Talk to Me
Ms. Bronson’s eyes are tired, glazed red, and live in individual craters above her nose. It took all her strength to curl them away from her desk and onto Derl. She began in her signature slow southern drawl.
“Varmon? Would you like to share?”
Derl Varmon stood up. His eyes were wide satellites, large and sensitive enough to absorb any signals of validation that might emit from Ms. Bronson. As he contorted his face in thought he garnered some attention as a rare and welcome source of entertainment. Reliable too, since he’d been standing for a while.
Derl frantically swam through a fecal ocean of answers, vision browned, swatting for a needle. As he stood, a layer of sweat condensed on his skin and gilded his forehead, his mouth opened but no word dared be the first. He bartered, begged, and clawed his mind for answers, but after some time he narrowed his eyes, dimmed his reception, and braced for Ms. Bronson.
“I’ll repeat my question, W—”
Then he felt it! Deep in his gut, oh wait, his mind: the feeling of confidence, of relief, of response. Syllables, words, then clauses poured out of his mouth as if his entire lunch became one thorough thought.
“So slavery? Heh. That’s what black people were at first, but not now. Now I’m really nice to them, heh, no I mean, whenever we look at someone we shouldn’t see black, yellow, red, or brown, we shouldn’t see anything. We have to move past that, we can all live equally now.”
“Mhmm. That was a very critical thought.”
Derl sat, his ears vacuumed her praise. Seven words, ten syllables.
“Remember! Critical Thinking is a vitally important class, if you don’t learn how to think critically now, how’ll you get to a good college? So you can get a balanced job? So you’ll have time for your family?”
The classroom was silent. Most fell asleep during the video miniseries, but the students who felt too guilty about disrespecting Civil Rights instead grew resentful that the movement had such a soothing and monotone narrator. A few black students who made it through the video exchanged looks of disbelief. Derl returned a thumbs up and a smile in their direction, his face was excessively understanding.
“A…ny…o…ne…? Varmon can’t be the only one with opinions on African Americans.”
The silence grew stronger. More confident in its identity now, it felt this time wouldn’t be eclipsed by Bronson.
“Okay. Remember all y’all have an essay on your opinion of the Civil Rights movement due tomorrow. That’ll wrap up ‘The American Race: A Race Against Time’… but I’ll give ya’ll a sneak peak of our next unit ‘Think like a Mathtermind’. Here’s somethin’ to get us thinking. Who can tell me… the highest probability?”
Derl heard a whisper immediately behind him.
“one point oh”
Startled, he left the comfort of Ms. Bronson to turn back and see an unremarkable Jesús Cabello. Jesús returned him a vacant, uncomfortable look. Derl slowly turned back around, he knew the face of his enemy. The whisper, however, tapered into nothing a few desks away from Derl, allowing Silence to blanket the room again. It hoped dearly Bronson would collapse from her exhaustion, but underestimated her perseverance in reading lesson outlines.
“1.0, for example, is a valid answer. You’ll soon see there are a lot of correct answers in Math, and they each can depend on your individual perspective! Now, who knows the probability of being completely uncertain about something?”
Derl began mouthing through numbers, but he only finished a few before he heard it again, a little louder this time, and flinched.
“the probability of being completely uncertain about something … one half”
Derl slowly crumples his notebook paper containing some numbers below one, flicks it off his desk, and lands it perfectly on top of his thermos. A slight smile broke his stern face, and he relaxed some more in his chair. Bronson waits another minute, making a sizable dent in the twenty he had left.
“One half! That’s what you’re all thinking right? That is right, but not always. Sometimes it’s a quarter, sometimes an eighth, it can be an infinite number of answers! But think about that, one half and one point oh. There’s not a lot of room between being sure of something and not being sure at all. Remember that when you’re thinking critically, not just about math, but the news, your decisions, your lives.”
“…your decisions, your lives”
Jesús repeated every word out of Bronson’s mouth, all but mocking her.
“If you throw a ball on the floor, you have no way of knowing exactly where it’s going to land. You might be able to know roughly where, but never precisely. But think about this, what would happen if we could know exactly where a ball lands? Could we win tomorrow’s lottery? Make a perfect lie detector? Tell the future? What won’t we know? That’s what a crack critical thinker should be considering…”
Derl listened closely, penciling, condensing, and internalizing all Ms. Bronson had to say. He had learned so much from her, his parents, his church, because nothing frightened Derl more than the ‘Avoidable Mistake’. The mistake that’s haunted, in retrospect, everyone in history, since it teaches a trite and timeworn lesson that its transgressors only recognize too late. They wish they had listened to that one person about that one thing, it dangles what could have been everywhere they look, it taunts them. So, to reliably avoid that personal horror Derl, around the fifth grade, started keeping a notebook full of his mentors’ lessons, maybe he could do better than they:
- Wait until your one true love to lose your virginity, women can smell when you’ve been with someone else.
