By Jennifer Phillips

letter t22

Miss Tea kept very little on her desk, just a picture of her cat and two folders. She opened her bottom desk drawer to stow her purse which, along with her usual essentials of lipstick and some family photos, currently held a minutely-shredded snapshot of her now ex-fiancé, Peter. As the newest teacher, Miss Tea had the most open classroom—directly in front of the superintendent’s office, with only a railed half-wall and steps creating the corner for her desk. Anybody walking by could easily peer over the rail to watch her teach, or spot what was in her wastebasket, which was why she hadn’t simply dumped the snapshot already. Too many curious eyes.

Miss Tea’s real name was Michelle Tei. Her sign name had always been “Tea,” which always made her think of her parents drinking endless cups of barley tea and green tea, or her father insisting that she or her sister Anne pick up all the teacups when he finished his tea at home. Michelle had been teased in school so much about the sign name that she was never able to enjoy drinking tea in public. Yes. She could have been called worse, like “BM” Bruce Matthews. That still didn’t help how conspicuous she always felt in her tall, rawboned appearance, which contrasted, she felt, with her feminine nature. All the soft, girly touches she added to her wardrobe only did so much.

Now that Michelle Tei was a real teacher at a deaf school, she followed her school’s format of double initials for teacher’s names. So, she now became “M Tea,” or “Miss Tea,” in her head. She liked that a lot more. She had fun watching exactly how the kids called her “M-Tea-” M from the chin, like her name sign for Michelle, and then an F handshape into a loose fist—it looked brisk, and like a rhyme for “promise.” Sometimes, they did a little repeated bounce on “Tea,” which made it look like “vote,” when the student was upset or urgently asking for help. That was how Charley said it when asking for reading help, or Ellie when she began stuttering from excitement or nerves in class.

Francis, on the other hand, signed her name as a sloppy, heavy “M-vote,” from under his chin, ending close to his chest, along with a half-mouthed “Miss-Tea.” It looked too close in tone to “bitch-fuck” for her taste. That tone on her name wasn’t accidental. Francis probably saw those two signs with accompanying tone from students at Gallaudet, where his father taught. She had seen him sniggering whenever Ellie began to pause, goading her into stuttering worse. Miss Tea put an end to that by moving Ellie to the front of the horseshoe seats, and Francis back at the middle, so Ellie could speak up in class without having to look at Francis. Francis, Miss Tea thought to herself, would test the patience of Job.

Miss Tea liked to drink coffee at work every morning, extra-strong in a paper cup that she got from

The deaf community had an elephant’s memory for gossip.

the coffee shop at Union Station. She finished the coffee just before nine o’clock, when the kids were released from the auditorium to run across the striped green carpet and down the long spiral ramp to the classrooms. Today she looked at her nearly-done cup, and stuffed the snapshot shreds in it with a napkin. Once the napkin was tan and wet, she dumped the cup neatly in the wastebasket. Only a very nosy janitor could find the shreds now.

She saw the kids emerge from the ramp at full speed. For some, the ramp was their daily foot race, for others, just a burst of restless energy before the tedium of sitting all day. Once they got off the ramp, the kids slowed down considerably as they split up and went off to their respective classrooms. Six children headed down the stairs to her, and her first class began.

The blackboard Miss Tea taught at had only a dark blue curtain hanging from the ceiling as a backdrop that ran all the way across the space to where the steel file cabinet stood, cater-corner. The wall that should be there between the two English classrooms was always folded up, allowing her to have sidelong visual contact with Mrs. Passas in the next classroom, required so they could flag each other’s attention, or so that one teacher could watch both classrooms if one had to leave suddenly. Miss Tea was moderately deaf, so this visual layout mattered very much.

It wasn’t just her stuck in the open. Most teachers of the intermediate students had varying levels of hearing loss, so the open layout allowed teachers to signal each other quickly in case one of the young children had an emergency. With all the multi-handicapped children, you never did know. The only intermediate classroom that was fully-walled was the science classroom, but the door was always open and directly faced the counselor’s office.

Across the floor, in the middle school, the layout changed. More classrooms were fully walled, with always-open doors. There was no worry about noise distracting other classes. Here, emergency planning involved the possibility of teenagers fighting, needing restraint or privacy while they calmed down, as well as minimizing distractions from the opposite sex.

Miss Tea once saw Darrell, the current “bad boy” of middle school, nearly thirteen and built like a short barrel in jeans and shaggy brown hair, escorted out of a classroom, fists balled while shrugging off the teacher trying to talk to him. Darrell had already been suspended five times this year for fighting, and she was told “not even his own mother could make him behave.” Miss Tea heard enough to be grateful for all her students, even Francis.

