Ten years ago, a liberal San Francisco suburb was traumatized by a rash of hate crimes against a 17-year-old lesbian. But when it was revealed that the victim herself had staged the attacks, the entire community turned on her and she never spoke about the incidents publicly. Until now.
Mrs. K can’t remember what it was specifically that made her suspicious. Maybe how the eggs were splattered on the Jeep, or maybe her daughter’s disposition. “I was starting to think, There’s something wrong here,” she says once she finally allows me to turn on a tape recorder. She doesn’t want me to do this story and two nights ago tried to talk her daughter out of cooperating. Her daughter is a teacher now, and the reality is that having all this, all the hateful words — the fabricated ones and the real ones that followed — dredged back up could harm them both. I assure her I won’t be using either of their names.
It’s been 15 years, probably, since I’ve seen Mrs. K, and she looks the same, but slimmer. Her hair is still long and golden. We sit in her living room, almost knee to knee. A vase of fresh-cut daffodils stands on the coffee table. If I’m going to tear open these old wounds, she wants me to at least have the right information, so an hour into my visit, she stands up, walks to a cabinet behind me, and takes out two white binders. Inside these are just about every email she ever sent to the school and the police and others; a calendar she’d made documenting every act of vandalism, death threat, and venomous anti-gay slur; newspaper clippings; the fliers. And then the court petition, probation documents. She insists she hasn’t opened the binders since she made them. “I have every piece of correspondence from my divorce,” she explains. “I have my tax records for the last 10 years. This is how I roll.”
Soon after the Jeep was egged, she did confront her daughter — we can call her Mary — at the Cheesecake Factory, but was convinced to back off. Those were hard years. She’d gone back to work and separated from her husband as her older daughter had gone off to college back East. There were tuition bills, bitter fights, a restraining order, an ever-waning trickle of alimony. She was working six days a week at some points. She remembers one night even taking work she had to do out to the car, watching the house through the night, trying to catch whoever was attacking Mary. And Mary, who’d always been independent, was drifting from her. “I had absolutely no control over her whatsoever,” she says.
“I remember the people that were sympathetic — like this note,” she says, holding up a greeting card from PTA representatives, still in its envelope, opening it with care. “‘Dear Tam Student and Family, we’re writing to offer friendship, support,’” her voice breaks, “‘and solidarity with your family during this tremendously difficult time.’ I’m telling you this meant so much to me. They’ll never know.” She shakes her head and wipes tears from her cheeks.
“So many people had expressed sympathy and now those same people were angry, too, that she had fooled them and did I know. I got that question a lot: Did I know?” Though they’d already planned to move out of Mill Valley before the truth came out, the timing was certainly serendipitous. “I literally could not go to the grocery store,” she says.
She tells me emphatically about how Mary met all the conditions of her probation, how she immediately enrolled in community college, and from there, state school; from there, her teaching program. How good her grades were. Their relationship has healed.
“I do think she feels she needs to be an upstanding citizen now, that she needs to be the person that she was always capable of being. She is going to be that role model, that mentor, that leader of young people who are struggling, because she’s been there.”
Tamalpais High School is over 100 years old, which is really old for California. Its white stucco buildings are arranged on a steep green hill, and a clock tower stands at its center, fringed by sycamores, overlooking the intersection of Miller Avenue and Camino Alto in Mill Valley. It serves about 1,100 students from the southernmost chunk of Marin County, which borders San Francisco via the Golden Gate Bridge. The county and Mill Valley specifically are white and affluent and very liberal: Its median home price is more than $1 million and fewer than 1 in 8 are registered Republicans. Its redwood-shaded canyons are home to many helicopter parents and Priuses and some celebrities — film producers, actors, rockers of ‘60s and ‘70s repute. The weather is almost without exception pleasant. Days often begin shrouded in fog, but by midday it usually burns off, revealing the mountain, for which the school is named, rising 2,500 feet above, green skirts laid out around it. Locals mostly call the mountain, and the school, Tam.
