Sunday, January 29, 2006

Rainbo Streeter – A Foster Child in High School – Part 2

"Duck, where have you been?”

“I’m dropping out. My mom doesn’t like cops parked outside every night.”

Sophie laughs, “And since when do you care about your foster mom?”

Duck grabs a shopping cart from behind Mrs. Jackson’s blackberries. The cart is full of rags, a yellow plastic bucket, an orange sponge mop and boxes of cleaner. “See, I’m a business person. I have my own houses to clean.”

“You stupid, stupid, stupid …”

Sophie kicks the cart and everything spills into the street. A car runs over a box of cleanser filling the air with a white cloud. Duck scrambles to retrieve her bucket and mop, “I thought you were my friend. Why’d you do that?”

“I thought you were so smart! You should be in school. Mr. Gardner looks so stupid. We have a calculus teacher and no calculus student. We have a dance this Friday. Come to the dance, please.” Sophie helps pick up the rest of the boxes.

Duck kicks over the cart and shuffles away, “Dance? Dance? I can’t dance.”

Christmas morning, Sophie walks between two poinsettia plants in terra cotta pots and enters the stucco house, “Merry Christmas Duck. I brought you some tamales.”

Duck wears an embroidered blouse and a long fringed skirt in purples and yellows. Sophie put her hands on Duck’s waist, “Girl, you’re looking good! Come back to school.”

Duck spins around, “Yes, look at me. I’ve got lots of houses. I’m doing well. Did you see my flowers on the porch? I’m moving to my own place next year.”

The two girls walk to church. “Duck, everyone wants you to come back. If you don’t come back we won’t get more money. They’ll fire the new teachers; the boys will drop out and …”

Duck looks at her oversized feet, “I’m in the right place. Just leave me alone.”

Duck buys an old Chrysler, blue, ten miles to the gallon, four bald tires, two broken windows, and no muffler, but it’s her car. Duck parks on the tree-lined street and walks up the circular driveway carrying her bucket full of cleaners, her mop, and pulling a new vacuum cleaner behind her. For a moment, she imagines she lives in this brick house with beds of petunias and four white columns framing the front door. She straightens out her starched uniform and rings the door.

“Come in. My wife said to expect you.”

Sophie looks at this man dressed in a black silk robe with manicured fingernails and smelling of unfamiliar cologne. He put his hands on her waist and lifts her up, “You’re even prettier than she said.”

Duck lets go of the vacuum cleaner, “Put me down!”

He brings his face to hers and kisses her on the lips, “You girls are never virgins and always need extra money. How about cleaning the bedroom first?”

Duck swings her size ten foot between his legs, grabs her vacuum cleaner and runs out of the house. She drives away with tears running down her face until she gets a flat tire in front of the school, “Wrong place!”

As soon as she steps out of the car, three boys spot her, “Woo!” “Duck’s grown up.” “Go girl!”

They run over to her, “You got a spare?”

They open the trunk, no spare. They all talk at once, “Duck, come back.” “School’s cool.” “Geometry’s fun.” “We’re putting on a play.” “I’m in the science fair.”

No one mentions the prom. Sophie told them Duck doesn’t like dances.”

“Car’s not going anywhere. Lead me in.”

The bell rings as the three guys escort her to the office. The students pour out in the hall and everyone cheers.

Duck sits next to a guy in jeans and a t-shirt, can’t be more than twenty-two, twenty-three. He opens a brand new calculus book between them, “Rainbo, this is just for you. It too late to do it all this year, but by next year you’ll know it all.”

Mr. Gonzales has tattoos on his fingers, “T U F F” and “K I L L.” Duck traces her fingers across the first page of chapter 1, Real Numbers and Equations, “You can call me Duck, and I know all this stuff.”

In May Duck takes the Algebra II exam and Colonel Black comes back to Love Canal, “You sneaking cheat! My agents told me you dropped out, and now I see you scored number one in Algebra II. From now on we follow you everyday. If you’re in school, we’re in school. If you clean houses, we clean houses.”

