BY BROCK CLARKE
Rupert goes first. Rupert’s real name is Shamequa, but we call her Rupert because one of the things we do is give black women the names of white men. We also give white women the names of Asian men, and young Hispanic men the names of old white women. And so on. This is our way of helping promote better understanding of people who are not like us, which also happens to be the name of our city-mandated program: Helping Promote Better Understanding of People Who Are Not Like Us.
“Why do I have to go first?” Rupert wants to know.
“Someone has to go first,” I say, and look around, nervously, at Ashley who we call Johnny Cho; at Juan who we call Ida; at little Sun who we call Big Raeshaun; at Schlomo who we call Hussein. At Simon whose name actually is Simon and who is not on my roster. He insists he’s in the right room, but I don’t want to name him until I find out for sure whether he’s supposed to be in this group; or in the group in the classroom next to ours, who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome; or the group in the classroom next to the bathroom, who suffer from Substance Abuse; or in the group in the classroom across the hall from ours, who suffer from Sexual Dysfunction. Everyone looks nervously backat me. It’s our first day; no one wants to be here, including me; no one knows how this is supposed to go, including me. All I know for sure are these five things: that I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Christina; that everyone on my roster is a city employee who has said or done something racist while at work; that each of them is supposed to have a file documenting what they’ve done; that the files were supposed to be sent to me so that I could read them before this mandatory oneday class; and that Rupert has to be the first one to tell us about why she’s here, because I wasn’t sent anyone else’s files but hers. I’m holding the file open in my lap right now.
Finally, I say, “Please go ahead, Rupert,” and she does. She tells us she is a second grade teacher, or was one until she got suspended. This happened last month. Rupert was teaching a unit called “What if There Were No Black People?” As part of the unit her students were to learn the names of twenty black inventors, and then to try to imagine the world without the things they’d invented: the pacemaker, the trolley, the pencil sharpener, the wrench, the potato chip.
“Also the peanut,” Big Raeshaun says. She’s a Chinese woman with long gray-streaked black hair, a gum chewer who blows and snaps a bubble, blows and snaps it again.Sometimes, when it doesn’t snap properly, she takes the gum out and looks at it as though the gum has betrayed her. “A black man invented the peanut, also.”
“Everyone knows about Mr. Carver,” Rupert says, raising her voice. Rupert teaches second grade. When my second grade teacher raised her voice, it got higher. She sounded like a pissed-off bird. But Rupert’s voice gets deeper, like we’re at the bottom of a deep hole and she’s at the mouth of the hole, talking down to us. “Everybody wants to raise their hand and tell me about Mr. Carver. But what about Charles Drew?” She looks at us, daring us to tell her that we don’t know about Charles Drew. We don’t tell her anything, which is just the same as telling her we don’t know. “Oh lord,” she mutters, looks at the ceiling for a second, then back at us. “Mr. Charles Drew is the father of the modern blood bank. Anyone ever get blood in the hospital?” Our chairs are arranged in circle; Rupert’s head rotates slowly from left to right, her eyes stopping on each of us, briefly, until she comes to Ida, who looks away and mutters, “My dad got some blood once.”
“Well,” Rupert says. “Without Charles Drew, your dad would be dead.” She folds her arms over her chest, then stretches her legs out and crosses them at the ankles. “Any of you have anything to say about that?”
None of us has anything to say about that. Rupert is wearing a long, loose black and red flowered skirt and a long, thick buttoned down red sweater over that and bright white running sneakers. She is dressed like most any second grade teacher. Except she is over six feet tall and over two hundred pounds. But Rupert isn’t fat: it looks like she has shoulder pads underneath her cardigan. I mean, the kind of shoulder pads that go under your football jersey, not in your blazer. Her legs look like pieces of sewer pipe in black stockings; her feet look like loaves of bread wrapped in Reebok. If she had been my teacher, I know I would have done exactly what she told me to do. I can’t imagine any second grader messing with her. Except I’ve read her file, and know at least one has.
“Go ahead, Rupert,” I say. Because this is one of the things my Helping Promote Better Understanding of People Who Are Not Like Us teacher’s manual tells me to do: to make sure to tell people to “go ahead” if I have nothing else to tell them.
Rupert uncrosses her legs and leans forward, hands on her knees, her face level with mine. We’re across the circle from each other, and I’m already sitting back in my chair, but I try to lean back even further. “Don’t…” she starts to say, but then stops. I know that she was about to tell me to not call her Rupert, and I also know why she doesn’t: because if she doesn’t successfully complete this course, she’ll be fired by the city school district. And then she’ll end up on the floor above us, in all the classrooms with the groups who are suffering from Unemployment.
“Please go ahead,” I tell her, careful not to call her Rupert this time. She nods, leans back in her chair, looks down at her lap and says, “The lesson was almost over, and we were talking about Benjamin Banneker.” She pauses, but doesn’t look up at us, like she can’t stand to see what else we don’t know. “The man who invented the first American clock. And I was telling my kids that if it weren’t for Mr. Banneker, we wouldn’t have clocks. No clocks!” Rupert looks up: her eyes get really wide and she smiles at us, a toothy surprised smile, as if to say, “No clocks! Can you believe it?” Seeing Rupert like this makes me sad. Because I can tell what a good teacher she was, and might never be allowed to be again, unless she finishes the course.
“What happened then?” I ask her, even though I know.
“Schuyler happened.” Rupert doesn’t saythis so much as hiss it, but deeply, like a baritone snake.
“Who’s Schuyler?” Hussein asks. He rubs his bald head, which glistens in the flickering overhead lights. He’s wearing a blue pinstriped suit and brown loafers with tassels, which swing clockwise as he bounces his legs.