The middle school and intermediate students mixed only at lunchtime and in the mornings before school began. Last week had been her turn on the lunch shift. As lunch ended, she had been dismayed to see Darrell talking to Ellie, one of her favorite students, and only ten years old. With a frantic pang, Miss Tea remembered Ellie’s recent journal entry on a biography she was reading: “I feel sorry for Hitler, he had such a bad childhood.”

Mrs. Passas said, “If she hasn’t finished reading the book yet, I wouldn’t worry about it. She’s showing empathy. That’s important.” But this suddenly wasn’t about history. This was now. She waited until her next class with Ellie finished.

“I didn’t know you and Darrell were friends,” Miss Tea said.

“I beat him at wrestling in indoors recess a few days ago. He’s OK.” Ellie said, shrugging. She grabbed her notebook and went off, leaving Miss Tea confused. Darrell had five inches and at least fifty pounds on Ellie. Much of it was fat, granted. But wrestling? Even for a tomboy with many older brothers? Darrell let her win, obviously. Ellie didn’t seem that fascinated with Darrell, so Miss Tea didn’t press the issue; she’d speak with others about keeping Darrell separated from Ellie.

***

After lunch, it was time for her to meet with Mrs. Passas to settle their lesson plans for the next week. Such meetings were balm to Miss Tea’s nerves as a struggling new teacher– especially right now when her personal life seemed to be in the toilet. She suspected Mrs. Passas already knew from her mood that she’d broken up with her fiancé Peter, but was too polite to ask. Miss Tea hadn’t mentioned Peter in weeks, and would never mention Peter again if she could help it.

Each group in intermediate had two classes in English daily. One class included instruction on basic grammar, vocabulary, and spelling, and the second class was an English/history combination that focused on written comprehension and journaling of their reading. Neither teacher taught both classes to any given group, so the divided instruction meant they had to work as a team.

At first Miss Tea felt awkward constantly having her lessons scrutinized, but that quickly passed; it was hard not to be comfortable with Mrs. Passas, a fortyish and pear-shaped mother of three, with shoulder-length blowsy brown hair. Mrs. Passas was not as natively fluent in signing as Miss Tea, so she tended to rely on thorough preparation and giving her students drills.

“Guess what Ellie said today about the new vocabulary list? It

She never felt like a wallflower in the deaf community.

was too funny!” Mrs. Passas said.

“Did you do the guessing game again?” Miss Tea asked. Having students guess at the meaning of words was one of Mrs. Passas’ favorite ways to assess prior knowledge and reading comprehension, but Miss Tea sometimes thought she really did it for the laughs.

“Oh yes, today was funny. We did ‘lackadaisical.’ Nobody even wanted to guess, except Ellie, and she said ‘loss of flowers?’ I laughed and laughed—I hadn’t even seen the ‘daisy’ in that word.”

Miss Tea had no cute stories to tell. “Francis is really driving me crazy. His journals keep degenerating in talk about snot, cuss words, and saying how much he dislikes me. He’s always a comic in class. Every time I talk to Mrs. Sawyer about proper discipline, she keeps telling me to do my best and to just mark his participation down for disrespect. That doesn’t feel like enough. I keep control in class, you know that, but I need more.”

Mrs. Passas said, “I warn you, be careful of politics. His parents know people here and they are always pressuring us to make sure Francis gets the best education possible. They’ll howl if he’s in detention every week without solid reasons. Just keep rewarding good behavior, and when he’s silly, ignore him. When he realizes he won’t get attention that way, he’ll stop eventually. ”

Miss Tea said, “You mean when he’s forty? Well, I don’t put him in detention EVERY week, but I sent him to the principal’s office yesterday. He told another student that he wished I had been the teacher in space when Challenger crashed. He was laughing. He thought my dying was funny. I swear to you, that kid’s going to grow up to be a sociopath one day. I know it.”

Mrs. Passas laughed. “Wait until you’ve been teaching a few years and do see the kids come back when they’re older. You’d be surprised. I often was.”

To Mrs. Passas, Miss Tea’s fluent ability to explain English in ASL was a great benefit to her students. This was why Miss Tea was assigned the most advanced students in writing and the weakest students like Charley in reading; she could provide better on-the-spot feedback. Then Mrs. Passas would ask Miss Tea to show her in ASL how she planned to teach her English lessons and quiz her as practice.

