Jaleesha Monroe probably failed every class the year I knew her.
At least that was her standing the last time I saw her report card. As of April she had no grades above a 60, several 30s and 40s and a zero in physical education. She was apparently very bad at kickball.
It wasn't much of a surprise. Jaleesha roamed the halls of north Memphis's Manassas High School at her own leisure. She often left campus to smoke weed in the neighboring field one a Firestone tyre plant, enjoyed a good hallway brawl and publicized her sexual exploits like they were supermarket discounts. "Two of dese fools at da same time way better than one, gurrl," she once yelled to a friend in class. Jaleesha was by all means a mess of a teenager and, had it not been for a 39-cent bag of ramen noodles, I doubt I would remember her now, ten years later.
She wasn't a regular student of mine - meaning she was not enrolled in Spanish I or II at Manassas High - but I did host her for an anarchic fifteen-minute free period prior to lunch known as homeroom. The idea behind it was to count heads for attendance purposes, which took two minutes, leaving an additional thirteen for her to wreak havoc in the classroom. Jaleesha was the queen of homeroom. Nothing invigorated her like the idle time of a class period which gave no grades and had zero planned activities. To her credit, she kicked ass in homeroom. While other students listened to music, chatted, texted, slept, played dice or just stared off into space, Jaleesha went to work.
Homegirl could get a lot done in a quarter hour. She'd enter the class with a squawk of "Heyyy Senyo Weelyams," as in Señor Williams, as I was known, shove a boy or two in the head on the way to her desk and say something like "musty boy," indicating he smelled, or just "uhh-gly," which seems self explanatory.
The usual male response was to stand up and grab her flailing arms or paw at her as she clawed back. She'd scream "Get yo' hands off me booi," forcing me to intervene and scold the queen before she'd even nestled into her throne.
The queen preferred sitting in the centre of the classroom's middle row, giving her an ideal vantage point and numerous options should a social situation exhaust itself or another emerge with more intrigue. When she arrived at perch, she'd open a plastic bag of Hot Fries or sunflower seeds and sit and comb her short, matted hair with a hot pink pick. She liked to spit sunflower shells into a wadded up piece of notebook paper and leave them on the desk along with the occasional discarded hair track, a sort of calling card reminder that 'the queen wuz here.'
At minute two or three of homeroom, she'd walk to the trashcan to throw away a napkin or chip bag and slap another male student or two on the head. If they retaliated and grabbed her, she'd scream "Senyo Weelyams! This boy grahhhhbbin me," and slap him again. I'd instruct them to break it up and she'd continue towards the trashcan, maybe knock someone's backpack to the floor, write something on the whiteboard, turn up the lightly playing radio and yell "Ohhhhh this my soooong”, and return to her seat. If the song was universally appreciated, she'd kick off an impromptu dance party and transform homeroom into a Beale Street club.
She’d sit again, watching her dancing minions, throw a wad of paper at someone, cackle, eat some more sunflower seeds, yell to interrupt a nearby conversation, burp, walk to the door, open it and tell someone passing in the hall "you smell like sheet," slam the door, comb her hair, and then, at the shrill screech of the bell, sprint out of class screaming as she bounded down the long hallway towards the cafeteria.
Homeroom was often the longest fifteen minutes of my day and without fail, the queen would be back in 23 hours and 45 minutes. She rarely attended her three morning classes and often disregarded the three after lunch, but the queen always made it to homeroom.
I was ecstatic for Christmas at Manassas High. Greed was in the air.
My popularity soared in the first few months at the school. The Spanish speaking white dude from Texas had earned his stripes in the all-black school of 330 students or so. I played basketball with the kids after school. Coached football. Took students trick-or-treating in the wealthy neighborhood where the Memphis Grizzlies players lived alongside the Mississippi River. Brought Mexican food and non-alcoholic Sangria to class on Fridays for "Día de Cultura", and drove kids home to their public housing projects so they didn't have to wait in the cold for the city bus.
My pants were considered too tight for the sartorial liking of the students and my nerdy voice was mocked, but I'd earned their affection. Come Christmas time, I expected to be repaid for m efforts.
"Oh there's no more room on the desk?" I imagined asking a student as he looked for an open spot on my desk to place the Christmas ornament he was gifting me. "Just put it on top of the popcorn tin," I'd say.