Duck looks at the colonel, who seems shorter than last year, “I’ll make it easy for you. I’m going to be in school!”

He leaves another envelope on Mr. Gardner’s desk, “The fraud this year was worse. Some students passed Geometry and reading scores are up 20%.”

After the door slams, Mr. Gardner laughs, “The New York Times editorial today, You Gotta Love Love High, says we showed that bigger budgets improve education performance. Of course, the conservative still say it’s a waste of money to support failing schools.”

“Next year."

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Rainbo Streeter – A Foster Child in High School – Part 1

Like two nocturnal animals, Duck and Sophie, press their fifteen-year old bodies against the cold dirt, deep inside Mrs. Jackson’s blackberry patch. The girls hold each other as a rare police car races down the street driving a cold breeze into their lair.

With a cardboard box scavenged from All Night Liquors to protect her curly hair and broad shoulders, the first girl crawls through briars. She leans against Mrs. Jackson’s old oak tree and brushes the dirt off her second-hand clothes, “Duck, you’re so lucky. You’re so smart. You’re so getting out of here.”

Duck, who is often mistaken for a ten-year old boy, slips through the tunnel of stickers untouched, “Forget it. I’m a foster kid. Nothing good ever happens to foster kids.”

“Closing time at the drive thru, let’s go.” Sophie runs down the deserted street towards a busy stream of traffic in the distance.

“Wait for me!” No matter how tightly Duck ties her size ten high-tops to her frail ankles, a clumsy waddle is to best she can manage. “Save some for me. I’m hungry!”

Sophie reaches out of the dumpster, “Here.”

Duck grabs the four drink cups – full of cold French fries, stale lettuce and half-eaten ribs. With one cup for each hand they walk home, pouring food into their mouths. Sophie tilts her head back to empty her first cup. She stares at the full moon, “Where do you think all the stars went?”

“They’re there.” Duck repeats, “They’re there,” like it’s some private joke. “They’re there.”

“There, there Sophie, don’t worry. The moon and the city lights are too bright. Like us, the stars are too dim to see.”

Duck empties her second cup, “Actually, not too dim, too far away.”

She corrects herself, “Like us, in the wrong place.”

They stop in front of a one bedroom stucco house on a street lined with old cars and pickup trucks, “Good night girl.”

“Night, night.”

Duck walks past a pile of used bricks, between two large terra cotta pots hosting dead plants, and opens the front door. The lock doesn’t work. No matter, someone is home and there’s nothing worth stealing, except drugs and they’re well hidden.

Duck surveys the living room. Sheets hang over the windows, but moonlight comes in through two bullet holes from a drive-by shooting. Tamales, the yellow hound dog, sleeps on the green stuffed chair. Duck doesn’t recognize the man sleeping on the black vinyl sofa. She picks up a couple of pillows and an old blanket and curls up behind the TV.

In the few minutes before she falls asleep, she wonders, “Am I too dim? Am I in the wrong place?”

The next morning, she puts on clean clothes from the cardboard carton she stores behind the TV. She grabs her purse and a beer for breakfast. She fixes her make-up in the bathroom at school. First period is English. She sits in the back of the class and sleeps.

“Rainbo!”

Her name, given to her by her third set of foster parents, disturbs her nap, but she doesn’t open her eyes and doesn’t move.”

“Mr. Gardner wants to see you in his office.”

The class turns to the back of the room. Everyone shouts and whistles, “Woo!” “Duck’s in trouble.” “Go girl!”

Like a feral cat, she opens her dark eyes, outlined with silver eyeliner, frozen within black eye sockets. Deliberately, she closes her note book. The cover matches the tattoos on her fingers, “D U C K.”

As her silver lips open, the class gets quiet, “Now?”

“Yes, now.”