It was characteristically pleasant the Monday morning of Nov. 1, 2004, when Vice Principal Candace Curtis was alerted on her walkie-talkie that she needed to go down to Ruby Scott Gym, to the girls’ locker room. Curtis, a petite woman with a mess of brown hair, had been working in the schools for over two decades, first as a teacher, and for the last dozen or so as an administrator. In the cement-floored, low-lit locker room, a custodian pointed out what he’d found. It had been done with a ballpoint pen, evidently. The three letters were blocky and strange but what they said was clear: “FAG.”
Ms. Curtis determined that the locker belonged to Mary, who was a senior and active on several sports teams. Ms. Curtis didn’t know whether she was in fact a lesbian, though, like many, wouldn’t have been surprised if she were. She was heavyset. Her light brown hair was buzzed into a crew cut and she dressed in more masculine clothes — collared shirts, plain T-shirts, baggy jeans. When Ms. Curtis called Mary to the office and explained what had happened, her reaction was hard to parse, but she accepted an offer to go home early. She asked only that Ms. Curtis not tell her mother why. The locker was repainted.
A few days later, her mother did find out, and that Sunday wrote Ms. Curtis a pointed email. Her daughter, she explained, had been under a lot of stress as of late, so much so that just two weeks before she’d asked the school counselor for a psychiatrist referral. She could not believe that Ms. Curtis wouldn’t have alerted her of this obviously troubling incident. Ms. Curtis hardly had time to reply before the second graffiti was discovered, on Monday. This time it was on the door of the girl’s white Jeep. Again those same odd, blocky letters, only larger: “DIE FAGGOT.”
A week later, on Nov. 14, a note was found on her windshield, one that’d been typed up large enough to fill the piece of paper. “YOU CAN RUN BUT YOU CAN’T HIDE,” it read, “WE KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE. WHEN WE’RE DONE WITH YOU YOU WILL BURN IN HELL.” The next day, the gym locker again, “RUN FAG RUN,” as well as urine. This, Curtis and others presumed, was probably the work of a man, and yet how did a man not only go into the girls’ locker room without being noticed, she wondered, but know which was the correct locker? The administration, her counselors, and now the police, asked Mary again and again who might be behind these attacks, whether she could recall anyone bullying or stalking her. She said she had no idea. She said she couldn’t recall being victimized on account of her sexuality before.
Soon Mary confided in her small group of friends about what was happening. They were horrified. One of her best friends, Nina Hirten, recalls: “I identify as bisexual and I know plenty of other kids when I was there identified themselves as not straight. Maybe it’s going to be me [next]. Who’s going to write on my car?” But then it became clear whomever it was was targeting Mary: “That’s fucking lame,” Hirten recalls thinking. “In some ways she’s an easy target because she’s obvious and outspoken and well-known and makes herself known.”
Rumors spread. Nobody official gave a name, but nobody needed to. We heard a girl, a senior, an athlete, was the victim of anti-gay attacks, and we guessed rightly who was meant. Mary and I had been friends in middle school, but by senior year, we had grown apart. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable approaching her and saying I was sorry about what was happening. This is partly because I had no real confirmation she was the victim, but also because whatever was happening to her was embarrassing and strange. Years later, I wondered if this was cowardly.
On Nov. 19, a note was found under her doormat at home: “THEY MAKE IT HARDER BUT NOT IMPOSSIBLE AND WE ONLY FIGHT HARDER THIS IS YOUR LAST WARNING WE’RE AROUND EVERY CORNER AND IT’S TIME.” Two days later, in the evening, Mary went out to her car. She noticed an egg had been smashed on the back of it, and saw another on the ground nearby. It was then, she’d later tell authorities, that a third struck her in the temple. She looked up, she told them, shocked, confused, and heard laughing and unintelligible yelling. When sheriffs arrived on scene, emotions were running high. They had to separate Mary and her mother so they could calm them down and get statements. When they investigated the scene, authorities also discovered “FAGMOBILE” scrawled in dirt on the car.
