ber, she slipped me gin­ger pow­der in a gold pouch. “Just mix this with hot water,” she’d said.

Jen­nifer, my car­pool, stops by my class­room at 7:00. We load our milk crates back into her trunk in the illu­mi­nat­ed park­ing lot. The dri­ve home is dark, just like the morn­ing one, only now there is traf­fic and the occa­sion­al jay­walk­er. Bun­dled fig­ures stand at the bus stops hold­ing plas­tic gro­cery bags. It’s been snow­ing for a few hours now. Jennifer’s coupe skids down the street.

Jen­nifer and I com­plet­ed teacher train­ing togeth­er the past sum­mer. We both went to the boot camp where they gave us match­ing water bot­tles and lunch­box­es. We stood in an assem­bly line to fill them with sand­wich­es and Kool-Aid before swarm­ing out over the city. We were a small army of young teach­ers ready to fight edu­ca­tion­al inequal­i­ty. But now Jen­nifer is the only oth­er teacher I still speak to. She dri­ves to soc­cer prac­tice every day after drop­ping me off at my apart­ment. I admire how she has some­thing else in her life that still mat­ters.

Once I’m safe­ly inside and I’ve checked all the win­dows and locks, I sit on the couch with my milk crate beside me. I have les­son plan­ning to do. First, though, I open up the crime map on my cell phone. Lit­tle icons pop up all around me. A man with a mon­ey­bag, a man in a mask, a lit­tle fist, a lit­tle gun. When I press the refresh but­ton, some­times a new one appears, and some­times one doesn’t, but it hap­pens often enough that I can’t let myself stop.

I do this for more than an hour until a new icon appears just down the street from me, a shad­ow of a man in a door­way. I go to the win­dow to look for the flash­ing lights of a police car. I don’t see them.

Instead, I see a black man walk­ing through the still-falling snow. He has a shov­el thrown over one shoul­der. I watch him draw clos­er. It’s like watch­ing a silent movie. At last, I start to hear the sound of his foot­steps trudg­ing up to my door. I imag­ine myself in one of two sce­nar­ios: in the first, he uses the shov­el to smash through my front win­dow and climbs inside and holds a gun to my head. In the sec­ond, he knocks on the front door. I’m stu­pid. I open it for him. He asks if he can shov­el my dri­ve­way for a few dol­lars. Then he hits me over the head with the shov­el.

The real man before me bangs on the door. Of course, I don’t answer. I stand frozen behind it, and he tries one more time, and at last I hear his foot­steps retreat. I’m uncer­tain if I’ve just come close to death or if it was only an ordi­nary moment.

*

My third month of teach­ing, I was mugged in front of the Laun­dro­mat. Jen­nifer came to sit with me in the emer­gency room. Late at night, the place was like a police pro­ce­dur­al, each bed a dif­fer­ent episode blocked off by mint-green cur­tains. The scenes flashed by me: a gray-faced woman beg­ging for painkillers, two boys hug­ging their moth­er in silence, a man lying face down on sheets stained with blood.

It’s a pret­ty thin case,” one of the police offi­cers had said to me. There were two of them. They looked pro­fes­sion­al, effi­cient, bored. The nurs­es didn’t seem to think I need­ed to be there, either. The men on the street had pis­tol-whipped me, but I had come away with only some scratch­es and bruis­es and a black eye. The offi­cers sug­gest­ed I move to the sub­urbs.

Are you sure you can’t give us a bet­ter descrip­tion?” the sec­ond offi­cer asked me. I repeat­ed myself: three black men about my age, ear­ly twen­ties, win­ter coats. One had glared at me at the bus stop, fol­low­ing me with his eyes. A block lat­er, he’d jumped back out in front of me. “Give me your mon­ey,” he’d said.

The oth­er two men came up from behind me. They pulled my jack­et over my eyes at first, so I couldn’t see any­thing. “I’m a teacher,” I’d told them, as if that would help.

We’ll try,” the first offi­cer said. “But, hon­est­ly, it’s not much to go on. Lots of guys fit that descrip­tion.”

*

When April comes and the snow final­ly melts, it feels unnat­ur­al. The birds start chirp­ing, and the neigh­bor­hood chil­dren come out to buy thick slices of man­go from the man with the cart. Old men in t-shirts sit on the porch­es, their hands pushed into their pock­ets.

Hey there, blondie,” they say. “Flash me that smile.” I know each of these men by name: Pete, Momo, Raheem, Jere­mi­ah.

Lookin’ good,” they say. “Lookin’ good.”

I wor­ry that these things might lull me into com­pla­cen­cy. The longer days invite peo­ple to stay out lat­er, but when dark­ness hits, it’s like win­ter again, and we all bur­row back.