Duck, almost five feet tall, maybe ninety pounds, walks to the front of the room. Just before she reaches the door, she spins back towards the class. The room is silent while her long black skirt sways back and forth and finally hangs down to her size ten shoes. She purses her silver lips like she’s going to blow a kiss to the teacher, but turns to the class and says, “Quack!”

By the time order is restored, she’s gone.

Mr. Gardner sits in his office with Colonel Black, “She’ll be here in a few minutes.”

Colonel Black, dressed in the dark orange of Homeland Security, paces back and forth in the small office.

Mr. Gardner stands at attention, “Colonel Black, would you like to sit down? We’ve never had a visitor from Homeland Security. What’s this all about?”

The colonel looks at his cuff and pulls out his handkerchief to polish his brass buttons. “Of course, no one has ever visited you. What a sorry excuse for a school. This glorified detention center is a nationally-certified failing school. The U. S. taxpayers are only interested in the schools with track records. Why should I ever visit at Love Canal High School?”

Mr. Gardner tucks his shirt into his blue jeans and straightens the piles of papers on his desk.

“Tell me about this Rainbo Streeter. What kind of name is Rainbo Streeter?”

Mr. Gardner walks over to a row of grey steel file cabinets. After hitting one a couple of times, the bottom drawer opens and he pulls out a file. “Rainbo Streeter, ninth grade, fifteen years old. In foster care for fourteen years, been abused, abandoned, moves every couple of years. Language skills sixth grade. Math at grade level.”

He closes the file and extends it towards the colonel. After a few moments, he drops it on a stack of similar files on his small oak desk. “Math at grade level! No one else at Love Canal is at grade level. She’s a smart girl. I bet she’d be an honor student with a real family.”

“Oh you bleeping liberals are all the same. She’s drug-damaged and lazy, just like the rest of your illegals and illiterates. But she’s why I’m here.”

The door opens and Duck walks in the room. She looks around the principal’s office. Two chairs in the middle of the room face the black desk and the principal’s leather chair. They are usually occupied by a trouble maker and a parent. A third chair is pushed in the corner under the picture of Martin Luther King. This chair is for the parole officer. Lincoln hangs behind the desk and Washington is over the row of file cabinets.

All the chairs are empty. The big clock over the door ticks, “Tick, tick, tick.” Duck sits in the parole officer’s char and fold her arms across her chest making sure her tattoos are clearly visible.

The strange man in the orange uniform points his finger at Duck, “Are you Rainbo Streeter?”

Mr. Gardner backs away, against the file cabinet, but Duck looks straight at the Colonel, “I guess so. That’s what they call me.”

Colonel Black moved towards Duck until his finger almost touches her nose, “Listen you to me insolent bitch! You’re in big trouble!”

Duck has been yelled at by drunks, beaten with belts and coat hangers and brooms. She’s been molested and abused. She doesn’t flinch as this man, adorned in brass buttons and dressed like a jack-o-lantern, approaches her.

“You scored the highest score in New York State on the Geometry test. No one at this school even passes that test. I doubt your teacher could even pass it.”

“So? So what?”

He looks at Mr. Gardner and slams his palm on the file cabinet. The principal jumps. “Do you know the penalty for cheaters? Teachers can be fined, fired, sent to prison. Student scholarships can be taken away and Rainbo here can be sent to jail, up to ten years for the first offense.”

Rainbo stands up and shuffles her oversized shoes towards the file cabinets, “I didn’t cheat, as for your scholarships, look at me! I’m a foster child going nowhere. We never go to college. You can keep your scholarship; I’m never going to use anyway.”

“Bull turkey! I’m sure you and Mr. Garner here are guilty cheats, but we can’t figure it out, so you get ten thousand dollars for your scholarship account and the school gets the legislated performance bonus of ten million.” He drops an envelope on top of the Rainbo Streeter file and heads for the door.

