The mulberry tree

by Trina Allen

Small purple fingers. Plump, fat mulberries bursting with sweet tartness. Laughter of girls.

I checked my watch and dashed up a flight of stairs. I opened the stairwell door and heard the commotion. Students yelling and laughing. A paper ball flew out of a classroom door. My heart raced, pounding against my chest. Did I have the energy to capture and then hold their attention for forty-five minutes? Just back from lunch, their minds would be on breakups, hookups, basketball and Gatorade.

As I walked through the classroom door, Brittney left her seat, walked across the room, and yelled in Trey's face, "You been talking about me. Haven't you, crack head?"

I felt my face flush with annoyance, thinking seriously of walking out the classroom door. Not looking back.

"Enough," I said. "Brittney, sit down now!" Brittney had been suspended for fighting several times this year, so I made my voice loud but controlled, demanding compliance.

Brittney didn't seem to hear me, deep into the throes of her anger. "You are slow, you motherfucker. Do you hear me, crack head?" Brittney said, stepping toward Trey. Wisps of her hair fell out of the band holding it.

Students left their seats and gathered around Brittney and Trey. A chorus of "Fight, fight, fight" rang through the classroom.

Panic traveled down my spine. I straightened my back to hide my fear. Brittney was taller than I was, big-boned and busty. The scratches from a recent fight were still healing on her face.

Time slowed as it sometimes did when I faced a crisis. My thoughts were clearer. My actions quick and focused. I pushed the intercom emergency button and spoke into the intercom. "Send the deputy, now." From experience, I knew it would be several minutes before help came.

This class period was lost. No math instruction would be possible today -- even if I was successful in preventing a fight between Brittney and Trey, I'd never get the students' attention. My primary concern was student safety. If Brittney hit Trey, I'd end up breaking up a fight. I had to get Trey out of the room. He was the weaker of the two. He would lose to the bigger, more experienced Brittney. He would welcome an excuse to back down.

In an unexpected show of guts, Trey stood and threw his backpack to the floor, books poking through several rips in the material. He took a step, mere inches from Brittney. I barely looked at his face. I was too busy looking at the new sneakers on his feet.

"Trey, out in the hall, now. I will not tolerate this behavior," I said with more confidence than I felt. The boy nearly ran out the door. Tears of anger threatened my control. I was furious, not with Brittney, but with Trey's mother. Trey wore expensive sneakers on his feet, but his backpack was falling apart and his clothes were torn and dirty. Wrong priorities from a single parent who was too far into her drug habit to care.

Brittney yelled, "Ya, you better run, loser, crack head."

I put my hand on her shoulder, hoping the contact would calm her.

She shrugged me away, but stopped screaming.

"Take your seat, Brittney." I said, while turning on the overhead projector. "Class, begin the assignment on the overhead." I hoped the girl would comply and that would be the end of the excitement for the day.

I walked into the hall to check on Trey. Noise immediately erupted again from my classroom. I sighed. Trey sat, shoulders slumped against the lockers. He wiped a hand across his reddened eyes.

I swallowed the lump in my throat and began to perspire even though the hall was not warm. Anger bubbled in my heart. I felt helpless. I couldn't make enough of a difference in Trey's future. I had saved him from a fight today, but what about tomorrow? I sank to the floor next to him and hugged my knees. Trey had started sixth grade with a first- grade vocabulary and lacking basic math skills. His future career possibilities seemed limited to drug dealer or burglar. One class period a day was just not enough to make up for the years of lost education, robbed from him by a system that favored the more fortunate.

As sometimes happened when I felt powerless, thoughts of Cathy came to me. Small purple fingers. Plump, fat mulberries bursting with sweet tartness on my tongue. Cathy's laughter.

It was a Saturday afternoon the summer before my sixth-grade year. My younger sister Cathy and I had gone on a bike ride. The North Carolina summer was too hot for bike riding, but our parents' fighting had grown worse. Listening to them argue over the cost of groceries all morning was reason enough to escape.

I rode behind Cathy. Oppressive waves of air rose from the pavement, distorting my view. Peddling hard, I sucked in muggy heated air, trying to fuel my legs with oxygen. My effort was barely sufficient to keep my bike moving at a crawl. I stared at the rivulets of sweat that ran down Cathy's neck, plastering her cotton shirt to her back.

Turning a corner, a large, round-topped mulberry tree appeared like a mirage. Dense green branches sprawled over a white picket fence, shading a hedge of holly and a hundred feet of road. My mouth watered as we rode over plump dark berries on the road. Cathy signaled left and pulled her bike to a stop.

We leaned our bikes against the picket fence and, standing in the shade of the mulberry tree, Cathy and I ate berry after berry. Our fingers were purple, our mouths and tongues blue. We laughed at each other. The succulent, refreshing berries slaked our thirst and eased our sadness. I plucked a mulberry with purple fingers and put it in my mouth, laughing as the tart sugary berry burst between my teeth.

The sweet happiness of that day has a place forever in my memory alongside the despair of the day after when I lay in bed, a pillow over my ears to block out my parents screaming. Her anger at my father spilling over onto me, my mother came into my room and pulled me out of bed. "You are worthless. What kind of idiot can't even remember to bring her bike in out of the rain? Those bikes cost money. Your father is waiting for you in the kitchen."

A chill of fear pulled my chin up in defiance. I knew what was coming. In the kitchen, Cathy and I stood side by side. We pulled our underpants down. I put one hand on my ankle and held Cathy's hand with the other. With each stroke of the belt, I heard Cathy crying. I tightened my grip on her hand, but I didn't let one tear fall. Hatred for my parents kept my eyes dry.

Afterward, Cathy lay on her stomach in bed with blood in her underwear. I held her hand, brought her dolls to her, and rubbed her back. I didn't know how to help her.

Now, sitting in the hall with Trey, I felt that same desperate helplessness. I watched the deputy walk down the hall toward us, gun holster bumping his hip.

I got up, brushed my pants off and returned to the classroom. Without a word to my students, I retrieved my purse from my desk drawer and walked out of the classroom. I would never go back.

Once home, I poured myself a vodka and tonic and escaped to the back deck. A man in a white polo shirt walked across my yard, startling me. My heart slowed as soon as I read the placket on his shirt:, Progress Energy. He was here to read the electric meter. Looking at that man so much like my father, a tear ran from my eye and then another.

I understood. My father's belt had left me powerless. Just as I was powerless to help my students make up for the life that had been stolen from them by our educational system. Once again, I was that little girl with her pants down, holding her sister's hand while the belt burned stroke after stroke. I put my head in my hands and sobbed.

I thought about the students that I would never teach. A bird chirped, the thrill of a cardinal. I hadn't noticed it before. I walked down my deck stairs and then over to my rose bushes. I pulled a yellow blossom to my nose, breathing in its sweet smell. Across the yard sat a small black mulberry tree that I'd planted in memory of Cathy. My sister died a month ago, in the psychiatric ward of a nearby hospital. Mulberry trees were fast-growing. It wouldn't be long before this tree's fruit-laden green branches provided shade.

Small purple fingers. Plump, fat mulberries bursting with sweet tartness. Laughter of girls.

Publication Information
"The Mulberry Tree." Spark Bright, Issue 3, December, 2009.
"The Mulberry Tree. "Chiron Review, Summer, 2008.