One morn­ing, when I get to my class­room, I find the net­ting of the but­ter­fly cage streaked with red. The but­ter­flies have emerged. They rest in the mid­dle of the cage, slow­ly open­ing and clos­ing their wings as if in shock.

What hap­pened?” Samp­son asks me when he gets to school, and I tell him it’s just the juice from their wings, which is true. He paus­es a while to eval­u­ate that, as if I might be telling a lie. It occurs to me that some of the chil­dren might be fright­ened. I should have explained this to them in advance.

Why aren’t they fly­ing?”

Their wings still need to dry,” I say. “That’s why they’re flap­ping them like that.”

Oh,” Samp­son says. He seems sat­is­fied. He is on his best behav­ior all morn­ing but goes to peek inside the cage dur­ing each tran­si­tion.

They didn’t get shot,” he explains to the oth­er chil­dren. “That’s just juice.” I’m thank­ful that he’s doing it for me. The oth­er chil­dren believe him.

I’m giv­en fif­teen min­utes for lunch, and it takes about five to walk from the gym to the teacher’s work­room and back, so real­ly only ten to myself. On my way to pick up the chil­dren, the cacoph­o­ny of shout­ing starts from far down the hall­way and crescen­dos by the time I reach the gym’s dou­ble doors. The chil­dren can’t play out­side because of stray bul­lets. They crash into the padded walls of the gym and scream at the tops of their voic­es. When I have to stop them at this play, they seem con­fused. “Did you hit some­one?” I’ll ask them, and their eyes will dart around. They’ll have no idea.

The recess mon­i­tor, Mrs. John­son, blows the whis­tle, and the chil­dren stam­pede toward the line. One lit­tle girl crash­es into me and leaves a sweaty spot on the front of my shirt. The children’s fore­heads are so drenched in sweat after recess that it beads up and glis­tens from their hair.

I notice Samp­son at the far end of the gym, peer­ing into the cage for the balls.

I call to him. His name has become my refrain. I say it so many times each day that it’s become almost mean­ing­less. Samp­son, Samp­son, Samp­son. When­ev­er I say it, I feel like I’m a child myself, with my eyes closed and my arms out­stretched, play­ing Mar­co Polo. Samp­son will respond for an instant and then drift off some­where else, and I’ll have to call out again.

Mrs. John­son walks over to him. “You heard your teacher. Go line up,” she says. I envy for a moment the rap­port that she has with him, the rap­port all the oth­er staff can have because they don’t have to be the ones to dis­ci­pline him.

Mrs. John­son whis­pers some­thing to him gen­tly. She takes his hand and walks him to the back of the line. Many of the chil­dren strug­gle with tran­si­tions. Some of them have been shuf­fled between par­ents and grand­par­ents and aunts and uncles and dis­tant cousins and fos­ter homes. This has left them unable to walk from one room in the school build­ing and into anoth­er. They fall to pieces when asked to put away the blocks and pick up the crayons instead.

We march back to the class­room and put out the mats for nap­time. All the chil­dren, except Samp­son, sleep as fierce­ly as they just played. Samp­son asks if he can nap by the but­ter­fly cage, and I say okay. He spends the next hour nudg­ing the cage just slight­ly when I’m not look­ing. I know it must be him, but when­ev­er I turn, he’s lying back on the mat, peace­ful­ly star­ing up at the cage swing­ing above his head. The but­ter­flies are fly­ing now. They crash into each oth­er and into the mesh walls like heat­ed gas.

After nap­time is bath­room time, then cir­cle. When bath­room time comes, I put the girls and boys in sep­a­rate lines, and one group waits along the wall while the oth­er group takes their turn. Some of the chil­dren fall asleep while they’re wait­ing, and I have to jig­gle them back awake. Some start cry­ing, and oth­ers start pok­ing their neigh­bors. The ones in the bath­room ask me to zip up their flies and buck­le up their belts. The whole process takes almost half an hour. Once we get back for cir­cle, I’m fif­teen min­utes behind on the les­son and wor­ry about what will hap­pen if an admin­is­tra­tor walks in the door. I decide to just do a shared writ­ing exer­cise. Togeth­er on the board, we’ll write some­thing like this:

Today, the but­ter­flies came out. They are red and black and orange. They were slow, but they can fly now! We love but­ter­flies.

I go to get the but­ter­fly cage. The but­ter­flies aren’t there. Just dead leaves and pine nee­dles and Camila’s blue stones from the dol­lar store.

I know that only Samp­son would be smart enough to open the cage and close it back up again. The top has a draw­string that needs to be knot­ted, and he’s the only one who can tie his shoes.

Samp­son,” I say.

He walks over.