Duck holds her two fists up to his face, “If you’re coming back, my name is Duck.”

“I hope to never be back here. For next year’s testing, we’ll have FBI and NSA surveillance for the entire process. National Education Performance Testing is too important, too much is at stake. We can’t let a school like this make a mockery of NEPT. You can bet I won’t be back.”

The door slams. Mt Gardner collapses into his chair. The big clock over the door ticks. A bell rings. “That’s second period. Can I go to my math class?”

During the summer Sophie helps her mother clean houses. Duck’s foster mother gets a new boyfriend and he wants her on the street, Duck too. He laughs, “Streeter on the street.”

“No, never, I’ll run away,” she looks at the laughing boyfriend dressed in a black Raider exercise suit, with a black eye and a bandage on his thumb. “If I run away, no one gets paid by Social Services.”

The boyfriend stops laughing. Duck smiles, “I’ll pay you one hundred dollars a week. Just leave me alone.”

He punches her with his good hand, but she ducks, “Cash, every Friday.”

Later, outside the drive thru, she tells Sophie. “No problem, my mother has plenty of houses to clean. You can clean houses.”

Duck hugs Sophie, “Thanks. Have you seen the school?”

‘Wow! Yes! Every day there are trucks – painters, plumbers, carpenters. My father even got a job there. He says the school got some money and they’re fixing it up and even hiring new teachers.”

“They even cleaned up the trash from the park next to the school.”

“My older brother says that some of his friends are curious about the clean up …”

“and new teachers!”

“He says his friends are not going to drop out this year.”

“It’s a good thing they’re getting more teachers.”

The two girls spend the summer cleaning houses, sleeping under the blackberries, eating cold french fries, and dreaming about next school year.

“Do you think we can have dances?”

“I wonder if we’ll get new textbooks.”

“Maybe we can have a real prom!”

“I want a Calculus teacher.”

“I want a dance teacher.”

The last week in August, the Salvation Army and Goodwill is crowded as everyone shops for school clothes. Duck gets a black shawl with beads and a short black skirt to show off her hips that suddenly grew over the summer. Sophie buys red, green and white outfits – three of them. On the first day of school everyone gathers in the park an hour before school opens. Duck stands at the edge of the crowd wondering, “Could this be the right place?”

Monday, January 02, 2006

1052 Words – Love Canal – Scene 1 – Jorge Martinez

I watched my video feeds, waiting for our visitor. We had darn few visitors. I checked his ID record again. Special Investigator, Dr. Robert Horowitz, M.D., Ph.D., Assistant to the Secretary of Education. Wow! Most our visitors were cops, parole officers, or junior reporters.

Ten o’clock, right on time, he walked to the gate. I listened, “Welcome to Martin Luther King High School, Dr. Horowitz. Please put you bag on the conveyer and walk slowly through the detector.”

After he dropped his bag, his hand started to rise, as if he intended to salute. Even in his conservative yellow and blue plaid suit with gold piping to accommodate the electronics, his stiff posture and mechanical gait gave away his military connections. The scanner screen surprised me; he was unarmed – unusual for a first time visitor. All our teachers carried weapons – non-lethal, of course – usually brain wave disruptors or sonic disablers.

He didn’t knock, just walked through my open door, “Ms. Njormo?”

I stood up, straightening my campus supervisor uniform. I checked my holster as I reached out my hand, “Dr. Horowitz, welcome to MLK High.”

His hand shake was firm, but I grew up on the streets – we were on my turf – after a few seconds he let go, “What brings you to Niagara Falls? We’re not NYC or even Albany.”

He places his PO on the table – obviously a high-end model, probably capable of recording and projecting holos, “Jorge Martinez.”

My screen confirmed my suspicions. We have lots of Jorge Martinezes, “Which Jorge?”

He rubbed his eyes as if the meeting was already taking too long, “The one with highest score on the high school physics exam – the highest score in New York State. Surely, someone in this glorified detention center must have noticed.”