Miss Tea did precisely that. They got back to work, with occasional comments there and here from Mrs. Passas: “You’ve chosen sentences that are too hard, try those instead…don’t forget to plan additional drills the week after that…okay, that’s all. Go for it!”

And with that, the planning gracefully ended without any prying. Mrs. Passas was the only one at work she had told of her engagement to begin with, precisely because she didn’t gossip. Miss Tea chose to keep her life as private as possible. She still felt new to adulthood, never mind teaching. She didn’t want to over-disclose anything. The deaf community had an elephant’s memory for gossip.

Truth be told, Miss Tea still felt out of place sometimes, working at a school where the home economics teacher was an unwed mother, one of the math teachers was a gorgeous, curvy swinger with bouncy hair, three other teachers were divorced, and four gay. She knew all that in spite of never having pried into her coworkers’ personal lives―not even once. She was glad now she hadn’t said much about her engagement. She’d sooner die than receive any kind of advice on her love life from the swinging math teacher, or even just one of her looks.

***

It was hard enough that night for Michelle to phone her mother about the engagement being off. Her mother’s first reaction was to type back: “We always thought Peter never paid enough attention to you, Michelle. You’re better off without him. Mrs. Chang at the church has this really nice son…”

“Mom, don’t. Just don’t,” she typed back. Michelle was only twenty-five, but she told her mother long ago that she needed to find somebody she felt comfortable communicating with, so that probably meant she would marry outside their culture. She could make do with some lipreading in English, but she only knew a few dozen words in Korean. At social events in the Korean-American community, she always wound up alone, struggling with small talk—but she never felt like a wallflower in the deaf community.

She saw the “get married soon” pressure with her older sister Anne—the blind dates, the incessant introductions, the winks and nudges, the delicate hoping, at least before Anne moved to San Francisco. Only Michelle knew that her older sister was currently dating women.

She watched the TTY where her mother’s words were blipping past in green capital letters: “Michelle we love you. You’re too pretty to cry and you’re smart. You’ll find somebody better… Dad says that it’s good we didn’t send the wedding invitations out yet, or you’d find your mother in jail tomorrow on murder charges for sure. GA.” (GA meant “go ahead,” and talk now.)

“Thanks mom. I appreciate it. GA,” Michelle typed back. And she did appreciate it. Even if it was only her mom, it was nice to be told she was pretty and smart, after the words Peter hurled at her at the end. She lay back on her sofa and closed her eyes.

***

Sherra, her roommate, was now a new stress in her life. She had been supportive and then became really nosy about what happened. Michelle didn’t want to talk about it; the words had been vulgar and raw on Peter’s end. To repeat them was to feel dirtied all over again.

“Michelle, you can’t really mean that he just said it was all over after you were together for two years? There must be somebody else,” Sherra said.

“Please, I don’t want to talk about it.” Sherra was right about the girlfriend, though, which Michelle learned soon after the breakup. She just didn’t want to dwell on how it happened, or repeat any of all the hurtful things he said, including that anybody who held out for sex until marriage needed to grow up—it was the twentieth century after all. She was slightly afraid Sherra might agree with him there.

A few nights later, Sherra had news about Peter.

“I saw Peter. He said he just expressed like that because he was angry,” Sherra said.

“Only time it happened; he told us that again and again. And he’s sorry about using that one bad word and wants to apologize to you.”

Michelle flushed in anger and shock. So Peter had been telling others what he said to her, and that he had only said “one bad word”? Every night before she went to bed, she couldn’t forget that litany of insults and foul names. No.

“No,” Michelle said. “He shouldn’t involve my roommate in this. It’s none of your business, and I don’t want to hear how sorry he is.”

The roommates spoke little for the next few days, brushing past each other with averted eyes, curt conversation, and quick room exits. That coming Sunday, Michelle left early to her Korean-American Presbyterian church, which she needed more than ever.

Somehow, it felt like an oasis of innocence. That was the word. Anything to cleanse her mind of Peter.

All her flaws rose to her mind as insults, images, and half-formed anxieties.

The day went well, considering. Her old friend Rose gave her the gist of the service in halting sign, and then told Michelle about the new puppy she’d gotten. Even Mrs. Chang didn’t display too many of her son’s pictures at her, although she did praise Michelle’s barbecued ribs at the huge church potluck. Michelle bowed in the typical response to a compliment from an elder, then went home feeling slightly better, yet at the same time, even more achingly empty.

That night as she was watching TV over a quick dinner of leftovers and ginger noodles, Sherra came home and ruined her one day of oasis.

Sherra was dating one of Peter’s old friends, Tom, and they had gone to a party the night before. There, Sherra saw some of what Michelle already knew.

