Though I haven't been teaching here long, I've certainly learned that all doors at this school fly open as if blasted by an April thunderstorm. But yesterday my room was entered so silently I noticed nothing but the upturned glances of students looking behind me. I turned, and beheld a short, white, boy barely inside the door. He resembled a bag of dirty laundry, with that apprehensive countenance I've seen on many newcomers. A notebook was hanging from his right hand, a schedule drooped from the left. He seemed ready to abandon both and flee at the slightest provocation.
"Welcome! C'mon in." He inched forward. "What's your name?" Today's names are often so bizarrely pre-Websterian in their spelling and pronunciation that I always ask. He whispered, the hushed murmur of a breeze rustling newly-opened leaves, "Edgar."
I took the proffered schedule, initialed it, and waved my arm. "Class, this is Edgar Caine. Hi, Edgar. Grab a seat anywhere. We don't have assigned seats."
He shuffled to the only empty table, and, using two hands, lifted, rather than dragged, a chair. He held it firmly and eased in as if it too sought escape.
"Edgar, this class looks kind of intimidating at first, sort of like a really messy garden. We do manage to produce some pretty good flowers, though." A forced chuckle echoed feebly in my throat as he stared blankly at me. "Today we've started creating a 'Utopia.' That's a perfect world, a society where everything's just the way we'd want it. We're working on teams..." I turned to the nearest table. "Wendell. Corron. How 'bout you showing Edgar how we do things here?" I walked to them and inspected their checklist, which was, as I had suspected, blank. "You'll have to do a little better than that--show Edgar we can really think."
He arose, pushed in his chair, and trudged with downcast eyes. Teaming these boys was optimistic. Wendell and Corron are friendly and talkative, but rarely productive. Wendell offers insights and provocative questions; Corron relishes squabbling with Wendell but little else. They get D's because they're affable and no one wants them back. Focused work towards a designated goal is rare. A timid stranger tossed in...? Well, it couldn't hurt.
I resumed my rounds, encouraging and probing, and soon backtracked to my trio.
"So, where'd you go to school before here?"
A short pause. "Kennedy."
Suburbs. Divorce? Expelled? Foster care? Certainly, he was not here by choice.
"Were you taking American government there?"
Three questions had elicited three single-word responses. The few whites at Twain congregate in groups that gaze with the look of rabbits in a serpent's jaws. We have two unmixed populations and integration warrants no interest. After forty years, separate, whether equal or not, is the rule.
"Well, glad to have you. Hope you like it."
I wandered through the room, fertilizing stalled discussions. When a group's thriving, they need little help, and I respond only if asked. When I glided near Edgar's group, they were engaged. I said nothing.
This class dismisses directly to lunch. Wendell, incapable of patience, usually stops for expensive vending-machine refreshment on his way to class. Corron regularly drifts in three minutes late, looking confused and out of place. But when the bell rang today, three boys were abuzz. Thinking that cars, drugs, basketball or sex was the topic, I made my way over to eavesdrop.
"But what if people won't work?" Edgar, querying, pursuing.
Wendell was indomitable. "Fuck them niggas--they wanna eat, they work. Everyone gotta do something."
Corron played humanitarian. "Yeah, but how about niggas that can't, like, they sick or something?"
"Well, they OK, but they can do something, even a little. Ain't hardly no one can't work somehow."
"So what about those who choose to do nothing?"
"Fuck 'em! Lock up them motherfuckers they be hanging out drinking all day!"
"We still be feeding them if they in jail. Kick 'em out."
Edgar intervened again. "Where? There's no 'out' to kick them to."
"Shoot 'em, then."
I smiled and left. Later, I again heard Edgar guiding. Scribbles covered their checklist. "Who decides where everyone works? Do people have to take jobs they hate?"
"Someone's gotta do them."
"Take turns maybe. We can't force no one to do something they don't wanna do."
With what I had heard before, I sensed a blossom about to open. I violated my rule and intervened. "So, are people required to listen to the state, or can they make their own decisions about what's best?"
They hadn't noticed me and looked up, startled.
"Man, they free. Ain't no more field-hands. They do what they want."
"But someone's got to grow food and pick up the trash and clean toilets. What if they just want to hang out and get drunk?"
Silence. Wendell hesitantly offered "They gotta work. Then they drink."
"Cause won't be no folks collecting welfare, like my cousin, damn, she..."
"Wendell, leave her home. No names, remember? Now, why require people to contribute?"
"Cause it's the only fair way. We don't get no grades if we don't work, shit--oh, sorry--we don't work, we don't get. Period."
"Not true. Lots of people do nothing and still get."
Edgar's compelling eyes met mine for the first time. "Not in utopia. You said make it perfect."
"Why is that perfect? Be specific! We just looked into this. Who wrote about man and government?"
"Rousseau, Hobbes, Locke, Marx."
Few things dishearten teachers like a new student who can answer questions that stump his regulars. "Great, Edgar! What was important to them? What's important about them?"
Wendell was suddenly competitive. "They influenced them guys that wrote the Constitution. Small central government, liberty, individual rights, all that."
Edgar eyed me again. "Mr. Abell, why hasn't there ever been a utopia, after all this trying?"
"That's a fascinating question. Is man born evil, do we just fall to the temptation to put ourselves first, or are we tricked by others into making bad choices?"
"Didn't anyone else really try to make a perfect society? What causes two people to ruin each other's lives?"
"It's been tried lots of times before us and will be tried lots of times after us. All over, big attempts encompassing an entire society, small attempts embracing a few families. But people find a way to, well, look at us, we have our faults. Are we per...?"
The bell shrieked. The class breached the door.
Edgar paused. "Catch you tomorrow. I gotta eat, I'm starving."
He shuffled down the hall alone. I watched him head up the stairs and visualized clouds of locusts descending upon my just-emerging flowers. Would they leave anything? I sow, but have done little reaping. Disillusionment comes only from expectation. Do nothing--never be disappointed. Yet...