Juvenile Hall Teacher

Back from a 12-hour pass,
My student lays her Camel on the desk.
The thin smoke rises in a rope that flutters
A little to her breathing, and her look
Beneath makeup like crayoning is not
The scared look of the cornered animal
I have prepared for, but a knowing smile.

Maria's twelve, a prostitute,
And tortures pets from curiosity.
Trailing her sleeping bag from one abandoned
Building to another,
Like a comic-strip Linus with his blanket,
She's come home forever
To serving lines and dayroom television
And parents with solid black ties.

I yawn, tell her to put the cigarette out
And go and wash her face--
Maria with the tear
A cellmate tattooed on her cheek,
Bleeding before she has begun to bleed.
I offer her the chance to be like me,
Adult, in institutional repose.

Instead, she pulls her blouse up, 
Sticks her prepubescent breasts out, her idea 
Of a taunt? A sin?
            I'm touched,
But when she grabs my phone,
I lose it.
      "Give it back!"
I almost shout, You little bitch.
When she shakes her head no
And hides the phone behind her back
I grab the cord coiled around her wrist
And jerk hard.
            Being on her knees only makes 
Her smile more mocking:
We both know what I am

Behind my desk, in my teacher's coat and teacher's tie,
With my pose of weary composure--hell's appropriate
A synonym for despair.

Calmly as I can, I reach
My hand out for the county's property,
While Maria, raking my forearm with her nails, 
Gives me one more chance
To be myself. 

Copyright © 2002 by Timothy Dekin. Published 2002 by TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.