When I was a child, my father took me to the park one spring afternoon when the air was fresh with the scent of newly mown grass. I played on the playground while he ran laps on the gravel track. I noticed a swell of voices, looked up to see my father confronting a group of black boys, twelve and thirteen years old.
“Did you throw that rock?” he said, anger rising in his voice.
Then one boy, half a head taller than the rest, taller than my father, stepped forward. “Naw, man, you crazy. Saying we done something we ain’t. Stupid cracker.”
My father’s eyes went large as he stepped forward, him and the tall boy almost bumping, and then my father had the boy’s arm. He had ten years of martial arts training, and I knew the submission: the boy straight to the ground, my father holding his wrist twisted double, the others bellowing and cursing, the boy writhing on the gravel as my father held him there. My father’s face was expressionless, clinical. Finally he let go, and the boy found his feet. The boy seemed gangly and young now, yelling about calling the cops as he and his group all backed away. My father stood and watched them until they’d left the park. Then he hurried me from the playground, his hand trembling as he held mine too hard, walking home so fast I had to skip to keep up, and uttering not a word. I knew even then he wasn’t in the right, but the intricacy of such anger and shame was beyond me.
My father is not, in fact, an angry or violent man. He is disciplined and dedicated, a gentle, soft-spoken family practice doctor who has worked fourteen-hour days for his patients, paying each the respect of careful attention. He has practiced medicine for some thirty-five years. Once, he explained to me why his practice was in Oregon. This was as he came into his sixties and I was in my late twenties, and he’d begun to feel the need to explain life’s disappointments, griefs, and complications. He’d planned on practicing medicine in California, had been in residency in Long Beach, at the veterans’ hospital bordering the sun-baked barrio and the seediest part of the strip. He worked seventy-hour weeks—sixteen hours on and eight hours off—dealing with tweakers, crackheads, drunks, muggings, bad accidents off the One, night after night. I remember watching his face as he spoke. His eyes were distant and his jaw tight as he said, “I quit the residency. I came to Oregon where you didn’t need residency for family practice—packed your mother out of that cramped little apartment and drove off. I couldn’t have stood another day of it.”
I stared at him. This couldn’t be coming from my father, who admitted no weakness, who tolerated no failure, who in the face of adversity, endlessly persevered. The man who meditated four hours a night because he could not sleep and would take no sleep aid, then worked fourteen hours and went for a thirty-mile bike ride and ate boiled, unsalted cabbage for dinner, and did it all again the next day, and the one after that. The man who had been most proud of me when I won wrestling matches through sheer mental toughness, who told anyone who’d listen, again and again, the story of my victory: “They were bigger, stronger, taller, but he pushed them until they broke. Neck and neck through the match, and he out-suffered them,” he bragged—the only time I ever heard him brag about me. “He refused to quit—and so he won.”
His saw my disbelief, cleared his throat. “‘Do no harm’ is the standard of the doctor. It can be difficult when charged with life and death, crisis. What it was, was—it was . . . Look. One night this fellow comes into the ER—a drunk. His name was Leroy, an old, bald drunk with no front teeth. We knew him well. He’d come in with alcohol poisoning, and we’d pump his stomach, him cussing us out. He’d come in during withdrawal, and we’d have to morphine him up. That night, another resident had put him in a back room—he hadn’t seemed bad. I just happened to be walking past the room at 3 a.m. and thought to check. He looked too still, and then I saw he’d stopped breathing. I intubated him right there on the spot, saved his life. He was with us for a couple of days, even thanked me for helping him, said he was going to enter a program and get right.
“A day later it was a hell shift, my fourth in four days, a five-car pileup and people bleeding out, a kid shot with his father’s gun, an old lady in cardiac. It’s 4, 5 a.m., and all this is still going, and then a cop brings in Leroy and leaves him. He smells like gutter and piss, like whiskey. All these people dying through nothing they did, and here I saved his life and he’s back in drunk, days after it nearly killed him. He’s angry, agitated. He knocks papers from a desk, points at me and screams, ‘Fuck you! Fuck you bastards trying to . . . ,’ and so on and so on. Tired, I stand there watching him, when there are other sick, deserving people to attend to. I tell him to calm down, and he gives me the finger, holds it right there in my face, and I lose it. I grab him by the shoulders and slam him to a wall. Hard. Knock the wind from him, and I’m glad. I can feel he’s just a frail old man, but I yank him to a gurney, bind him tight as I can at the wrists and chest, and then I leave him there and go to my other patients.
