“My stepdad said you stopped by my place, too.” This was from Yolanda.
“Are you looking to make trouble for us?” It was Malcolm again.
“What’d you want with my mom?”
“Yeah. You ain’t got no right to talk about me behind my back.”
Brynn could see that she’d best explain the purpose of those after-school visits. She’d hoped meeting her students’ families would be a positive experience; instead she’d incurred the mistrust and ire of her class.
Emilio sat up and looked over his shoulder. “Miss Cassidy comes to my apartment most every afternoon, and I ain’t making no fuss about it.”
His remark was followed by several boos and hisses. Emilio just smiled. He reveled in the fact that Brynn had been seeing a good deal of Roberto. What he said, however, wasn’t true.
“All right, all right,” Brynn said, holding up her hands. “It looks like I owe you an explanation.”
“You’re damn right you do.”
Brynn looked into a sea of angry faces. “Malcolm, you’re right. I did stop off at your place yesterday afternoon. I wanted to tell your mother it was a pleasure to have you in my class and report to her that your progress in the last few weeks has been nothing short of amazing.”
Malcolm’s mouth snapped closed. He looked confused, then relieved. “You wanted to tell her good things about me?”
“Is that why you came to my house?” Yolanda asked.
“Yes. I’d hoped to visit everyone’s family by the end of the quarter. Yolanda, I couldn’t be more pleased with how well you’re doing. You’ve maintained a B average, and I wanted your family to know how hard you’ve been working.”
“You won’t be able to say that about me.”
Denzil was right about that. His grades had been dismal, and he gave little if any thought or effort to his assignments. His contributions to the class were limited to disruptions and arguments.
“Well,” she said, thinking on her feet. “I thought I’d tell your parents how I’ve noticed your ability to argue an issue from any point. That’s the quality of a good attorney. If you were the least bit interested, you could make a career learning the law.”
“An attorney?” Denzil sat up straighter on his chair. “Me, an attorney?” He laughed under his breath. “I’ve had lots of experience with the law, and I’ve met some of those fast-talkin’ lawyers, too. Only they were looking to toss my butt in jail.”
“There are other kinds of attorneys,” Brynn told him.
“I could wear one of those fancy silk suits, couldn’t I?”
“Of course. Listen, Denzil,” she said, her convictions causing her voice to grow strong and sure, “this is exactly what I’ve been telling you all quarter. You can be anything you want. The power is right here inside you.” She held her clenched fist against her breast. “All you’ve got to do is want it bad enough.”
“I ain’t never had anyone tell my mother good things about me,” Yolanda said. “The only time a teacher ever came to my house was because she thought I took something out of her stinking purse.” Looking away, she sighed loudly. “I did it, too, because that teacher was a real jerk. She wasn’t even fair.”
“You got any good things to tell Roberto about me?” Emilio asked, and draped his elbows over the back of his seat. He was sitting proud.
“I have plenty to tell Roberto about you,” Brynn teased as she rubbed the chalk dust from the palms of her hands.
The class laughed, just as Brynn intended they should.
“Now that I’ve answered your questions, please return to your writing assignment.” Generally, when she directed her students’ attention back to a written task, a grumble of discontent would spread across the room. Not this time.
After the bell rang, dismissing the class, Suzie Chang made her way to Brynn’s desk. The shy girl clenched her books tightly. “You wanted to talk to me, Miss Cassidy?”
“Yes,” Brynn said, scooting the chair back. “Suzie, you’re an excellent student. This last paper you wrote about Anne Frank is as good as anything I’ve read on the subject. You revealed both insight and sensitivity to the Jewish girl’s plight.”
Uncomfortable with the praise, the teenager lowered her gaze. “Thank you.”
“I’d like to know if you plan on attending college next year.”
“College.” The girl’s eyes lit up briefly, then she sobered and slowly shook her head. “I can’t.”
“But Suzie, you’re exactly the kind of student who should continue their education. I can feel the hunger in you, the desire to learn. There’s a way, I promise you. I can help you if you want.”
The girl shifted her weight from one foot to the other. She kept her head lowered and refused to meet Brynn’s eyes. “I can’t, Miss Cassidy.”
“Suzie, didn’t you hear what I said to Denzil earlier? Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Now if you’re worried about the money, there are scholarships. I’ll help you fill out the applications, and . . .”
Suzie’s head snapped up, and Brynn noticed that the teenager’s face was streaked with tears. “A scholarship isn’t going to help me, Miss Cassidy. Nothing will.” Having said that, Suzie turned and raced out of the classroom.
Stunned, Brynn sat at her desk for several moments, pondering Suzie’s words. Nothing would help her? That made no sense.