Stop here,” I say, and even though I know I shouldn’t, I reach into his pock­ets and turn them inside out. Lit­tle peb­bles and some Skit­tles fall out, but noth­ing else. “Did you open the but­ter­fly cage?” I say. I pat him down again.

No,” says Samp­son. He seems strange­ly calm. There’s no exag­ger­at­ed rage at my alle­ga­tion.

I need you to tell me the truth,” I say.

He looks up at me plain­ly. Then, as if to spite me, he sim­ply says, “Huh?”

I make Samp­son sit with his head down at the table while the rest of us fin­ish cir­cle. We prac­tice break­ing words into sounds and putting them back togeth­er. Bag. B-a-g. Bag. Top. T-o-p. Top. We clap our hands as we do this.

I notice Cami­la has start­ed cry­ing again. She cries at least once a day. But this time, extra big, heavy tears run down her dirty cheeks, form­ing gul­lies. She stares down at her hands. They’re stained red with but­ter­fly mush.

The oth­er chil­dren look on in shock.

I pick Cami­la up and car­ry her to the sink. She is heavy, but I don’t let myself drop her. I set her down on the plas­tic stool and adjust the faucets until they run warm. I wash her hands with soap and water, scrub­bing each chub­by fin­ger inside my own. It feels almost as if there are no bones inside her fin­gers, as if they’re made of rub­ber. I make sure the but­ter­fly parts have gone down the drain, and I dry her hands with brown paper tow­els. I wet a paper tow­el and rub it all over her face to wipe away the tears. She squeezes her eyes shut to let me do it. The oth­er chil­dren wait in silence, watch­ing.

When I’m done, I let every­one have choice time. I give Samp­son per­mis­sion to leave the table. He goes straight to the but­ter­fly cage and peers inside it. He gets down on his knees and looks under the shelves and behind them. I won­der myself where the oth­er but­ter­flies went, whether I’ll find them squished at the bot­tom of Camila’s back­pack or whether I’ll find them scat­tered about the room: one dropped dead in a bin of Tin­ker­toys, one pressed between the pages of a book.

After a while, Samp­son stops search­ing and slinks over to the block area. I watch him snatch a block from Cami­la. Her hands stay there emp­ty, as if in offer­ing, with the same open palms that held the crushed but­ter­fly. Samp­son holds the block up as high as he can. He is almost on tip­toe. He whacks it down hard over her head.

*

That evening, as Jen­nifer and I wait at a red light on Jef­fer­son, a black man walks through the traf­fic, wind­ing his way between the stalled cars. He strolls from wind­shield to wind­shield and taps on each one, prob­a­bly ask­ing for mon­ey. I brace myself. My hands feel auto­mat­i­cal­ly for the lock, although I’ve checked it sev­er­al times already.

He’s going to get run over,” I say.

He’ll be okay.” Jen­nifer seems unin­ter­est­ed. She isn’t even watch­ing him. She just stares ahead at the light.

I wish they wouldn’t do that,” I say. I’m talk­ing about all the jay­walk­ers that cross here on Jef­fer­son. Then I say some­thing I know I shouldn’t. “Don’t black men know we can’t see them in the dark?”

Jen­nifer lurch­es out of her daze.

What?” she says.

I envy how uncom­pli­cat­ed her anger is. It’s vis­i­ble all over.

You can get out and walk,” she says. She leans over me to unlock the door.

I’m sud­den­ly ter­ri­fied, for so many rea­sons. “I’m sor­ry,” I say.

You should be.”

But I’m not sor­ry. I’m furi­ous. I hate myself, and I hate Jen­nifer, any­one who would judge me with­out know­ing my fear. The light turns green, and the man steps onto the embank­ment. The cars start to move.

For a moment, I’m not sure whether Jen­nifer still wants me to get out or not. We’re in the far left of three lanes of traf­fic. She switch­es on the turn sig­nal and looks over her shoul­der.

You don’t under­stand,” I now tell Jen­nifer by way of apol­o­gy. “I’m scared.”

I know,” she says, “But you’re still being racist.”

It’s not that sim­ple.”

Yes, it is.”

Jen­nifer pulls to the side of the road. As soon as she’s done this, I real­ize that I didn’t think she would actu­al­ly stop.

I get out, and Jennifer’s car merges back into the traf­fic. I am stand­ing on a bridge. Beneath me is a high­way that splits across the city like a wound.

I don’t want to move. I know that as soon as I do the ter­ror will strike. I will become like a woman in a hor­ror movie, trip­ping over my own feet. I see myself mov­ing in stop motion, in the blue lights that flash from the sur­veil­lance video poles.

No, I tell myself. It’s okay. The man has walked off the oth­er way. The shad­ows danc­ing around me are my own, made by the head­lights as they rush by.

I’m real­ly only a few blocks from my apart­ment. I run home. I make it there and lock the door.

