Author and St. John’s University professor Gabriel Brownstein selected Emily James’ essay, “At First, the Ground Shakes,” to receive the 2019 Bechtel Prize. Teachers & Writers Collaborative awards the Bechtel Prize to the author of an exemplary essay that explores themes related to creative writing, arts education, and/or the imagination.
James’ essay is a reflection on the impact of war and family turmoil on a young student, the healing power of writing, and who has the right to tell our stories.
Note: Student names have been changed to protect their identities.
I’ve been doing this my whole life: taking words from my head and pinning them down elsewhere, fitting them neatly between top and bottom lines. Trying to turn the curves of my experience into something symmetric and bearable. Sentences, paragraphs, tattered pages.
But looking at Hassan, I see this is a luxury; my life has been bearable all along. Not because of the painful moments, but the tranquil space between them.
I ask him if there’s ever a time—when he’s on the computer, or having a belly laugh—that he forgets. If the panic leaves, the fear. His eyes dart up into a momentary search, somewhere deep within, for the moment of calm.
“No,” he says. “It stays with you.”
“It’s always with you.”
When the evacuation alarm goes off, most kids cheer. Yes! they say. I got Living Environment next! They buzz around in a gleeful chaos, yelling, BOMB THREAT! Some kid has pranked the school again, and it’s all too familiar. The FDNY will arrive. The NYPD will arrive. The principals will gather in front of the building in their dark, full-length pea coats, as we herd 400 kids three Brooklyn blocks away, teachers in orange safety vests stopping traffic below the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Kids will FaceTime friends: Where you at? I’m at the front, by Mr. Nelson, just look for his big-ass head. Williamsburg pedestrians cross to the other side of North 6th with their strollers or Whole Foods bags to avoid the teenage crowd. Everyone will feel relieved for an unexpected release from the brown, windowless hallways of our school. No one feels danger. They ask us if they can go home, and we recite our lines: I’m not permitting you to go home. They will leave anyway, and we’re fine with that, having no idea how long we’ll be out here rubbing our hands together in the chill of a November afternoon.
Hassan stays close to me. “What’s going on?” he asks, fingers clenched against his backpack straps. “Is something bad going to happen?”
“You’ve seen real bombs,” I say. “Does anyone ever call first… as a warning?”
He laughs. “Yeah, you’re right,” he says, and we find a seat on a nearby bench.
During journals, he never fills up the page—which is the only requirement. The other kids race to the bottom with their pink or blue pens, their bubbly letters, wrists swishing down the fresh notebook paper. The words fall out of them as they listen to hidden headphones or rest a lollipop against the inside of their cheek. Some think they are slick by skipping three lines below the title. When the ten minutes goes off, they hold their books up high and open. Gimme my ten! they demand, and I do.
Hassan usually fills three or four lines, re-tracing letters in heavy handwriting. His mind seems busy, thinking, but the page stays blank, its bottom an unreachable place.
At last week’s parent conferences, his mom told me she was going to move back with her parents in Queens, and he and his little brother would be changing schools.
Hassan came from Yemen with his mother and little brother six months ago.
“Actually, I kind of like it here,” he told us, folding and unfolding his bright green report card.
His mother put her hand on top of his.
“I just can’t afford for him to travel here alone,” she said. To be that far away. Her grip tightened. “I’m too afraid of his father.” I watched her fingers hold him down with vigilance and love, something I only recognize now—now that I have two little girls who wait at home for me behind a broken screen door.
Today, I’m back early from lunch with my sandwich, and he’s waiting at the door, like usual. The hallways are lined with remnants of chaos: empty apple juice containers and black plastic bags, lunch trays with soggy corn spilling out over the laminate floors.
His cheeks are always splotchy red, like he has just come in from the cold. When I let him inside the room early, he will sit quietly at his front desk, fiddle with a worksheet, writing his first name and last initial. As I unwrap my turkey and cheese, lettuce spilling past the waxed paper on my desk, I ask about his father.
“He’s a bad person,” he says. The string lights I’ve taped around an ugly green chalkboard flicker in a rhythmic whir.
