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La Chusa

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I used to call them Temporaries. The students who would come and go like fireflies dotting the night sky, there one moment and gone the next. Uprooted for their families who migrated to find work or visit relatives. I learned quickly to keep them at a distance, to not get attached, but that changed when Julieta came to my classroom. Now I’m haunted by the sound of beating wings.

She appeared at the tail end of an Indian summer, the heat suffocating and unrelenting. It made everything wilt. The fractal posters, laminated seating charts, even the chalk seemed dank.

Julieta got to my classroom early. She wore a white cotton dress with red and yellow embroidery around the edges. Her raven hair fell to the middle of her back and her skin was flawless. Terrible as it might sound, I remember thinking that the boys would like her, that maybe I could leverage her to get them to behave. Ha.

“Julieta Palomo? I’m Ms. Stone. It’s nice to meet you. How is your first day going?“ The first step with Temporaries was to pinpoint how much English they understood. Then I’d worry about math.

She nodded. No words. Great.

“Here is your textbook, libro. Make sure you write your name, nombre, on the inside page.” I opened the book and pointed to the lengthy list of prior owners. She wouldn’t look at me, which made it impossible to know if she comprehended.

I led her to a desk at the back of the classroom, the last one available. “You can sit here, next to Sofia. I will talk to you more during class to see where you are with the material. Does that sound okay to you? Comprendes?”

“Yes, Miss,” Julieta whispered, lifting her eyes to meet mine. They were golden with large pupils, more like a bird’s than a human’s. She cocked her head to one side and stared through me, into me.

Then I felt the feathers. Hundreds of them, searching my skin and fanning hot air into my face. Startled, I dropped her textbook with a loud thump. I kneeled to retrieve it and noticed her feet, squeezed into tiny ballet flats. The skin around her ankles was so dry, almost like scales.

I stood up quickly and handed her the book, relieved when she slid into her designated seat. And even more relieved when the other seventh graders filed into the classroom, the girls chattering and the boys throwing crumpled pieces of paper at each other. It was easier to deny what I’d seen, experienced, facing the normal chaos.

After the bell rang, I held two fingers in the air, my signal for everyone to pay attention. It worked about half the time. “All right, settle down. Silencio.” More important than voice level was confidence. Like horses, preteens could sense fear. “Before we dive into fun-fractions and dandy-decimals, we have a new student. Julieta Palomo. I expect everyone to make her feel welcome.”

Julieta swept her strange yellow eyes over her peers. I watched how the students reacted. Saw the way that Sofia and the other Hispanic students glanced fearfully at her before whispering hushed words to each other, words I could barely make out. La Chusa.

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The next couple weeks with Julieta passed as they would with any Temporary. It became clear that she spoke proficient English, but less clear why she so often refused to answer my questions. I assumed she didn’t see the point in learning math. Most students don’t, especially when they’ve been forced to learn harsher life lessons. Then all I can do is be kind, be someone they can trust.

“So, what’s the next step?” I asked Julieta. Despite my one-on-one support, she still struggled with long multiplication and was way behind the rest of the class.

In lieu of a response, she scribbled a row of numbers in her notebook.

“That’s right. Good job!” That was the only time I ever saw Julieta smile. She had dimples and her teeth were pearly white. She almost could’ve passed for a normal girl.

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