I was sure I'd have to employ a kid or two to help me deconstruct the Jenga-like pyramid of gifts atop my desk to carry the surplus presents downstairs to my car. This, as I'd learned from my parents who are both lifelong educators, was what a teacher Christmas looked like.
Not at Manassas.
The days prior to the holiday vacation I jokingly - and then pathetically - asked my students what they'd be getting me for Christmas. Most just shot me blank stares. Was this some sort of joke they were all in on? Are they playing dumb so they can overload me with gifts on the last day of the semester?
Although I was the cool teacher, I was painfully blind. Manassas High School is seated in the heart of the New Chicago neighbourhood, rife with violence, abject poverty and government assisted living. If you, white dude who walked into our world four months ago, think you are getting a gift from us, well, you're dumber than we thought.
It seemed rational - and still does today - that the day school broke up for Christmas vacation, to assume the worst when I caught the Queen rummaging around my desk alone in the classroom.
Homeroom was over and all the kids streamed out towards the cafeteria. When I turned around to enter my classroom after ushering them out the door, there was the queen, hands fluttering around the top of my desk.
"Jaleesha! What the hell are you doing at my desk?" I shouted.
I stood inside the frame of the classroom door, hands on hips, furrowed brow. I was miserable at classroom discipline and had proven incapable of being stern. But this was the wicked queen, caught stealing from my desk, and I was pissed.
She snapped her hands behind her back and cowered. She hunched her narrow shoulders in her oversized white polo and dropped her head to her chin. This was odd. The normal queen response to reprimand was an aggressive scream to defend her case. She said nothing.
"Answer me!" I yelled. I thought I had her nailed. Stealing from a teacher? Suspended. Easy. Expelled? Maybe.
"What are you doing at MY desk?"
"Nothing, Senyo Williams," she whimpered, her head lowered, showing me the crown of her matted strands of black hair.
"Did you take something?" I asked.
She shook her head. "No."
"Then WHAT were you doing at my desk?" I took a step forward, still with hands on hips. I enjoyed, for once, having the upper hand in a disciplinary interaction with the queen.
She took a step to the side away from my desk. There was a red and yellow package of ramen noodles on the corner of the wide, oak-finish teacher's desk.
I walked over to my desk and picked up the noodles and looked at it.
"What the hell is this?" I asked. "Why did you put ramen noodles on my desk Jaleesha? I don’t want this." I scowled at her.
She lifted her chin and looked up at me.
"You don’t?" she asked. "But it’s beef. It’s the good kind."
"Why would I want your ramen noodles?" I snapped. I gestured for her to take the unwanted bag back.
"It’s for Christmas Señor Williams," she said. She frowned. Her eyes glistened. "I thought you might want some for Christmas."
My mouth dropped open. I froze and choked out an "Oh."
She pushed out her bottom lip and lowered her eyes.
"We had some extra and I figured you might want some," she said. "I thought you might want some to eat for Christmas."
"You got me ramen noodles for Christmas?" I asked.
"You don’t have to take it," she said. "Maybe people like you don't eat stuff like this. I’ll take it back if you want."
I was motionless as my brain absorbed what was happening. She reached for the bag and I came to, pulling the bag back towards me and away from her outstretched hand.
"No, No Jaleesha. Of course I want it," I said. "I didn’t think you were telling the truth. I, uh, I didn’t think you were really giving me this as a Christmas present."
"Yeah, Senyo Williams," she said, still a bit embarrassed by the awkward exchange. "I wanted to give you something for Christmas. You always so nice to me."
It seemed she understood my confusion. She was disappointed with my rejection, but pleased at my delayed comprehension of the gesture.
"Are you sure you don’t want it?" I asked. "This is so nice of you."
"It’s for you Senyo. I want you to have it for Christmas."
"Jaleesha," I said. "This is a great gift. The best gift I’ve gotten all year. Thank you so much."
She smiled and I hugged her. She smiled and said "Merry Christmas Señor Williams."
The queen walked out of my room and I stood motionless. I called behind her "Merry Christmas Jaleesha!" She turned and smiled and carried on towards the cafeteria.
I grabbed the bag and looked at the picture of sliced prime rib with its medium-rare pink inside superimposed on the yellow plastic cover. "Beef flavor," it read.
The good kind.
Adam Williams is a journalist based in Mexico City. His work has appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek, Bloomberg Markets, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Chicago Tribune, among others.