A Worthy Opponent
by Samika Swift
“Man, you got Johnson this semester? You might as well hang it up now. She don’t give nobody A’s, and she’s mean.”
I look at my schedule for English 10 Regular, and there it is: M. Johnson. Why couldn’t I get Mrs. Sanderson, who brings in candy every week and lets her students watch movies all the time? I never get those kinds of teachers. I walk into Room 206 with much trepidation.* Nope, my schedule did not lie. Standing behind the podium in front of the blackboard (which is actually kind of green) with her arms folded across her chest and her eyes glaring at us from under her big plastic eighties glasses is my new enemy.
Mrs. Johnson makes us work. We take literature tests and spelling tests and vocabulary tests and grammar tests. She’s incredulous** when she discovers we don’t know our parts of speech.
“You mean to tell me that you students have been in school for ten years and cannot identify which word is the adjective in the sentence on the board?”
Of course, all of us blame our Freshman English teacher, not the fact that we were high or asleep or daydreaming during class. She stomps back to her desk and opens her plans. After furiously erasing and scribbling, she hands out grammar books.
“For the next three weeks you will bring this book with you, and you will learn your parts of speech in addition to your literature studies. This is ridiculous.”
Evil, evil woman. Now we have to schlep two books and learn grammar. Grammar sucks. Why do we need to know this? And as much as I hate her and as much as I hate grammar, I learn something beyond memorizing answers and forgetting them after the test. On top of that, I don’t do so badly. And when my report card comes . . .
“You got an A? No way. Are you serious? In Johnson’s class?! That’s crazy! You must be the first person to do that!” My friends rip my report card out of my hand and pass it around like it’s the new Megadeth tape.
Maybe I can do this school thing.
Then something even more bizarre begins to happen. I start to look forward to coming to Mrs. Johnson’s room. True, she doesn’t bring in a radio or buy us treats, and her room’s not decorated to look like it’s home, but she explains to us why something is incorrect when she bleeds all over our essays. She also teaches us how to work as a team, bypassing stupid touchy-feely hippy games and giving us something real to do, like assigning us to groups to peer edit, then choosing one paper to grade. That way, we help each other revise our papers, instead of just turning ours in and getting it marked up. And when second semester rolls around and her name is still on my schedule, I groan and grumble with everyone else, but not as much. At least, not until she speaks.
“This semester you are required to write a research paper,” Mrs. Johnson informs us, “and it must be at least ten typed pages long.”
Is she serious? How are we supposed to write ten pages about anything? I’ve never even written a ten-page note to Izzy, and she’s my best friend.
“First, I want you to get out a piece of paper, and list five topics you might want to write about.”
I take out my paper, and write,
1. Music Censorship
3. Animal Cruelty
4. The Rain Forest
5. Death Penalty
Okay, so the majority of my topics are the B.S. we write about every year in English. But I do want to write about music censorship, because the P.M.R.C. has been in the news a lot lately, and its members are the ones saying kids who listen to heavy metal music are Satan worshipers and that music needs to be labeled with rating stickers, kind of like how they track us in school (you know, suck-up going to college, dumb kid working at McDonalds until retirement, and even dumber kid becoming a high school administrator). It’s a pretty personal topic to me, since music is my life. I was raised to listen to music. My dad used to crank those old outlaw country singers, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. And while I listen to stuff that’s a little more hardcore (Suicidal Tendencies and Coven and Overkill), it’s from my dad I get this love for music. I just got a stereo for Christmas this year, and it’s on at all times, even when I sleep. I figure Johnson wants our choices just so she can make sure they aren’t something stupid. When I get my paper back with 4. The Rain Forest circled, I’m thinking it’s a mistake because I don’t know nothing about no rainforests.
“Your topic is circled. Now I want you to write four pages outlining what you already know about your topic.”
There’s no way that I can write four pages about the rain forest. Is she crazy? But I try. I write maybe three or four lines, and I have nothing else. In frustration, I bang my fist down on the desk. My metal slave chain clanks against plastic.
Suddenly, I feel a hand on my back, and Mrs. Johnson says, “I know you can do this, Sunny. Just take your time, and write about anything at all that relates to the rain forest.”
She walks away when I start writing again. I’m kinda in shock. Never, in the ten years I have been a student, has any teacher said anything like that to me. Not once. I usually hear, “Stop having such a negative attitude and get to work,” or “One more outburst from you, and you can talk to the dean.”
“You can do this.” Okay. I write the pages. Over the next few weeks, I research rain forests and hang out in the library to read instead of gossip with my friends behind the stacks. Mom helps me type the ten page paper in MLA format. And I think I’m golden. I’m even starting to like the mean old woman, when she says,
“Now that your research paper is done, you will need to turn it into a speech and memorize it. You are required to give this speech in fifteen other classes besides this one.”
Oh, no. I’m not doing that. It’s bad enough I had to write a ten page paper on the stupid rain forest; I’m not about to get up in front of fifteen different classes and make a fool out of myself. No way.
“I’m not doing it.” I sit in the chair by her desk during passing period and try to talk her out of this insanity.
“It is a requirement for English.”
“I’ll take the F on the paper. I don’t care. I’m not giving a speech fifteen times.”
She doesn’t argue with me or send me to the office. This is a first. Teachers usually do one or the other.
“I can’t force you to complete this assignment. But if you refuse to do it, you will earn an F for the course. It’s worth that much.”
This is so unfair.
I stomp away. I’m not doing it. I don’t care if I flunk. Even though I did make honor roll for the first time last semester, I am not doing it. No way.
“Thousands of acres of rainforests are destroyed every day. It is estimated . . .” I explain to class number 15.
I hate her so much. Until, at least, my grades come back again. A, A, A, B, B, A.
I’m not just doing good in her subject. My other grades came up, too. How the hell did that happened?
* * *
Mom stares at my report card in shock. Her coffee sits untouched on the table, and the rest of today’s mail lay in a forgotten heap next to it.
“How did this happen?”
I shrug but can’t resist a smile.
Mom opens her purse and counts out some cash. “Here,” she says, and hands me a bunch of bills. I see some fives and even tens in the stash. “I’ll pay you for every A and B you bring home.”
When Marty, my mom’s boyfriend, finds out about my recent conversion to honor roll student, he offers to pitch in cash as well. Amen to Mrs. Johnson.
* * *
“You wanna blow off fourth period and hang out in the cafeteria for all three lunches?” my friend Nina asks.
“Can’t,” I say. “Got a paper due in Johnson’s class.
* See! That’s a word I learned in her class. You’re not supposed to actually learn stuff in high school!
** There’s another one.