“She never saw who it was,” Mill Valley Police Department Captain Jim Wickham told the Marin Independent Journal that week in the first news story about the incidents. “It may be students; that’s one thing we’re looking at.” Multiple former classmates who are gay but weren’t yet out now cite the incident with the eggs as one that scared them the most — the idea that she’d been followed home.
In late November, they found “FAG CLASS” on the doors of one of her classrooms. In early December, it was “DIE FAG” spray-painted red in two-and-a-half-foot-tall letters in the school’s central Keyser Hall, a location that investigators noted the victim had to pass to get to her first class. “DIE FAGGOT” was found scrawled on the girl’s bathroom door. “FAG CLASS” on another classroom. Around this time the sheriff and police department devoted further resources to the investigation; the FBI was contacted. Still, as the IJ reported, “No suspects have been identified.”
“The mother was calling me constantly,” Ms. Curtis says. “‘How are you keeping my daughter safe?’” She didn’t have a good answer. No matter what she did, she would get another call early in the morning across the walkie-talkie, a custodian saying she better get down and take a look at something. “My stomach would just get in knots. I was on edge every day for all those months, never knowing when something else was going to happen.”
When she’d worked at another high school in the county a few years prior, Curtis remembered the IJ “blasting” the school because of some what she terms “racial incidences” that had occurred. On an impulse, with no permission, and certainly no budget, she and her secretary designed and ordered a big banner and had it hung from the clock tower. “I had no idea when I got it how expensive it was going to be,” she says now, chuckling. It read: “AccepTance, compAssion, eMpathy.”
Curtis made a point of attending the Gay–Straight Alliance meetings, which were now occurring weekly; Mary was co-president. A letter was sent to the students and their families by Principal Chris Holleran, detailing the crimes and their efforts to curtail them, including the “establishment of a $1,000 reward for information, support services for the targeted student, and promotion of our anonymous tip line.” Fliers littered campus. “Got information?” they asked, adding, “It’s your community.” Another of the victim’s friends began a campaign passing out rainbow ribbons.
Finally, one night, police seemed to catch a lead: They caught three students on campus dressed in camouflage. This included the 18-year-old Perry twins, who were somewhat infamous around campus and town, always, it seemed, protesting their innocence to a hall monitor or jumping off something tall. Police drew firearms and got them on the ground. Their 17-year-old companion was released, but the Perrys were photographed and fingerprinted and charged with trespassing while detectives tried to get them to confess to the crimes. But they insisted they’d been trying to solve the crimes: “We were trying to figure out who was doing this,” Clayton Andrew Perry explains now. “I have family members that are gay.” (They were maybe also interested in the cash.)
“We’re good people, right, but we just had this stereotypical kind of outlook on us,” he says, adding that he and his brother are both paramedics. He spent two days in county lockup, the only time in jail he says he’s ever done.
A candlelight vigil was held in the front of the school in mid-December, where 250 attended; even the TV news was there. Guest speakers included two representatives of a local LGBT organization called Spectrum and a woman from the office of the local San Francisco state Sen. Carole Migden, herself openly lesbian. The winter sun descended early and candles flickered. The event ended with a junior on a guitar leading the crowd in a tearful rendition of “Let It Be.”
“That place was packed. Absolutely packed,” Candace Curtis recalls.
This wasn’t surprising, given the moment: Earlier that year, and 20 minutes away, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom began marrying same-sex couples at City Hall. A month later, Gov. Schwarzenegger and the State Supreme Court stopped them, and those 4,000 couples who were married, some of whom had kids at Tam, found themselves in a legal gray area that wouldn’t be resolved in their favor until the landmark Supreme Court decision that defeated Prop 8 last summer.