I stood up, “He graduated last June. He’s gone.”

“Yes, I know. Sorry about my tone. I apologize,” he leaned back and unbuttoned his jacket, “Do you have a cafeteria? Let me buy you a fruit juice.”

I may not’ve gone to college, but I graduated the streets of Love Canal. I can hold my own, “No cafeteria, there’s a clean taqueria just outside the gate.”

Old Jesus whistles and winks at me when I enter his storefront with Dr. Horowitz. He stands behind the wooden counter, “Hola, what’ll be?”

I direct Dr. Horowitz to the one chair that doesn’t wobble, “Dos limon.”

I grabbed the two plastic cups and sit down at a small wooden table. Most of the graffiti was en Espanol, but I’m sure he understood the gang tags meant he was a visitor, probably an unwelcome visitor.

The shop was empty, but I still whispered, “What’s so important about this Jorge?”

He leaned back on his chair, crossed his fingers across his chest, took a big drink and began, “These are high stakes tests. District budgets, teacher bonuses, student scholarships, all depend on these scores.”

I sipped my lemonade, “So why are you here?”

He smiled, that “you people don’t know anything” smile, “A lot of money is involved here. Cheating is very serious. If we allowed people to cheat, our whole system would collapse.”

“Huh?”

“Trillions of dollars are given to educate our citizens. Students who study hard and get good scores are rewarded, as are their teachers and school districts. On the other hand, the lazy students who get low scores are penalized. A school like yours gets nothing, … until Jorge. Last year millions of dollars went to this school. What do you think would happen to the education budget if we sent money to the thousands of districts like this who don’t deserve it?”

I put my cup on the table with a solid clunk, “Are you saying Jorge cheated?”

“What else? Maybe not Jorge – someone may have taken the test for him. Someone may have broken into the test computers and stolen the questions or just changed the scores. You’d be surprised at the scams I’ve uncovered.”

He wanted to interview our Physics teacher, “Let me talk to Mr. O’Simpson, though from his record, I doubt he could pass the physics exam himself.”

We met Harry in the break room sitting on a secondhand sofa, playing a game on his screen and drinking from a bottle. Dr. Horowitz sat on a wobbly chair, “Tell me about Jorge Martinez.”

“Which one?”

Dr. Horowitz, flashed his ID and smacked his PO on the floor. “Be careful. You can be looking at ten to twenty. The Jorge who got the unbelievable test score.”

Harry didn’t look up from his game, “What you want to know?”

The agent grabbed the screen and threw it across the room, “Now I have your attention.

Harry looked up, “If you damaged that, you’ll hear from the union.”

“What kind of student was he?”

Harry folded his arms across above his large belly, “Good. He was a good student.”

The agent’s knuckles turned white and he took a deep breath through his nose.

“Everyday after I showed the film, he answered the homework questions. When he took the quiz on Friday, the computer always gave him a perfect score. I’ve already spent my bonus, two weeks in Las Vegas, shows, suites, gambling and girls, you can’t get it back.”

“I don’t care about your bonus. I want to know how you guys cheated.”

“No idea. I just run the films and coach football … and basketballs … and track. I don’t even watch the films. If they have questions, they email the Hopkins and Wolff Curriculum Publishers.”

Dr. Horowitz looks at me and points his thumb to the door. He doesn’t even say goodbye. The next stop is the Principal, Mrs. Romapolous.

She’s very polite, but the result is the same. She doesn’t know anything.

Back in my office, “Can you contact Jorge for me?”

I glance back to my screen, “Sorry, like most of our boys, he joined the Marines.”

“I don’t believe you people. He could have had a full scholarship, but he joined the Marines?”

He glanced at his PO and kicked a chair across the room, “Merde, the fool got himself killed in the Middle East. This case is closed. Tell your crooked friends that it better never happen again.”

He slammed the door. I never wanted to see him again either.