Monday, February 8, 2010


It’s a nice neighborhood. Two-story houses with manicured front yards, enclosed swimming pools and high wooden fences. It’s a middle class community fifteen minutes away from a swanky shopping mall with Sephora, Pottery Barn, Anthropologie and many other high-end boutiques.

The house that I’m looking for is in a cul de sac. From a distance it looks as though it has been either recently built or recently remodeled, but as I drive closer I realize that the house is abandoned. Its front yard littered with bottles, cardboard, oxidized bicycles. The garage door is open, showing its messy belly full of clothes, garbage cans, plastic containers, everything, that I think, was left there before the family moved out. The area has had a few sink holes in the last few years and I wonder if the house has been condemned.

I call my office to verify the address. Yes, I’m at the right place. I describe the house that I’m looking at and offer the most plausible explanation: it has been uninhabited for quite a while. The voice at the other end of the telephone promises to double check and call me back. I decide to drive around the area until the office calls back. As I reverse out of the drive way, a petite woman emerges from the house, waving her hands at me.

“Are you the teacher?” she asks. I nod.
“Do you live here?” I ask.
“Of course,” she says

She holds the door open for me and the moment I enter, the smell of animal waste makes my stomach contract. I hold my breath for a few seconds until I’m ready to breathe again. There are piles of clothes strewn all over the floor, shoes, backpacks, plastic bags, something that looks like a couple of stale slices of pizza, dirty blankets, either a mattress or a sleeping bag, it’s hard to tell what is what. I find myself looking for empty spaces to put one foot then the other.

“I don’t want to step on your clothes,” I explain.
“What clothes?” she asks as if it is the first time she ever notices the chaos.

Where the foyer meets the living room, right where the white tile morphs into a burgundy carpet covered in old pop corn and decayed fries still in their Burger King wrapping, is a yellow puddle that reeks of urine.

“Damn dogs,” she says as we both go over the puddle.

One by one, the pets begin to emerge. Four little puppies and their two parents; two cats, a ferret, a caged mouse, and on the dining table, where I’m about to spend the next three hours, is a rabbit in a cardboard box that hasn’t been cleaned in months.

J. cleans half of the table and asks me to wait. She’ll get Esmeralda, the youngest of the children I’ll be working with. From the dining table I can see the back of the house. Swimming pool and Jacuzzi, both covered in a green slime that spills out and onto the blue tile framing the pool. A dog squats by the Jacuzzi, defecates and drags his rump on the tile, leaving behind a brown squiggle that in three hours, will have attracted a few black flies.

Esmeralda appears under the arch of the living room. Short, chubby, with round Indian high cheeks, porcelain skin and straight, shiny black hair, she plunges into the seat without looking at me.

“Hi there,” I say and proceed to introduce myself and crack a couple of lame jokes to break the ice.
She doesn’t reply and is now looking out of the window, arms crossed across her chest, a major pout forming at her mouth.
Quickly we establish a few things. She doesn’t want to be tutored. She doesn’t like school. She is ten but she is in fourth grade because they just moved out of the Indian reservation in South Dakota and she misses the snow and she hates Florida. I explain that I’m working with the tribe so that the “no child left behind” program is in place and with that, she will be able to catch up with her class. Would that not be nice? I ask. She shrugs her shoulders and I take a long, deep breath.

“Let’s see your homework. Got any?”

She doesn’t know. She can’t remember where she left her backpack, which could be somewhere at home or maybe the school, or the school bus. It’s hard to tell because she hasn’t been to school in a few days. Yesterday, she didn’t feel well; the day before, the alarm didn’t go off; the day before that, was a long time ago and she doesn’t remember. Neither does mom, who seems to live in a permanent state of befuddlement with tiny squinty eyes, long thinning hair that hasn’t been trimmed in a while, and a limp that seems to add instability to the picture.

We do some additions and subtractions and Esmeralda seems to be quite the mathematician until we get to the times tables. Soon, she’ll have to take the FCAT and she is still counting with her fingers trying to figure out what 7x2 is. We take a step back and start from1x1 and on. Only we don’t move on, because she doesn’t know this either. And whenever she stumbles upon a problem, she stabs herself with the pencil, gently first on her arm, just letting some steam off, harder later when we get to the 3’s and as hard as she can when we get to the 7’s. This time around she breaks her skin with the pencil and is grunting words that I can’t understand. I stop math immediately and move to reading and comprehension.

She covers her face with her hair and quickly I learn to read the hint. That is her “closed” neon sign. That is her “come back later,” her “out for the day,” notice. She spends the last few minutes trying to discern the meaning of the words she is reading so proficiently. She can read the words but the words make no sense. They carry no message. There is nothing to be comprehended because the words are disjointed in her mind. They are loose consonants and vowels grouped together randomly, whimsically.

I spend the last few minutes of this first session with Esmeralda thinking whether or not I’m the right person for the job. I don’t have the patience, maybe not even the qualifications to work with her. And I’m yet to work with her two older sisters. I’m pondering my options and seriously considering a call to the office and opt out when I look outside. There, in the drive way is the mother’s shiny black F150 truck with its Eddie Bauer high-end interior design. The front plate reads “A Proud member of the Hawk Clan,” and I instantly decide to stay and teach the Hawk women of the house.



  1. This story and others like it that you have so beautifully crafted, deserve to be in book form. These pieces strike me as most similar to the classic black and white photos of displaced midwestern families that were taken during the dust bowl days.

    What remarkable stories you find. What a life you lead. Incredible.