With the Fire on High(4)

I shrug. “Good. Got a job. Yours?”

Ms. Fuentes stops mid-shade-fussing to side-eye me. “You’re always so loquacious. It’s refreshing to have a student who believes in something other than monosyllables.” But she’s smiling. She’s never said it, but I know I’m one of her favorites. Other students begin trickling into the room.

I smile back at her. “Aw, Ms. Fuentes, I see you worked on your sarcasm this summer. It’s gotten so much better.”

She stops messing with the windows and walks closer to my desk. She says softly, “How’s Emma? Where’d you get a job?”

“She’s real good, Ms. Fuentes. And the job is at the Burger Joint.” Which, although it’s spelled all official, I still pronounce “jawn.” They think just because the Temple area has changed some that they gotta be fancy, but a burger jawn is a burger jawn regardless of how you spell it. “You know the spot near the university? I work there after school two days during the week and four hours every weekend.”

Her pretty, manicured nails tap on my desk and I imagine she’s tracing her finger along a mental map of North Philly.

“Yes, I think I’ve passed it before. Are you going to be able to juggle everything while also working there?”

I drop my eyes to my desk. “I should be okay. It’s not that many hours.”

“I see. . . . I know senior year is already stressful; try not to take on too much.”

And I don’t know what to say. It’s not that many hours; in fact, I wish it were more. The cash I get from those little checks helps with groceries, Babygirl’s expenses, and whatever ’Buela’s disability money doesn’t cover.

My silence doesn’t faze Ms. Fuentes at all. “I have a surprise for you when the bell rings—a class I think you would love.”

She squeezes my shoulder before giving her attention to Amir Robinson from the Strawberry Mansion area. “Welcome back, Mr. Robinson! Jesus, but you grew over the summer!” Ms. Fuentes walks away, calling out, “Ms. Connor, I dusted off your favorite seat in the back row just for you. . . .”

That Girl

Yup. I was that girl your moms warns you about being friends with. And warns you about becoming. Not even done with freshman year of high school and already a belly that extended past my toes. It’s a good thing Babygirl was born in August since I probably would have failed out if I had to go to school the last month of my pregnancy. And the thing with being pregnant as a teen is that your body isn’t the only thing that changes. It wasn’t just that I always had to pee, or that my back always hurt. It wasn’t only that my feet ached and I cooked the funkiest meals (they were still so good they’d make you twerk something, but definitely off the wall: macaroni jalape?o burgers and Caribbean jerk lamb tacos).

The biggest changes weren’t the ones that happened to my body at all.

It was that ’Buela had to scrounge up more sewing jobs to supplement the money she gets from disability, that the viejos playing dominoes on the corner shook their heads when I walked past, that dudes on the train smirked at my swollen boobs but wouldn’t give up their seats; that I had to take a million make-up tests for the days I was at doctor appointments or too morning-sick to make it to school.

When they first learned I was pregnant, Principal Holderness and the guidance counselor called a special meeting in the main office. ’Buela had to come into school and they called in Ms. Fuentes, too. Principal Holderness and the counselor offered to transfer me to an alternative high school program specifically for pregnant teens. But Ms. Fuentes didn’t play that. She said switching me midyear into a new school would be a hard adjustment, and that since the program had a decelerated curriculum it would affect my graduating on time. I know she called ’Buela beforehand to discuss it, and they must have come up with a plan, because ’Buela was quick to chime in, saying my staying at Schomburg Charter would be “pivotal for my retention and matriculation.” The sentence sounded as if she’d rehearsed it, circling her mouth over those words in the mirror to make sure she got it right, and I know it was Ms. Fuentes who had explained to ’Buela what that meeting would be about. I didn’t even know what those words meant at the time, but I know now Ms. Fuentes was fighting to help keep me a regular kid for as long as possible.

I’ve always been small: physically petite, which made people think I had a small personality, too. And then, all of a sudden, I was a walking PSA: a bloated teen warning, taking up too much space and calling too much attention.


“I’ve got two announcements,” Ms. Fuentes says.

“Ms. Fuentes,” Amir calls out without raising his hand. “You better not say you leaving.”

“No, no. Nothing like that, Mr. Robinson,” she says, and we all slump a bit in relief. “The first announcement is that there are going to be changes to the schedule. In August some new faculty members were hired, and needless to say, it has affected class schedules. There are new elective courses being offered for seniors, and I’m going to pass around the new course listing. The second announcement is about a new student.”

We all groan. In almost every class I’ve ever had, students come and go throughout the entire year and nobody cares. But Advisory is different. Nobody wants to talk around no strangers that aren’t going to last long.

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