It’s Senior Class portrait day and I have dutifully escorted my class to the field for an hour of trying to get everyone to sit down, stop dancing or wrestling, and be still long enough for a single photo. Nallely is a lone Freshman that somehow ended up in my class. She stands awkwardly on the field beside me, slightly pigeon toed in Converse All Star high tops. I squint, trying to shield my face from the sun with a cupped hand. In moments like this I would just as soon not talk, feeling no pressure to join my co-workers off by a fence. I take up residency against a light post.
Nallely is looking at me. I decide a slight smile in her direction will suffice. She breaks the silence.
“I don’t know what to do.” she says, her thick El Salvadorian accent forcing me to strain to make sure I hear her right. She has not been here long.
“About what?” I respond. Not knowing what to do can be a dilemma of unfathomable proportions, especially when those words are spoken by a teenager. I brace myself for the answer.
“I don’t know what I like.” she says, gaze shifting downwards. “Is that bad? I change my mind a lot.”
“I change my mind a lot too.” I reassure. “I think it’s okay. There’s no hurry to know what you like.” I’m straining for cues as to which direction this conversation is going to turn.
Nallely stares down still, stirring a circle in the dirt with her toe. She’s stiff, arms crossed, afraid to make eye contact. I sense that she doesn’t speak freely with adults very often but has decided she can confide something in me. I believe this trust began when I once noticed she was wearing a Nirvana shirt and told her I saw them play. I stare across the track, unsure if I really want to commit to this conversation, though it looks like I will have no choice. Moments like this bring a degree of trepidation, when students seem to be latching on a little too quickly, eager to share something. I worry I’ll be told something I’m going to have to report, something that will cause me to break the trust that a student believes they can risk on me.
“I don’t know why they hate me.” she says.
I worry about who she’s about to say hates her.
“They don’t even know me, but they make up things about me.”
She’s struggling to explain herself, searching for the right words. I realize with a certain degree of relief she’s speaking about other students here, not parents or family.
“I’m sorry they’re like that.” I say, making my clumsy attempt to comfort her. “The best thing you can do is not let them get to you. Ignore them, don’t let them close”
“Does it get better?” she asks.
“I hope so.”
I hope so? That’s the best I can muster? I quickly correct myself.
“It gets better.” I reassure.
“In four years.” she says, looking me straight in the eye for the first time in our conversation, almost finishing my sentence for me. She catches me off guard. I can’t tell if it’s sarcasm or an honest statement, but she might as well have told me to stop lying to her.
“Things will be different when you leave.” I say.
“In four years.” she say, a slight smirk on her face now, foot still restlessly tapping in the dirt.
I can’t seem to find an answer for her. There is no answer for her. She knows it. I can see that her eyes carry an unspoken weight. I look out across the field again, insignificant in the sun. What if I said that this was it, that for some people it does not get better? But I don’t have to. I can see that she already knows. She simply needed to see if I knew too. I watch the seagulls picking over the grass.
“Can I go to the library?” she asks.
“Yes, that’s okay.”
“Would you like to eat lunch in my room tomorrow? We could talk.”
She silently nods, more of a vague acknowledgment than an answer.
I watch Nallely walk across the field, over the blacktop, disappearing amongst the buildings on the other side. I’m still squinting, uncomfortable. I watch my fellow teachers laughing, gesturing. The students are chanting something as the photographer yells at them with a megaphone from atop a ladder. I sit down in the meager shade of the pole, dig through my pockets for something to write on, wondering how badly I failed her or whether she really needed me at all.