“When I come back ten minutes later, he’s terrified, sobbing. His hands have gone white from loss of circulation, I’ve bound him so tight. I cut him loose, and he clings to me, sobbing, saying over and over, ‘Thank God you come, thank God you come.’ He didn’t remember I’d left him there, any more than he remembered it was me who saved his life.”
My father paused, took a deep breath. “If I’d stayed another year, if I’d had to do that, night after night . . . I don’t know. I couldn’t do it. I started planning to leave the next week. I was losing the whole reason I wanted to be a doctor. To help and to heal. Do no harm.”
My father did not expect me to tell him, Look, Dad, I know. We can go too far, can betray our own integrity. I understand.
• • •
When I was twenty-two years old, in my first year of teaching fourth grade in the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta with Teach For America, my favorite student was a chubby-cheeked little girl named Talika Johnson. She was nine years old, smart and engaged, and had a huge, bright smile. Often, at the end of the day, I’d go to my mailbox and find she’d written me a letter about some injustice, often imagined or meant to manipulate me. She often wrote regarding her classmate Demetrius, her rival for best student, who was quiet and polite, and her transparent claims often left me howling with laughter:
Dear Mr. Copperman,
This is your most caring student, Talika. I had just wanted to let you know that boy Demetrius is meddling me again, saying all kind nasty things about my Mama, and also he called you a Ching-Chong-Chinaman and was speaking some Chinese words all the time you was giving him the Scholar of the Day award, and that don’t seem right. I do hope you understand better now about the boy’s disrespect, and will treat him accordingly.
Your Best and Most Admiring Student,
She was mercurial, however, and stubborn when she felt she was in the right, and often she would argue to the point of absurdity, her arms crossed and her hip cocked to one side and her eyes narrowed as she carried on: “Mr. Copperman, how is you gone do me like that and take away near half my recess just for talking to my cousin. She my family. It ain’t fair, and it ain’t right, and I ain’t gone stand by and let nobody treat me like—”
And I would take another five minutes of her recess, and her cheeks would redden and she would shake with anger. Usually, she managed to restrain herself; sometimes, she’d throw a screaming fit, stomping her feet and hyperventilating, and I’d steer her to a corner and let her calm herself. When I had the time to devote to dealing with her, all was fine, but on days when the bad boys in the class were acting up and it was all I could do to maintain order, Talika’s meltdowns became a real problem, the proverbial last straw, and I would lose it.
One Tuesday, everything went wrong—two boys fought over a pencil, derailing the math lesson I’d stayed up planning until midnight. The entire day was sustained chaos; the children refused to quiet down or focus on anything. Perhaps feeding off that energy, Talika refused a simple request to sit up in her chair. Instead, she slouched lower still, and when I took her recess minutes, she had a fit and knocked her desk over and launched into a diatribe so profane that I sent her to the room next door; then, during my planning period, I called the number I had for her home and left a message on the answering machine, detailing her behavior.
After school, Talika stayed behind as she usually did; she’d calmed down and was now sweeping the room and humming to herself. The crisis of the day was in the past. Then a heavyset man in a stained white undershirt and jeans appeared in the doorway. His skin was patchy, here the color of yesterday’s coffee grounds and there almost gold. His eyes were close-set and bloodshot. He didn’t speak.
“I’m Mr. Copperman,” I said.
He looked at me, then slowly nodded his head. “Dequarious Minton. I heard your message calling my home.”
Talika had noticed him now and stopped sweeping mid-stroke. She looked uneasy; I could see we were finally getting somewhere.
“Talika was disrespectful today. She talked out, talked back, and threw a fit in class. It’s a real problem,” I said. “She has no respect.”
He nodded gravely. “I’ve seen her disrespect.” He turned to Talika and held out his hand.
“No,” she said. “You said no more.”
“Give me that belt, girl.” He took her wrist and pulled her to him.
I stepped back.
“No, I ain’t did nothing,” Talika said, pulling away.
He yanked her closer, twisted her belt buckle free. The belt caught, and he tore it through the loops. “Teach you respect your goddamn teacher.” He looped the belt once so he held both ends. “Turn your black butt around.”
“No, no, no,” Talika cried.
He swung from the shoulder. The belt snapped hard on her side. She screamed and cringed away.