“He was sleeping with her all this time he was saying he wanted you back. Tom told me. What a creep.” Sherra apologized to Michelle for saying anything nice about Peter, ever, and would have continued her supportive backstabbing all night. Michelle nodded wearily.

“I don’t care anymore.” she had said. “Enough. I never want to see his name again.”

 ***

Michelle was putting her long hair up in a towel to dry it in stages after a bath as she looked at the mirror. Here was her long face with wide cheekbones, the too-strong jaw, eyes too small and close together, a skinny chest. Cut her hair, put her in the wrong clothes, she’d pass for a man. Her face in the mirror grimaced, and then her restraint snapped. All her flaws rose to her mind as insults, images, and half-formed anxieties. It went on for a while.

She couldn’t sleep like this. She dialed San Francisco, long distance. Green letters rushing along on the TTY were not the same as having her big sister Annie there, but it was worth it to read Annie’s support on how horribly Peter treated her. Then Michelle slumped again because Annie started typing about her last breakup with a girl who had stolen from her, and now was asking Michelle not to tell her parents why she needed a loan. More secrets upon secrets.

“How do we make the right choices, when others won’t let us Q,” Michelle typed, using the Q in lieu of a question mark. “Or when we won’t let us Q GA.” Michelle didn’t quite know what she meant about the complexity of life’s pressures, but hoped Annie would understand.

“What do you mean…we won’t let us Q,” Annie typed. “Is this about me dating women Q GA.”

Michelle put her head in her hands. She didn’t want to fight with Annie, too. She typed haltingly: “Yes…but more complex than that. Korean culture’s so different from American…deaf from hearing…can we do all that QQ GA.”

“Oh…yes, yes we can. But should we…QQQ We can only do what’s best for us. Peter wasn’t it for you. Please promise me you won’t take him back. GA,” Annie replied.

Michelle promised. She hung up quickly then flopped on her bed, waking her curled-up cat. The cat looked at her with slitted eyes, yawned hugely and stalked across the bedspread, only to be abruptly plucked then cuddled next to her too-flat chest. Time and caresses passed until he began purring and kneading. They slept.

***

That was Monday night. This Friday afternoon, she was Miss Tea again, and focused on her last class of the day—the weakest readers, mostly nine-year-olds, except for Charley who was eleven, with a painfully pinched look, shaggy bowl-cut hair, threadbare clothes, and a learning disability. His mother’s firm reply to the school had been, “My son ain’t going into the dummy classes.” When they tried to explain the special reading program also served immigrant English-as foreign-language students, his mother got agitated. So that was it for Charley—put in “regular classes” with kids nearly two years younger to do the best he could. Miss Tea liked working with Charley, though. The younger students looked up to him a little more, and they didn’t tease him like the kids his age did. She could see him gaining some confidence from that.

This class, she was going to clarify the period versus the comma. In addition to what was already

The breakup pain hadn’t really gotten better with time.

written on the blackboard, she was going to incorporate its use in sign language, so the students could practice back and forth what the period and comma meant. The signs looked exactly like the punctuation marks, so they would be a good mnemonic.

Another student, Brad, interrupted midway through her explanation on periods. Brad often interrupted, actually. He seemed to take any eye contact as permission to speak about whatever was on his mind—and that was usually what he had for lunch.

Miss Tea said carefully, “I have not yet finished, period. I’m still on comma.”

Instead of interrupting again, Brad quieted immediately.

Hmm, that worked, she thought, and finished explaining. When she was done, she brushed back her long, black hair and waited as the students practiced signing sentences with commas and periods, back and forth. At the end she gave them their practice worksheets to write on.

On Fridays at the end of every class, Miss Tea liked to open up her filing cabinet to award candy to the best-behaved students that week. Last week, Mrs. Passas suggested maybe this once, it would be better for Francis to end the week on a sweet note, not frustration and jealousy towards other students, if she could find any reason to award some. “Positive associations.”

Miss Tea, then, decided to reinforce Francis’ reasonably good behavior by letting him buy some candy at half-price, one piece only. Odd, to realize Francis had never won the reward all year. Indeed, until then she had no idea how much Francis liked Nerds candy or the long candy sticks, until he see-sawed between the two and begged to buy two instead.

“Maybe next week,” she said.

Miss Tea was dubious about doling out candy to students who hadn’t fully earned it, but this week, Francis in fact had been more manageable and seemed almost pleasant today. Then, to be fair to all her classes (and curtail any bragging from Francis), she wrote a candy price list on an index card—two pieces maximum. The free candy reward system stayed, though. Oh yes.