Inspired by what Newsom had done, a group of drama students had been developing a Laramie Project–style oral documentary play called Are We Married Yet?: How the Rainbow Reached Marin. “This has taken on special resonance as anti-gay incidents have recently surfaced on the Tam campus itself,” director John Warren stated in the play’s pink playbill.
After a quiet winter break, the crimes erupted again. The GSA had put up fliers that included statistics about the frequency of LGBT teen suicide. One was found on Mary’s car, alongside blocky words in column, instructing “SO DO IT.” “DIE FAG” was written in dry-erase pen on another teacher’s classroom door.
Then one afternoon, Nina Hirten recalls, she and Mary walked out to Mary’s car, which was parked by the football field. After they got in, Mary slammed her fists into the steering wheel and swore loudly. Hirten asked what was happening. “The door,” Mary said, indicating to the passenger door. Hirten got out and saw another slur written there in big black letters. She was confused as to how Mary had seen it, but more confused that she’d missed it. She sat with her friend as she called the police, as they filed a report. “She was like, ‘I don’t want to go home right now,’ because at that point she’d been egged once or twice at her house. I told her, ‘You can stay with me whenever you want’ and she did.” Each time something else happened, Hirten would get a text. “She was practically living at my house that year,” she says. “It came to the point where I felt like I was really babysitting her.”
This was in part because Mary was high all the time — cough medicine. Most of her friends knew about it. Teachers occasionally sent her to the counselor’s office. Mary’s other best friend recalls covering for her a lot: “I didn’t think it was my place to confront her about that, given that I was under the impression that she was fearing for her life most of the time.”
One night in mid-February, the police found Mary on campus drunk and sent her home. At least once, her mother called the sheriff, worried that her daughter had run away, or worse. One comment Mary made about wanting to drive off a cliff worried investigators so much they put a GPS unit on her car and kept a laptop with them at all times so they could keep track of her. Mary didn’t know about this. Neither she nor her mom were aware that the retired couple across the street had allowed a camera to be installed on their property, either.
Fliers blew away or were rained on and then replaced. The edges of the rainbow ribbon on my own book bag frayed. The feeling around campus was one of tension, and slight disbelief: They haven’t figured this out yet? Suspects were few, and no theories stuck. Maybe a parent? some wondered. The crimes showed no sign of stopping; if anything they escalated.
Right before the big spring multicultural assembly, which this year would have a big LGBT component, the school’s main office received a threatening letter. “I remember having the police there in force, all over the place,” recalls Curtis, “for fear that there was going to be some horrible thing that some perpetrator was going to try and pull off.”
And then at the end of spring break, in mid-April, five teachers received threatening voicemails. The voice was deep and sounded mechanized. It said: “…force [sic] to tolerate it when we see you every day, we sit in your classes and we tolerate you because we have to. This is our expression: We don’t want you here and it’s just the beginning. We have supporters and will only get bigger. Take your opportunity to leave now.”
“I had to play it a couple times,” recalls one recipient, who, along with his other targeted colleagues I spoke with, asked to remain anonymous. “I didn’t understand what it was saying. It was a little bit cryptic.” At first he wasn’t sure if it was a threat or a prank. “I don’t think I put two and two together until after, when a number of us were targeted and I’m like, ‘Oh, all of us are gay.’ And that’s when a lot of questions started coming through my mind: ‘How did this person know?’”
Mary was turning 18. She and her friends drove out to Muir Beach. They wanted to not think about the attacks. They drank and built a bonfire and planned to spend the night on the cold, gray sand. But Mary was wasted and, Hirten remembers, things got dark: “She was saying, ‘What’s the point of going on? All this keeps happening to me, why is it happening to me?’ At one point she said she wanted to kill herself and we’d all be better off without her.”
After a sheriff kicked them off the beach, they ended up sleeping in their cars. They drove back in thick silence the next day along the winding highway. Hirten says quietly, “I just really didn’t know what to do at that point.”