“I told you turn around.” He was angry now, eyes wide, nostrils flared. He kept swinging. She was crying. Her nose was running, liquid flowing from her eyes and nose and half-open mouth. She was getting hit on the legs, the back, the arm, because she wouldn’t turn.
I wanted to puke, to turn my back, but I tried to sound calm and firm, using my best teacher’s voice. “Turn around, Talika,” I said. I’d brought her here and could show no weakness.
Still, Talika refused to submit; she squealed and sobbed out curses.
Finally he was done. He let go of Talika’s wrist, and she ran behind me, buried her face in my shirt, choking and sobbing. He nodded at me. He seemed calm again, almost sleepy, although a faint sheen of sweat coated his skin from the exertion.
“Won’t be having that problem again,” he said. “Sure enough won’t. The girl’s mama and grandmamma think just because I ain’t her birth father, she don’t need discipline. But she sure do.” He switched her belt from his right hand to his left and held out his hand to shake. “Glad we could deal with this now.”
He was grinning, could tell from my face I didn’t have the stomach for this. I looked at his hand, took it, and squeezed hard. His eyes widened. I imagined his fingers breaking one by one. His palm was sweaty from the leather. Finally I let go. He wiggled his fingers and looked at me with a hint of a smile, then glanced at Talika, who was still cowering behind me. “You’ll see the girl gets home?”
“To her grandmamma house where she stay at.”
He turned and closed the door, and we listened to his heavy footfalls recede. Talika edged back in front of me with a look of such reproach as I hope never to see again, and then she ran from the room.
She never stayed again to sweep. The principal, when I told her about what had happened and asked what could be done, told me I ought to be glad an adult took enough interest in the girl to whup her. And while Talika eventually forgave me, blessed with the child’s capacity to rebound, I will never forget the sound of leather against skin or the look in her eyes naming me guilty, guilty, guilty.
• • •
Some days, I’d give anything to be twenty-two again, to have more heart than sense, and to believe, still, that good overcomes all else. I wanted to save children from the circumstances they were born into and believed I was capable of anything. I found that in fact there were many things I was incapable of—things as simple as getting a class of fourth graders to stand in a quiet line. And yet, I was capable of things I couldn’t have imagined—capable even of doing harm to those I wanted to help. It is difficult to communicate the frustration I felt, and to call back up that version of myself who acted as I sometimes did in the classroom—screaming at children, banging desks, tearing a child’s sleeve from his shirt, tossing a boy headfirst into the hall and slamming the classroom door behind him, punching a concrete wall above a little girl’s head when she spat on me and called me “China-man.” Most people who have never taught under such circumstances struggle to understand how anyone could do such things, let alone a man who is generally calm, kind, and decent. Most people imagine they would do better. When I left Mississippi after two years, I told myself I’d met my commitment, done my part. The truth was that I lacked the courage to stay, to risk failing another child I wanted only to help. Like my father, I couldn’t have stood another day of it, or so I thought at the time. I didn’t realize I had been changed, that Talika Johnson would always be with me.
In the summer months after I left the Delta, I walked, dazed, through Portland, Oregon, stunned by the number of people, the frantic pace of traffic, and the towers of metal and glass floating overhead. I became disoriented in malls, dizzied by the variety of clothes and shoes and electronics, the terrible volume of the new. I lapsed into long silences, refused to speak more than a terse sentence or two about teaching. My father respected this restraint; he understood there are sins we turn from as conscience takes its toll—a slow and painful reckoning. It has taken a decade, now, for me to let myself really remember and, finally, to begin to forgive myself.
I have been my father at his worst: terrible with rage, wanting to punish disrespect, acquiescing to violence, and then flinching from what I might do if I kept on. Perhaps now I have also begun to inhabit his better self, owning up to my culpability and persisting. For though my father once threw a child in a wrist hold and taped a drunk to a gurney, he will make a house call to an elderly patient who is dying and refuse to charge him for the visit, knowing he has no money, and will tell nobody of his good deed; though I have erred in anger and caused children to be beaten, today I teach classrooms of eager, clamorous, deserving students, grown to eighteen and having already defeated the odds by reaching college. Nonetheless, they require the best invitations to success I can offer them.
Atonement is a lie with which we comfort ourselves, pretending we can do penance and so be the instruments of our own redemption. But what we do right today can’t really write over the wrongs we did before. The past is unassailable; forgiveness is all we can offer our former selves, so that here, now, we can try to do better.
* Illustration by Anna Hall