“What do you mean?” I talk with my mouth full, check the clock: ten minutes more of solace, before the 7th-period bell.
“There’s this word in Arabic, I don’t know what it is.” He holds out his hands, forming a box. “He used to tell her, if you take them, it will be in this.”
I teach him the word: coffin.
“Do you think he would have killed you?” I ask.
He thinks for a second. “I don’t think he wanted to kill us,” he said. “But my mother, my mother…” He pauses. “He… he treated her like… like shit.” He says the word carefully, a question without the intonation.
“He treated us like shit too. But he knew we would grow up. And then we’d be worth something to him.”
I take another bite of my sandwich and think, too much mayonnaise. Then think, children, as currency. I picture my own daughters, the way I try to protect their small bones and vulnerabilities. The way I can look at them in their nightgowns, toothpaste on their chins, the uncertainty of their futures making it feel hard to breathe.
“There is so much,” he says, shaking his head. “Just too much.”
Now, the words have come loose. Every story he begins spreads veins backwards, splits into more.
After so many years as a NYC public school teacher, not much phases me. I’m accustomed to the stories of abuse, of death: the girl who pops the cap off the Sharpie marker on the first day of class and tells me she saw a boy’s head fly off in her Brownsville project housing, Just like that. The stories are stabs in the soul lasting a minute or an afternoon, but after so many years, the scabs form more quickly. I send a quick email to the social worker, go back to my attendance folder, begin penciling in names.
But when he starts to tell me about the bombs, I’m ripped wide open. It’s the details that destroy me. “You can tell by the sound of the plane,” he says. “It’s like this…” He tries to recreate it, buzzing like a bee.
I put down my sandwich. Fold the paper, the foil around its edges.
He stands. “At first, the ground shakes.” He rattles his hands. “Then comes the flash of the light.” He points in the distance, towards the construction out my classroom window, men walking by with hardhats, unstrapped. “I saw once, this man, it sliced out his, what is this part?” He points to the side of his abdomen.
“Torso?” I ask. He shakes his head. Thinks.
“Kidney,” he says. “His kidney. It came out. He was laying on the ground, and no one can even help him.”
I put my sandwich back in the bag, roll it into my top drawer with the paperclips and stray pens.
“My ears,” he tells me, grabbing them, “they don’t work so good. Because of the sound.”He’s still looking out the window. “You just see so much,” he says. “I used to cover my brother’s eyes. They leave the bodies on the street… they stay there for days.”
I look down at his hands, two little blindfolds.
“When I used to go to bed, my stomach… It would feel like it was eating itself.” He pauses. “There was this pigeon, once,” he says. Shakes his head, tilts his chin towards the peeling floor. “I was so hungry.”
We are both quiet.
“I made a slingshot with a rock,” he says.
“Wow,” I say. The only three letters that make sense in that room.
“I didn’t eat it,” he says. “I couldn’t.”
I reach over for my notebook. “Can I write this down?” I ask.
“I don’t know. I’ve never heard anything like this before. I may want to write a story about it someday.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Sure.”
“Did you ever think of writing about it?” I ask.
“Sometimes,” he says. “I feel like I could try.”
“It may help,” I tell him, but for the first time in my life, I am unsure.
On the SMART Board behind him, a journal prompt glows. Respond to the quote: We change. We either evolve, or we disappear. This is the assignment I created. This is why his pen hits the paper and doesn’t move.
Back at the conference, I sat with his mother, her grey dress and black hijab fanning against the desk onto the floor. “His fluency needs work,” I said. “Maybe some scaffolding, maybe independent reading.” I suggest some books. Street Pharm. Tyrell. “Does he like science fiction?”
Me, sipping a can of Pepsi, thinking, what does he need? And believing the answer is simply something I learned during my masters degree, from a campus with manicured lawns, where diversity wasn’t a word, but a required course.
The kids start to pour in. They are tangled in headphones, jackets folded beneath their arms, eating flaming hot Cheetos. They are laughing and pulling each other’s backpacks as they look for their journals.
I stay focused on Hassan, who stands by my desk. They can sense my different modality. Normally I’m at the front, comedic and militant, herding them to their seats, smiling and threatening: I can just give zeros all the way down! Makes my life much easier!