Nina Hirten says she never suspected the truth. Most of Mary’s former friends and teachers didn’t. I know I surely didn’t. Like many, I remember where I was when I saw the story. It came out on Sunday, May 8, Mother’s Day. It was above the fold, next to an infographic about Marin’s unsolved murders. It declared: “Tam High Anti-Gay Attacks a Hoax.”
“She did admit to police that she basically did it all for attention,” Superintendent Bob Ferguson stated in the story. The police and the story did not name her. It was picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times. The internet was smaller then, and social media more or less nonexistent. A couple of right-wing bloggers — including Michelle Malkin — reveled in it, asserting that odd, hyper-bigoted point that the occasional fake hate crime somehow disproves the existence of real bigotry.
That Monday, that week, we stood around in hallways and on lawns just asking one another what just happened and mostly why. People were confused, people were furious. I remember a particularly hotheaded peer kicking at a chain-link fence. In a subsequent IJ story, the Perry twins expressed “outrage” at their prior arrest. They demanded Mary be punished. “It’s still a hate crime,” Clayton Andrew Perry said, “She did it to a teacher.” She was never seen from again; we heard she was expelled, that her athletic scholarship to a state school had been rescinded.
She did write an email to her friends the day the story broke. Few wrote back. One of her best friends was so upset by it, she set up a filter to block Mary’s emails and hasn’t had any contact with her since. “It feels to me like the healthy choice, and I feel comfortable with that choice,” she says to me now.
I’d think of all this when I’d see another one of these stories: a lesbian waitress who faked a hateful note. A transgender high schooler who lied about being beat up. I am not surprised, of course, that bigots still revel in such incidents, but am surprised by how others, even LGBT blogs, react insensitively to them. (Take this Queerty roundup about five different fake hate crimes titled “Pants on Fire.”) Of course this anger, the anger our community felt, makes sense: A fake hate crime is like a mutiny, and in giving ammunition to the enemy it hurts the greater — and very real — movement to end LGBT discrimination and hate. But then I’d remember carpooling to a Weird Al concert with her in seventh grade, and waiting after for autographs, or a birthday party in her driveway where we spun our own cotton candy. The idea that she’d done what she had because she was just evil or something never felt like explanation enough.
“I do feel a responsibility to make amends whenever possible,” she wrote when I first approached her. “I’m happy to talk and answer questions, although I may not have any satisfying answers.” I was apparently the first person from our high school with whom she’d had contact in nearly 10 years.
“It’s the fucking stupidest thing,” she says. We’re sitting in a crowded family-friendly restaurant in a strip mall in the suburb where she now lives, on a Sunday morning. “I had a whole bunch of homework to do and I hadn’t done it. None of it. Hadn’t read anything, hadn’t done the notes. I don’t remember what the assignment was, but it was something that we had a week or two to do and I hadn’t done any of it. So I broke into the locker room and I graffitied my locker. Then the first or second period of the day, they called me out of the office, they said, ‘You can go home if you want to.’ I was like, Sweet. I went home and did my homework.”
She puffs air between her freckled cheeks and meets my eyes, summarizes: “I started a whole fake hate-crime thing with the police so I didn’t have to do my homework.” She stacks her three empty coffee creamers into one another. It had to have been more than that, I say.
“It was the whole situation,” she admits, and the details of the years that had preceded flow out of her: the divorce, the strain between her and her mom, her sister going away to school. The sense that she couldn’t go to a college herself that would add to that financial burden as her friends made preparations to apply out of state. Big conflicts with certain teachers. And then there was the loneliness of being out and feeling like hardly anyone else was. I ask, why cold medicine? “It doesn’t show up on drug tests. It’s really cheap. They sell it two for one at Walgreens.”
Each time she committed another crime, she says, “It was a little like pressure-release valve.’”