Some students, like Charley, were just too poor to buy candy. She always made sure Charley got a shot at free candy every Friday—if he hadn’t misbehaved. Discipline. After Miss Tea gave candy to her final class and sent them off to wait for their buses, Charley lagged behind, a small packet of candy buried deep in his pocket.

“Go on, don’t miss your bus, Charley,” Miss Tea said.

“I wish I didn’t have to go home. I’d rather live at school. Why doesn’t this school have dorms?” Charley burst out.

“Maybe you will when you go to high school, Charley.” Miss Tea said. “Go home now comma and I’ll see you on Monday period?”

“Period,” Charley agreed with a half-smile and left.

After Miss Tea waved him off, she realized with a jab that Charley had said exactly what she was feeling. She didn’t want to go home, either. She wasn’t ready to go back to being Michelle Tei yet—betrayed, dumped, dateless, pitiful, flat-chested.

She began going through the student journals. The breakup pain hadn’t really gotten better with time. Oh, her cat was very affectionate when she got home, head-butting, meowing and then leaping up to cuddle whenever she watched TV. But she felt the same brimming dread every afternoon whenever the adrenaline of the day finally wore off. She selected a journal, opened it, and tried to focus on sentences.

If she went straight home tonight, she’d run into Sherra’s date Tom, and, well, she barely knew the

Here, at this desk, she was still Miss Tea, and Miss Tea didn’t cry at work.

guy and had never liked him. He was a blatant gossip. He’d be asking her right away about Peter, pretending not to know, watching for her reactions and storing them away to tell Peter, or worse, Peter’s new “girlfriend”—in quotes, because quotes reminded her of the sign for “selfish,” which was what both of them were. Selfish.

She read the childish scrawl carefully. Brad had written a bit about bubble gum, which almost read like ee cummings, really. She smiled slightly at the image, but then she remembered Peter’s favorite brand of gum, and then what Peter said. Would things have been better if she’d found the clues and seen things sooner? His increased temper, the wanting to be left alone a bit more than usual? He had claimed it was stress from his graduate studies. But she should have known it right when he exploded into a diatribe when she asked where he was, that it wasn’t just school stress or wedding jitters. Not with the profane things he said about her, about her looks, her religion, her culture, everything. She’d broken down and asked him to leave.

“So, you’re not denying any of it, are you?” he said maliciously.

Her face had been burning, her mouth open, her hands shaking; she felt slapped in the face by all the lies flung at her. Deny what was obviously untrue? One accusation contradicted the next: slut, cheating, frigid, lesbian, religious nut, he hadn’t cheated, and if he had, it was her fault.

She felt transported into a twilight zone. How could somebody who claimed to love her say all that? All she could see were his signs, fully intent on ripping her apart. No bully had ever said anything that bad to her. She had to retreat. The next morning, he called repeatedly, and Michelle had hung up. She refused to let him in the door. Then Sherra answered the phone. She told Michelle that Peter asked her to tell her it was off for good.

If Peter was really—how could she not have seen it? But again, how could she have seen it? He had been so gentle at first. That was why his words were all the more shocking. But her family knew he wasn’t right, somehow. Yet she thought they just were worried about her marrying somebody out of their culture. Had everybody known it was a mistake but her and Sherra?

Michelle realized she was weeping. She shut Brad’s journal and took a few long breaths to steady her nerves. She had to stop obsessing. Here, at this desk, she was still Miss Tea, and Miss Tea didn’t cry at work, especially not upon student assignments. She looked at the time. The last bus to Union Station would leave in twenty minutes. Once at Union Station, she decided, she’d eat in the food court, roam the bookstore on the first floor, maybe look at the clothes shops, or even peek at the stone gladiators holding their shields in front; she had been told some of them were kiltless behind the shields. She hadn’t wanted to look right then, but maybe tonight she would.

In short, she’d pretend she had an actual life until maybe six o’clock, when Sherra would have left for her date, then go home. With luck, Sherra would stay out so late that Michelle would already be asleep in bed when she came home.

So then, a full evening of solitude, ending in a bowl of ice cream before the TV wallowing in self-pity with her cat purring on her lap before bed. Not great, but it truly was all she could handle tonight. Period.

letter t22Jennifer Phillips moved to Minnesota to pursue life as a writer after being thrown out of the School of Hard Knocks. Alas, life keeps eluding her, but she’s collected a BFA anyway and is finishing a novel for her MFA thesis. She blogs at handsandquills.weebly.com. Her dog blogs at chezdeaf.blogspot.com .