After a few min­utes, my heart starts to qui­et. I sit on the couch. Jen­nifer has my milk crate in her trunk, and I need it to pre­pare the next day’s lessons. I pull out my cell phone, hop­ing to find a mes­sage from her. Noth­ing.

I flip to the crime map. The lit­tle icons pop up across the city.

I some­times wish crime maps could look into the future, that I could have seen an icon before it hap­pened to me.

Why did you take the but­ter­flies?” I’d asked Cami­la that after­noon, after I’d filled out the Inci­dent Report Form and the Injury Doc­u­men­ta­tion and the Behav­ior Refer­ral. Samp­son had been tak­en away to the safe room, and Cami­la was sit­ting in my lap with a fish-shaped ice pack pressed up against the pur­pling welt on her fore­head, melt­ing ice drib­bling down her cheeks instead of tears.

You’re not sup­posed to ask that ques­tion as a teacher. “Why did you… ?” But some­times you just can’t help your­self.

They were pret­ty,” she’d said.

It was that sim­ple for her.

The crime map on my phone goes dark, and I just sit there. I think of Sampson’s unsur­prised face as I’d turned out his pock­ets.

I real­ize that I don’t know how to tell a preschool­er I’m sor­ry.

*

The next morn­ing, when Samp­son esca­lates, I count to 100.

26… 27… 28… 29…

What do you do when you can’t start over again?

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Although I am myself mul­tira­cial (half Japan­ese and half white), I have cho­sen to tell a sto­ry about racism in edu­ca­tion from the per­spec­tive of a white teacher in a pre­dom­i­nant­ly black school. I real­ize that there are aspects of both this sit­u­a­tion and the very act of writ­ing about this sit­u­a­tion that call for us to be wary. Still, I ulti­mate­ly believe this is an impor­tant issue for non-black Amer­i­cans to con­front, so I have tried to write about the top­ic in the best way I know.

My motive in telling this sto­ry is to urge us to think crit­i­cal­ly about race in our pub­lic edu­ca­tion sys­tem. Par­tic­u­lar­ly, I would like white Amer­i­cans (or, as in my case, part­ly white Amer­i­cans) to reflect upon what white­ness means in these set­tings. Research shows that what would tru­ly ben­e­fit stu­dents of all iden­ti­ties would be a greater num­ber of black teach­ers and black lead­ers in schools across the coun­try. Yet, most of the exist­ing sto­ries of white teach­ers in pre­dom­i­nant­ly black schools are hero nar­ra­tives. The real­i­ty is, I think, far more com­plex than these hero nar­ra­tives acknowledge—and often far more trou­bling.

While this sto­ry is pure­ly fic­tion­al, I have taught in a vari­ety of edu­ca­tion set­tings very sim­i­lar to the one I imag­ine here. I have also expe­ri­enced a mug­ging sim­i­lar to the one depict­ed and had to con­front my own bias­es in the after­math. Most­ly, though, I still strug­gle to make sense of some of the things I wit­nessed in schools in Mil­wau­kee, Chica­go, and Brook­lyn. And while I entered urban edu­ca­tion with good inten­tions, I now find myself forced to ques­tion the role I played in an edu­ca­tion sys­tem that per­pet­u­ates dis­crim­i­na­tion.

When it comes to the sto­ry itself, one par­tic­u­lar fear of mine is that the nar­ra­tor, while clear­ly unre­li­able, seems to call for too much sym­pa­thy. I do not want read­ers to apol­o­gize for her. But I do want white Amer­i­cans to rec­og­nize that racism can have its own “banal­i­ty of evil.” Racism is all too vis­cer­al­ly present in police shoot­ings, but racial vio­lence takes many forms, and I believe non-black Amer­i­cans must be care­ful not to let these hor­rif­ic acts dis­place racism else­where. The sit­u­a­tion I depict here is, in con­trast, quite ordi­nary. It’s that very ordi­nar­i­ness that should trou­ble us.

I sup­port the #Black­Lives­Mat­ter move­ment and hope that Amer­i­cans will lis­ten to and ele­vate black voic­es. I believe this is the only way to begin dis­man­tling the dis­crim­i­na­tion entrenched in our edu­ca­tion sys­tem and oth­er insti­tu­tions. For me, the story’s con­clud­ing sen­tence is not only a ques­tion that the nar­ra­tor must ask her­self, but a ques­tion that lies at the heart of Amer­i­can his­to­ry.

 

Eri­ca Kane­sa­ka Kalnay reads, writes, and makes art in Madi­son, Wis­con­sin. She holds an M.F.A. in Cre­ative Writ­ing from New York Uni­ver­si­ty and is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a Ph.D. in Lit­er­ary Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin. You can find her online at ericakanesaka.com and @ericakanesaka.