“Imagine someone was like, ‘You have zero responsibility now.’” In her voice, I can still hear a glimmer of how incredible she found this effect. She could go to school if she wanted. She could still play sports. Her mom, friends, teachers, and coaches rallied around her, told her how much they loved her: “All that shit that you just wish somebody would have said without there being an explicit reason to.”
She hadn’t anticipated the community being so supportive. She didn’t want the candles, the fliers, the ribbons. She recalls lying on the floor of a classroom as the vigil was starting, not wanting to go. “I was convincing myself that nobody was really being affected by this. I remember feeling it was very victimless, which I now recognize was obviously not true.”
And then there was the problem of needing to escalate the crimes in order to keep everyone engaged. She recorded the voicemails using a computer program that distorts voices. She used a pay phone behind a gas station by the freeway. I ask about this break of pattern — targeting the teachers. This is the element of what she did that I’ve had the hardest time understanding.
“It was probably about calling them out,” she admits. “None of our teachers were really out. Even ones we knew were gay. You definitely got a sense like they wanted to let you know, very old-school gay code shit where you drop hints about things but you never come out and say it. It’s kind of fucked up to be on the other end of that as a gay person, like, ‘Oh, we can’t talk about this.’” But she insists she didn’t do what she did out of a spirit of activism. Her motives were totally selfish: “If I put us two steps forward, I definitely took us 10 steps backward.”
She says she wasn’t thinking about what she was doing in terms of the long-term consequences. She didn’t have some fake person in her imagination who was committing these crimes; she knew on some level that this scenario was becoming less and less believable. She took precautions not to get caught but didn’t imagine what it’d be like when she was arrested. “That’s the level of the hubris that I was working under.”
They matched the voicemails to the pay phone by the gas station and confirmed her car was there at that same time. They called a meeting up at the county courthouse and insisted she meet them there. Meetings like this had become her life. But there was something in the way they insisted she attend the meeting that she suspected she’d been caught. When she got there, they explained who was present: a counselor from the school, her mom — and her dad.
She confessed to everything. They told her she could go home. Her mom took work off the next day. Her sister flew back from college not long after. But she doesn’t remember them sitting down and talking about all that happened, like a big intervention. “That’s how we function. That’s how I function, anyway. It’s my problem. I don’t talk to people about things.”
Her friends totally cutting her off surprised her, she says, choosing her words carefully, emphasizing that she doesn’t blame them. “I accepted that they were going to be very upset with me, but at the same time I felt like if you were a friend, you could talk to somebody while you were upset with them. The isolation set in really fast. Any kind of plan I did have was out the window.”
She and her mom were fighting a lot. She moved out and in with a roommate. She was high all the time. She bought a gun. She confessed to her roommate she was thinking of killing herself when she was fucked up and was committed, held for 24 hours.
She can’t pinpoint when it was that things started getting better. That summer she went on a road trip with her dad, she recalls fondly, and they drove all around America. She started community college classes. She worked as a dog washer, as a barista, in an office. She paid a restitution to the high school, attended meetings with a parole officer, and did community service, for which she volunteered at school. At one point she realized she looked forward to that each day more than anything else, and that informed her decision to be an educator. When she was 19 and working at a summer camp, she met the woman who’d become her wife.
Their apartment is nearby, up in the hills a bit. It’s modest and carpeted and tidy. There are framed photos of their wedding day — she’s grinning widely, her bride’s in white. A green lawn and big yellow sunflowers. Both of their families. That ceremony was a few years ago, and last summer they married legally. There’s a goldfish and a schedule of meals they’ll cook and take to work each day on the fridge. Her wife, an elementary school teacher, kneels by the coffee table, preparing a model craft project for Monday morning. We stand on her back patio and listen to the freeway and admire the trees. It’s hot for winter, even in California. Hummingbirds zip up and away.
