Just Breathe

Her jacket, if it was even hers, was a little too small. But she wore it anyway, buttoned all the way up, maybe to hide the fit of her skirt and maybe because it was prim. The suit she had chosen for the day was candy-apple red, maybe because she'd heard the color held power and maybe because she had no other choice.

Her dark hair was swept into a tight up-do perhaps more suitable for the prom, but this was, after all, a very big occasion. For this she wore makeup.

Maria Eugenia, 19, walked to the front of my classroom in shoes that seemed to hurt, then turned to face an audience of what she might never consider her peers. She set a thin stack of papers on the podium and watched in dismay or maybe disbelief as a few of them floated to the floor.

She had chosen to report on the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge for her final project in my English class because she believed the expansive bridge, suspended across the San Francisco Bay, to be a miracle.

While she spoke, her nervous tension was nearly palpable in the rustle of pages as she moved from one to the next with quaking hands, in the variable pitch and irregular cadence of her voice, in the constant effort by her tongue to root around for moisture inside her cheeks, a queer gesture that stole the attention of her audience.

When she finished, a subtle smile played at her lips.

That evening, as I labored at my desk, slouching under the weight of final essays and the waning hour, I came across Maria's paper. The ink had faded at the margins where her moist hands had grasped the pages during her presentation. I turned my attention to her words.

Her phrasing exposed that persistent problem with punctuation, and she still had a tendency to translate her essays from her native Spanish into a sometimes-awkward English, but the piece was good. She had researched well and told the story clearly, chronologically, and with character. She had worked hard, she had cared, and she had come a long way. What is the grade for that?

An A- or a B+? I debated. B+? A-? What was the difference, I asked myself. To me, not much. To her, maybe something. Maybe everything. I leaned back in my chair and looked off into nowhere, recalling Maria in her red suit at the podium. She probably earned a B+, I decided. But maybe she deserved an A-.

I glanced at the clock - 1:30 a.m. I looked back down at her paper and rifled through its worried pages. What the heck, I thought: A-.

The next morning, I encountered a bevy of students waiting outside my office, hoping for an early return on their grades. I handed them their final papers and went inside.

I smiled at the silence outside my door and imagined my students flipping first to the last page to retrieve the grade and then, possibly, pouring through the piece to make sense of it. The first sound I heard was a gasp, then more silence before my door flew open.

It was Maria. She shot one hand toward me, the other pressing her final paper against her chest. "Did you, did you really give me an A?" she stammered.

"No," I said, "You earned an A." Never mind the minus. It was an A.

"This is," she said, tears welling, "the very first A I have ever gotten. In my whole life."

Maria slid into the chair opposite my desk and smoothed the wrinkles in her paper against her lap.

"When I graduate," she said, then paused and took in a drag of air before continuing, "when I graduate, I will be the first person in my family to finish college. Ever."

Maria told me about the two jobs she was holding down while going to school. One was a night shift, spent cleaning offices. The other, on the days she didn't attend class, began at 5 a.m. in the lettuce fields alongside her parents. On school days, her parents worked harder to cover for her.

"I am," she whispered, "my parents' American Dream. I am the one whose life will be different. After I graduate, I will get a job in a nice office during the day. I will have a car and maybe my own apartment. And when I have children, they will never have to work in the fields."

She picked up her final paper. "It's all I think about. And this paper shows me it's possible."