students overwhelmed spaces at my high school

back then its mascot was still “the confederates”

when we tried to change

the backlash was total

that year a lot of rebel flags

and angry bumper stickers filled the parking lot

horticulture class was in one of the overflow trailers

with an attached greenhouse

I signed up to be away

from all my advanced classwork and stress, sometimes

an elective, voluntary, for fun, as a hiatus around nature

to see something green, to see something grow

the class to which I was assigned was composed of 20 or so older kids

only one was another female, and she quickly stopped attending

the majority had been assigned, having no interest in any electives at all

they were boys psychologists would have diagnosed with “conduct disorder” or “oppositional defiant disorder”

it was not a good semester

within minutes each lesson, the teacher would send me away to the greenhouse

I would re-pot plants to the muffled sounds of her increasingly hoarse lecturing

standing at the edge of a table piled with soil

plenty of the guys were not too bad, really

(unless you were trying to be their teacher or make them take anything seriously)

two jokesters, black seniors who took no shit from the far outnumbering rednecks, had taken to calling me “itty bitty” in a bantering-but-brotherly tone

once, a camo-capped boy behaved uncharacteristically well in the morning

and got sent back to the greenhouse with me

he walked up behind me and pushed my torso and face into the dirt

he kept his weight on my back for a few seconds

slid his arms down my arms

said something I couldn’t hear through all the dirt around me or maybe in his voice


spit chew on the ground

left the room

after class, I asked the teacher not to put me back there with just one person again

exhausted and already crying from her morning’s futile labors,

she took in the sight of me, apologized, and agreed without asking any questions

fine by me

I stayed to make sure she was okay, as I often did

I was sometimes late to my next class – comments about this being unlike me were made often

I didn’t bother to explain

beyond noting horticulture was very far away from my usual halls

once, the teacher was very late to class and the boys got bored

they shoved me in a small space, along with an air freshener can that they’d rigged with a piece of toothpick to keep spraying

this caused a raucus class war, on the other side of the door

while I coughed in the dark and, panicking, struggled to end the aerosol onslaught

the jokesters pulled me out in a minute or two, no time at all apparently

I don’t know what they said or did

everyone treated them noticeably differently after that day

nobody messed with me again

though they never ceased heckling our poor teacher

when she came in that day

she didn’t even ask about the chaos of the room

she held a box of kittens she had been rescuing from under the trailer

like a lifeline

those belligerent boys spent the rest of the term

adamantly refusing to be taught or controlled

but also

bringing the kittens toys, food, blankets, litter, and treats

gently petting them and saying kind words

nobody is simple, I suppose

she told me she would have quit early that year if it hadn’t been for me and the kittens

I don’t know if that made it all worth it

but it makes me feel better

and still I hope she is doing well,

surrounded by thriving plants, happy cats, and various other things that grow just a little bit healthier

with some good dirt