I look down at the folder open in my lap, at a picture of Schuyler. It’s clearly a class picture. Someone has dressed him up. He’s wearing a dark blue sweater with a lighter blue collared shirt underneath it. He has blond hair combed to the side, except at the part, where it’s sticking straight up. His eyes are so blue, maybe bluer than they would be if he weren’t wearing the sweater and the shirt. He’s missing a couple of front teeth, and the ones that aren’t missing look huge and rabbit-like. He’s smiling and glancing at something off to the right. Schuyler looks like a cute kid, although I would never say that to Rupert.
“Schuyler is one of my kids,” Rupert says. Her voice is even now. I can tell she’s trying to calm herself down. She even smiles, like everything is going to be all right. But then she looks at me and knows that that’s not true, not necessarily. She nods again, and then, still looking at me, says, “After I was done talking about Mr. Banneker, I asked the kids what they learned. And they said what they always said after talking about the inventor and their invention: ‘If there were no black people, there’d be no clocks!’ I was about to move on to Daniel Wilson, the inventor of Open Heart Surgery, when Schuyler said, ‘If there were no white people, there would be no time.’” Rupert leans over, her elbows on her knees, her head down, and whispers, “He didn’t even raise his hand before he said it, either. That Schuyler never raises his hand. ”
Johnny Cho laughs, then clamps her hand over her mouth. Johnny Cho is a tiny white woman dressed in workout clothes: black spandex pants that go to mid-calf, a tight blue and black fleece jacket, and white running sneakers that are exactly the same as Rupert’s except much smaller. The hand that isn’t over Johnny Cho’s mouth is holding a green Nalgene bottle, which is almost as big as her little head. Johnny Cho’s hair is white blonde and her eyes are a sparkly, oceanic blue. Her face looks like she could be twenty-five, but the veins in her hands tell me she’s not. Johnny Cho is old enough to be Schuyler’s mother. Rupert glares at her like she is Schuyler’s mother. My manual says that I have to make my cohort—the manual says to call them a “cohort”—admit that “We have more in common than we think!” I almost point out that Rupert and Johnny Cho are wearing the same sneakers. Instead, I tell Rupert to go ahead, to finish her story. She doesn’t look at me when I say this. She just shakes her head and keeps staring at the floor. My teacher’s manual says that “We must respect each other’s voices” and “It’s important not to speak for people who are not like us!” But the manual also says, “Your cohort might need some help finding just the right words!” Still, I don’t say anything, not for a long time. I stare and stare at Rupert, willing her to look at me, so I can tell her with my eyes, “I don’t want to do this; I’m just doing my job;” so I can ask her with my eyes, “What you said to Schuyler: is it true? Did you really mean it?” But Rupert doesn’t look at me, and finally I just go ahead and ask, “Is that when you told Schuyler that, ‘If white people weren’t alive, then black people would be happy’?”
After I say this, Rupert closes her eyes, tilts her head back, and faces the drop ceiling. Johnny Cho gasps through her hand, then removes her hand from her mouth, furiously unscrews the top to her Nalgene bottle and starts hydrating. I get the feeling that Hussein and Ida want to laugh their eyes are crinkled in an amused way—but they don’t, maybe because they’re afraid I won’t pass them if they do. Big Raeshaun, who is sitting next to Rupert, pats Rupert on the back and says, “I know. I’m black, too,” which I’m guessing is something she’s said before, and part of the reason she’s here.
“Oh Jesus,” Rupert says, and I can tell by her voice that she’s crying a little. I want to tell her I’m sorry. The manual warned me to never give an apology and never to accept one. “No apologies necessary,” the manual says. “Only understanding required.” But before I can apologize anyway, Simon says, “That was powerful.” And then: “Is it my turn?”
“Who are you?” I say.
“I’m Simon,” he says. He’s white, like me; but I have curly brown hair and a salt and pepper goatee, and Simon is blonde and blue eyed, just like Johnny Cho and Schuyler; everything about him looks sun faded, like he’s a surfer, even though we don’t live anywhere near the ocean. The stubble on his face looks like yellow dirt. He’s wearing a rope necklace with big green chunky beads; he fiddles with the beads while he waits to see what I’ll say. Simon looks nervous, like he doesn’t know whose side I’m on. Clearly he hasn’t read the manual like I’ve read the manual. “There are no sides,” the manual says. “We are not a square. We are a circle.”
“I know your name is Simon,” I say. “But what are you doing here?”
“The quality of my erections,” Simon says, without hesitation or shame, “is affected by the hardness or softness of the water.”
“The water?” Hussein asks. His black eyebrows rise all the way up to where his hair would be if he had any.
“You know, the water in your house. In the shower. The stuff you drink. It affects my erections. Except it’s an inverse relationship.”
“A what?” Ida wants to know.
“It’s the opposite of what you think,” Simon says.
“I don’t think about that shit at all,” Ida says.
“Please,” Simon says, and he seems the only one who really wants to be here. “I can’t go back there.” He nods his head in the direction of the classroom across the hall. “They just laugh at me. And my girlfriend’s apartment has such hard water. You wouldn’t believe it.” He looks at me, and I see that he’s crying, too. The manual did warn me that “There will be tears.”
“You’re in the wrong room,” I tell him.
“Every room is the wrong room,” Simon says, choking back a sob. “Please help me.”
BROCK CLARKE is the author of four books of fiction, most recently the novel An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England. His fifth book—the novel Exley—will be published in September 2010. He teaches at Bowdoin College and lives with his family in Portland, Maine.