Feeling as though she’d somehow failed her brightest student, Brynn left the building, determined to try again to meet Denzil’s and Malcolm’s parents. Perhaps she’d have more success now that the word was out that she wanted to compliment the teens instead of complain.
A block away from the school the streets were dirty, filled with litter and broken glass. A discarded davenport was turned upside down and garbage dumped in the ripped undercarriage. The smells of rotting food were potent enough to cause Brynn to turn her head away.
Dusk settled over the city. The streetlights that weren’t broken blinked on, casting a clouded yellow glow to the filth on the sidewalk.
From the distance, Brynn watched as a man approached her. She stiffened, then reminded herself she had nothing to fear. This was a violent neighborhood, but like Father Grady, Brynn had faith in the goodwill of those who occupied the tenements.
As the figure of the man grew near, Brynn recognized Roberto. When he realized it was she, his steps became quick and filled with purpose. The tension drained from her, and Brynn relaxed. They’d met twice in the last week, swift snatches of time they’d stolen in an effort to be together. Five minutes. Ten. Just long enough to convey that they wished it could be longer.
“Roberto.” She didn’t bother to disguise her happiness.
Roberto was frowning. “It’s true, then,” he said, sounding none too pleased.
“What is?” she asked, surprised by his attitude.
“Emilio stopped off at the garage to tell me you were parading around these streets after school visiting families.”
“Don’t you realize it’s dark now by four-thirty?” he barked. He jerked off his baseball cap and slapped it against his knee in a display of disgust.
“Roberto, what’s wrong?”
“Are you crazy, woman?” He said something in Spanish, and from his tone, it was just as well she didn’t understand. “You’re inviting trouble. I thought you had more sense than this.”
“Roberto, if you’d only listen.”
“To what? Don’t you realize this is New York City? You’re targeting yourself to be the next crime victim. You’re inviting trouble. I can’t follow you around and protect you.”
She didn’t appreciate his attitude, but she didn’t want to argue, not when they’d come so far. She stiffened her shoulders and glared right back at him. The cold wind whipped about her face as she struggled with her composure. “I know what I’m doing.”
“You haven’t got a clue,” Roberto snapped. “What could possibly be so important for you to risk your life?”
She tried to tell herself that he was so angry because he cared, but his attitude stung. The people in this neighborhood knew her. She couldn’t go more than a few houses before she met someone she recognized from either the school or the church.
“Don’t you understand?” Roberto said, gripping her by the shoulders. “You can’t change the world on your own.”
“But I can help these kids.”
“Brynn, oh, my darling fool.” Briefly he closed his eyes, struggling to hold on to his temper. “You can do nothing. You can change nothing. Denzil, Malcolm, and all the rest will live and die in this neighborhood the same way Emilio and I will.”
“That’s not true,” she argued. She could make a difference. She believed that with all her heart. That was the reason she was here.
“Grow up,” he said, his fingers biting deep into her coat. “You’ve got to step out of this dream world you’re living in. Look around you. Can’t you see?”
Brynn refused to believe what he said. “We have a difference of opinion, Roberto, but that’s no reason to treat me like a child.”
He seemed to be struggling within himself. After a moment, he dropped his hands and his features hardened. “Go home, Brynn. For the love of God, go home where you belong. You don’t fit in here. Just go!” he shouted, and gave her a light push.
She blanched. “You don’t mean that.”
“I’ve never been more serious in my life. Pack your bags and head back to Rhode Island or wherever it was you came from before you get yourself killed. Please, Brynn.” This last part came on a rush of emotion.
The pain his words produced sucked the breath from her lungs. At first she could barely think, and when she spoke her voice betrayed her pain. “You want me to leave?”
He held himself stiffly away from her and didn’t answer for several moments. Then something broke within him, and he expelled his breath forcefully. Before her heart beat again, before she could take another breath, Roberto brought her into his arms. “No, I don’t want you to go.”
Her arms circled his waist, and he relaxed. Nothing had ever felt more right than to be in Roberto’s arms.
“Promise me, if you’re so anxious to go out nights, you’ll let either me or Emilio accompany you.”
She remembered his words about not having the time to be her bodyguard and knew he’d said those hurtful things only because he was worried for her.
“Promise?” he demanded.
She nodded, and he kissed the top of her head.
Beneath the warm, golden glow of the streetlight, the man who’d shouted at her only moments earlier now bent his head to kiss her. “What am I going to do with you?” he said.
Brynn smiled to herself, content in his arms. In time he’d realize she could make a difference. If it was only to be in one life, then so be it, but she wouldn’t walk away from her students, nor would she leave this neighborhood, no matter what Roberto thought.