A Digressive Portrait of My Next Door Neighbor, Juliet, 15

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Anywhere you stand in my house, you can hear Juliet’s mom. She calls their cats inside with an incessant, high-pitched tweet. There are countless cats, and they are multiplying. They’re in all of our yards, eating garbage in the street, climbing trees with branches too twiggy to support their bodies, and in the morning when I get in my car to go to school there are pawprints on my dashboard.

In October my housemate put a desk on the sidewalk with a free sign on it– unbroken, just too big for our space. After some hours the desk lay in the concrete walkway between our house and Juliet’s, legs in the air, a kind of compliment to the piles of trash in their front yard. The desk is still there, water-damaged from recent storms.

Above the desk, there’s a plank someone wedged between our house and theirs– a cat tightrope. It fits under the window to Juliet’s room, where she’ll be getting high on the bed and watching Netflix with one of the dogs that’s bigger than she is. I see the screen blinking through the faded tinkerbell decal stuck to her windowpane.

“Shut up you asshole,” she’ll be yelling at the dog. “That fucking hurt! Nobody loves you!”

Juliet goes to the continuation high school a few blocks away. It’s a school of about one hundred kids. I heard from a teacher who works there that more than half the kids are absent each day.

Note: The dropout rate in my city is 40%.

The regular public school where Juliet used to go is a place that works like a magnet on me. Kendrick High School. A huge, historied old school, it’s got space for thousands of kids. Only a couple hundred go there. Many are out on the football field weekend nights, shadowed in the lights. Enacting some version of the American dream.

That building’s a neighborhood landmark, a communal antique. It stands in the middle of evictions and brand-new coffee shops, of factory tear-downs, smog-bright sunsets, girls dancing their way down the street. Malcolm X gave a speech at Kendrick once. Huey P. Newton was in the audience.

You ride your bike by Kendrick at any time and you start to get the feeling that’s all been rendered irrelevant.

The school district superintendent has announced plans to “redesign” Kendrick, along with multiple other schools in low income neighborhoods. These redesigns are happening all over. They happened most drastically in New Orleans. They turned public schools into charters. They fired long-time teachers. They’re turning a profit from schools like Kendrick, kids like Juliet.

I don’t know why Juliet left Kendrick. All I know is once she came by to borrow a calculator.

Most of the time, I hear her mother: tweeting or yelling. I hear Juliet yelling back. They yell at each other and they yell at the dogs. There was a famous middle of the night mother-daughter-dog yelling match that developed into a scuffle in the backyard that woke me and kept me up for an hour. In the morning there was a black garbage bag on the sidewalk with a note stuck to it: Don’t open. Dead raccoon.

I know when Juliet’s mom is out of town because here are all the neighborhood kids, sitting on the steps, smoking, coming in, coming out, the chain link gate squeaking.

Here’s Juliet walking slow down the street with another girl in the middle of a school day. Here’s Juliet in cartoon pajama pants and slippers, slamming the door while she pulls the trash out. Here’s Juliet leaving home with her phone in her palm, her mom screaming after her from the doorway. Here’s Juliet on my porch in a man’s size extra large hoodie, knocking to use the phone.

“When are you coming home?” she yells to her mom as I type lesson plans. “And are you bringing food?”

Here’s Juliet. She’s fifteen. She’s lived here longer than I have. I’d like to hear her tell you the story of this block. I’d like her to have a huge, historied school that is there for her to become the brightest version of herself she could imagine.

I offer her a snack but she declines politely.

“Fine,” she tells her mother into my phone. “I’m just gonna get high and go to bed.”

I tell her you’re welcome. I type lesson plans. I listen to the chain link gate squeaking; I listen to the cats scrambling on their makeshift bridge, the girl alone in her house.

I am always listening.

 

2 Comments

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    Strong and awful…..

  • Nicole says:

    Teaching in the world of Adult Basic Education, I sometimes run into Juliet. Every quarter, I try to help her move forward a square. I lose her about 70% of the time. I end up teaching her things that aren’t on the lesson plans. She shows me how much I don’t know about everything.

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