- Sharing Younique cosmetics uplift, empower, and validate women everywhere, and let you earn a financial reward at the same time.
- The Secret contains life-changing tools to become your best self and reveal those pesky secrets of life.
- Love is all you need. As long as you love enough, you can survive heartbreak or a heart attack.
- Don’t be a dawdling dingus, buy low, sell high!
- Don’t listen to your father, earn some money so you can be happy, and have a happy family.
- You have to be careful when you say you’re sure about something because one is very close to one half. You have to think critically about everything to really get to the bottom of it.
“… But think about this! We know roughly where a ball will land. How is it that so many combinations of infinite possibilities end up so predictable? How do so many unique people end up so similar?”
“…people end up SO SIMILAR”
“Cabello, would you –”
“Cabello, would you”
“– like to share?”
“– like to share?”
Bronson’s eyes widened and locked onto Jesús.
“Cabello I expect you to –”
“Cabello I expect you to”
“– talk to me–”
“talk to me”
“– like –”
“– an –”
Cabello ran ahead one word, but ‘adult’ was clearly next.
“Cabello do not come in here and fuck with me. I know you, I’ve seen a lot of kids exactly like you. Hell your dad mows my lawn, and you’ll be take over the business right? You’ll end up alone with that depressing job and a sorry life if you keep this up … you’ll ruin any future you had left. I’m not getting anything out of this, I’ll be sitting here teaching, getting paid above minimum wage. Take this opportunity to do right by yourself and by your family. Or are you just going to give up, feel sorry, and lay bricks for the rest of your life? This is America son, you can make it, but only if you actually try a little.”
“I don’t have to listen to this, get the fuck out of my classroom!”
Cabello ran an entire rant ahead. Bronson stared in disbelief at Jesús Cabello, who only returned an empty and hollow look. An uncomfortable silence reclaimed power over the room, but only held it for a few minutes. Then Jesús spoke.
“Something really strange happened to me today.”
“Really? God, right when I come home? It’s, uh, chicken and rice.”
“Then what would you like?”
“O.K. Chicken and rice.”
Jesús paused for a few seconds, then continued.
“I wanted to tell you something…”
“Wait, would you listen? I have a… You’re going to be a dad!”
“I think about a month ago.”
“What do you mean ‘is it too late’? We’re not even considering–”
“I thought you’d be more excited.”
“I know, yeah, that is more like you.”
“I think baby Charlie ’ll bring us closer, we’ll be a complete family!”
“I’m sorry. We talked about this, I thought we were on the same page.”
“O.K. I’ll go next week.”
“Charlie? Don’t leave the table!”
Another small pause.
“Hey mom, no, hang on.”
“No. Mom wait.”
“I told Charlie, he didn’t like it.”
“I understand what he’s sayin’, but it’s the way–.”
“Is that how Dad took it?”
Jesús’ speech slowly sped up, finally reaching a terminal inhuman tempo. Jesús, or “The Cantor” as he’s now known, became unintelligible. Those listening to his psalms could only glean the coarser details. Eventually his monologue of arguments became apologies, then pleads, then a probability lesson, and it began to follow some pattern of emotion. Jesús could fit everything Bronson would ever say into his sermon, her entire life painted in a single stroke by a small Hispanic boy. The classroom clock’s minute hand bolted through years of life. As it reach the hour Jesús’ voice grew raspy and frail, Derl could read the class was nearing its end. Then Jesús froze, gazing into a distant nothing, still and speechless. Quiet he stood for what, at this speed, must’ve been an eternity, until he collapsed on the floor. The bell rang.
Normally, as Ms. Bronson knew, collapsing on a stone floor is noiseless, but Jesús fell arms wide open on his long-unacquainted classmate next to him, unconscious. The girl below him woke up screaming, rolling his body off hers and allowing his head to thump on the stone floor. Jesús was a rag doll, his mouth firmly suctioned to the tiling.
“Ms. Teacher you killed that poor boy!” She yelled, pointed and delegated to Bronson.
Ms. Bronson stood paralyzed staring at Jesús. Her stasis only broke a few seconds after the student’s loud and irritating scream. She grabbed her coat, attempted to excuse herself, and ran into a crowded hallway.
Derl still sat there, disappointed. Later an investigation revealed he was the only one awake through the entire hour. He recited his account to the school principal and a state detective:
“Ms. Bronson asked a question, and then Jesús started acting up, like always. J.C. was just trying to get on Ms. Bronson’s nerves, and he did good too. Heh, he even pretended to go to boneless! But I didn’t get to hear the rest of the lesson, I was taking notes, look!”
“Well after that Ms. Bronson ran out.”
“Yeah, she left us.”