Mariah pulls up her chair, her face like honey, her brown eyes wide. “What are y’all talking about?”
I look at Hassan.
“I don’t want them to think I’m a bad person, he says to me.”
“They won’t,” I say.
“Can you tell them? You will tell it better.” He’s wrong, but I do. Aniya sits on my desk chair, rolls it closer.
So I tell them about the hunger, pigeon. It’s the place I know to start. I’m trying to build a bridge—to see if dumping some of the debris from his pain onto others can make him walk any lighter, even a feather’s weight.
Mariah looks at me, wide-eyed, her face like honey. “This is real?” she asks. Then to him, “This really happened to you?”
“OMG,” Aniya says. She smells like a vanilla cookie, the elastic on the top of her underpants peeks above her low-rise jeans. “I know how that feel. I hate when my mom be cooking food I don’t like. I go to bed soooo hungry.”
Mariah sucks her teeth. “That is NOT the same thing.”
“She be making stew chicken and I hate stew chicken,” Aniya says.
I look at Mariah. She wears a plain brown shirt, her hair always combed carefully in a side- parted low ponytail. When she’s cold, I wrap an afghan blanket from my bottom drawer around her shoulders; she smiles, and holds it like a cape in one hand, writes with the other. Her soul is porous and, like always, she’s taking this in. She’s looking Hassan up and down for all the experience he holds. The questions unleash. “Where did you live? What was the worst thing you ever ate? You ever seen someone get shot?”
But mostly, she listens.
“You should write about this,” she says, then turns to me. “Miss, he should write this in his journal, instead of all that other stuff.”
Brian chimes in, behind his thick black glasses. Brian, who posted nudes of three freshmen online back in September. “Dude! You could write a book! Make mad money. Buy your mom a nice house.”
Hassan shakes his head, smiling. “Money doesn’t fix things,” he says. The red on his face darkens.
“For me it would!” Brian says, looking around. No one meets his gaze.
“Nah, he’s so right,” Mariah says. “It don’t. That’s so true.”
“I can’t sleep,” Hassan tells them. “I can never ever sleep.”
“You see?” She says. “Money not gonna take his nightmares away.”She looks back at me. “Miss, you should help him.”
But my mind is already working, busy crafting my own story and filling slowly with both passion and shame.
For years I’ve been telling them what I believe at my core, which is, Write it down. Think you are boring? Write it down, because you aren’t. Write your story and be so specific and unfaltering of details, of the way you braid and rebraid one tiny segment of hair while you listen to your parents fight in the kitchen, or the way your grandma’s lipstick was smudged onto her upper lip while she laid stiff in her coffee-colored coffin, or the buttery handprints your baby sister leaves on the window during a storm. Write it down.
It’s our obligation, I’ve told them, to report the truth of ourselves, of our experiences. That’s how we whisper to each other all the ways we are foreign and recognize in all our similarities the ways we aren’t alone. I have spent the last ten years of my life trying to convince them that even if we have nothing else, we have our words, our pages, and we can use them as tiny stones to step through the murky waters of life.
What Hassan teaches me is something different. That this urgency of expression is in many ways a Western luxury, or a luxury by all definitions. That in order to record your details, a level of stillness must exist between the moments of chaos and pain, a tranquility that many of us don’t have. So how dare I tell him to write it down? When he doesn’t even feel safe, will never feel safe, alone with those memories?
That night after our talk, my daughters watch Tom and Jerry on the living room couch, ketchup stains on their shirts, asking me to rewind to the beginning so they can watch again. There are trees and darkness and street lights outside the windows, and there is nothing I can feel that’s imminent or wrong. Later, in the quiet of night after they are asleep, I lay with a laptop beside a hissing heater, a calm in my heart that Hassan has never been able to feel. And inside of this calm, I roll up my sleeves, lotion up my privilege—making sure to smooth out all the areas of rough skin. I write lyrically all of his words and steal his story for my own.
And I go back and forth, telling myself that I am doing it for him, while knowing, deep down, I am doing it for me.
The bell is about to ring.