For the first four or five years, she says, she would think about what she did every single night as she fell asleep. She’d wonder what everyone else was doing, what they thought about what had happened. She’d feel tremendous regret. For the relationships she’d ruined. For the fact that she hadn’t realized her actions would ultimately harm the LGBT cause: “Like, how could you not fucking think about that?” she says, raising her voice. “It was all part of not thinking about the end game, not considering what was going to happen.”
But mostly, she’d wonder why she’d done it: “It’s so stupid and so pointless. Not having a good reason — I have somewhat of a reason but it’s not a good reason — so there’s no way to justify to yourself. You’re going to live with that forever: Wow. I did this really horrible shitty thing to all these people for absolutely zero reason.”
That she doesn’t have a good reason makes sense to a clinical psychologist I later talk with, Dr. Michael Friedman. He points out that one of the reasons people like Breaking Bad is that we get to witness how you don’t just go from being a schlubby science teacher to a sociopathic meth kingpin overnight. “Each little individual decision gets made based off where the person is at that moment in their life and the contingencies that are right before them. We inappropriately assume that there’s a cause and then there’s a solution. And we all want to feel more safe.”
The fact that she was a teenager, the fact that she was using drugs, to him these are all the more reason to believe her when she says she doesn’t know why she did what she did. While growing up gay can be and was, for her, isolating, he says that’s an element of this story, not the story. “What I’m hearing in the story is a series of extremely unfortunate things that all kept piling together to create this perfect storm of a moment.”
I’ve always thought of her story as so exceptional, but now I’m thinking about how many of us nearly do things that we’ll regret for the rest of our lives when we’re 17. Some of us, more of us than we’d like to acknowledge, do. There’s a reason juvenile records are sealed, purged, as hers were. She’s been background checked for basically every job she’s ever had and there’s never been a problem. (The first few times were pretty “white knuckle,” she says.)
We’re leaned against the rail, each sipping from a Longboard lager. (“I have Longboard lager or Longboard lager,” she’d joked before.) I find myself trying to grasp at the string of our friendship, which floats by, thin as a spider’s thread on the hot air. I find myself suddenly telling her about how my last 10 years were, recapping whatever struggles I had too. I point out that late high school, early college, is a difficult time for many of us. She chuckles a deep chuckle.
“No, just me. I’m the only special flower who didn’t know what they wanted to be at 17 years old.” She sighs. “And I handled it so beautifully, didn’t I?”
The school she teaches at is in another town, nestled in oak trees. Her classroom is big, with a lab. Cubes with the planets dangle. She wears a blue button-down over a white T-shirt with gray slacks and a wristwatch.
“I was fine grades-wise, but behavior-wise I was a nightmare,” she recalls before the period starts. “And to just look at that and know what my motivations were and to see how I can apply that to my students. So, like, instead of screaming at them and sending them out, just go over and be like, ‘Oh, that’s hilarious, but you need to stop.’ It’s not like they don’t want to be here. It’s that they’re looking for something more from you.”
Being a teacher makes her think back on the adults who invested so much time and energy in her. The day before, it was in discussing one teacher in particular with whom she’d been close, and whom she’d targeted with a voicemail, that she’d verged on tears. (I don’t believe I’ve ever seen her cry.)
“It’s hard when you have 170 kids and you might see that one or two of them is struggling with something but you’ve got a job to do,” she now says.
The mania of children entering, all backpacks and sneakers and chairs squeaking on linoleum — you can tell they respect her, even the boys in the back, the kinds who wear Giants caps, it seems, so that she can authoritatively motion for them to take them off, which they do.
She paces back and forth beneath a hanging potted plant and an American flag and gives a lecture on the carbon cycle. At one point she says the word “combustion” and references an experiment about density she’d done earlier that year, “when I lit that $20 bill on fire.” (It was doused in alcohol and didn’t actually burn.) They titter.
“That means you should go to jail,” one student calls out and they all laugh.
She makes a big faux-surprised face. “Don’t tell anybody,” she says.