“It’s okay if I take my work home?” he asks. “For some reason, I can’t focus.”
“Of course,” I tell him. I’m stacking papers, pulling off stray Post-its, crumpling them for the trash.
“It’s like… I can’t focus anywhere.”. He unzips his backpack to pack up, and then stops. “In Algebra, I’ll be looking at the teacher, then, like go into daydream or somewhere, look back and don’t know how long I’ve been gone.”
“It’s like your brain has been stretched so big,” I say. “With all that you’ve seen. Algebra is too small. It slips through.”
“I hate him,” he says.
“No,” he says. “My father. I hate him so much.”
Kids start to gather their stuff, getting ready for the bell that’s about to ring. “Put your papers in your red folder!” I scream. “Leave nothing behind!” I look back to Hassan.
“That’s why I never write my last name,” he tells me. I picture the tops of his worksheets: Hassan M. Every time. Round, disheveled letters that have made a brutal escape.
“Sometimes I think about changing it.”
“So change it,” I say.
He looks off to the side. “I know, I should.” He holds his chin with his thumb and pointer. “Yeah,” he says, “You know? I think I will.”
Later that afternoon, the kids have all left. Just me, and a forgotten iPhone charger plugged in the wall. I look up at the cloth bin with a peeling label that says “Class Five.” I dig out his red journal, open to a new page: smooth, fresh, waiting.
I write at the top:
First, the ground shakes…
When the starting bell rings on Monday, he walks past the journals, approaches my desk.
“I wanted to tell you,” he says, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” I ask.
“The other day.”
“Well, if I scared you.”
I laugh. “Um, that was the most intense and interesting story anyone has told me, maybe ever.”
He stands still. “Really?”
“Really.” Kids filter in, raising the volume of the room, begin rummaging for their books.
“If I wrote a story about all this, what would you want your name to be?” I ask.
“Yeah, your name,” I say. “Like a different name, other than your real name.”
Chairs drag along the floor as kids take their seats. He thinks. “Well, when I was little, he says, my family used to call me Cody.”
“Yeah, like, from Star Wars.”
I smile. “You guys like Star Wars?”
“We love Star Wars.”
My smile deepens. “I don’t think Cody is gonna work. But I’ll try to fit that in somehow. Okay?”
“Sure,” he says.
I raise my voice: “Get your journals! Now! Now! Not tomorrow, not in five minutes, NOW!”
He looks up at the SMART Board, then back at me. Twirls his pen through his fingertips, a tiny baton. “Oh, um, Miss? I forgot, like, to say something the other day.”
“Just that… I’m still so grateful. Like that I’m here. And my mom and my brother, we are all, something like, I don’t know…” He pats his belly and hips and legs. “We are like, what’s the word, our bodies are all…”
“Yes, like we are all intact. And okay. Or something like that.” He shifts his weight, gripping his backpack straps. “You know?”
“Look, I chuckle. “I’m already at 3500 words worth. So don’t give me too much more.”
“That’s a lot of words,” he says.
“Well, It’s an important essay,” I say. “You taught me a lot.”
“Of course. And… thanks.”
“For what?” He asks, grips his pen in his palm.
“For being my story.” He looks down, smiling. “Now, go get started.”
He turns. I watch as he finds his journal, then his seat. I watch as he flips through, looking for a new page.
I watch as he pauses, turns back to me, nods. He looks back down at his notebook.
Together, we begin to write.
Emily James is a New York City-based writer, editor, and high school English teacher. She has written for The Huffington Post and The New York Daily News, and has several essays published in various literary magazines. Her story, “Sangre,” was awarded an honorable mention by Alexander Chee in the 2018 Flash Contest from Pigeon Pages. In May of 2017, Emily wrote a petition on Change.org fighting for paid maternity leave for New York City teachers. The petition went viral, gathering almost 85,000 signatures, and eventually led to the city of New York granting Department of Education teachers six weeks of paid parental leave in June of 2018. She holds a BA in journalism from New York University and a MA in education from Columbia Teachers College, and she is currently an MFA candidate at City College of New York. You can find her on Twitter @MissG3rd.