Cheyenne Adds a Class
It was Thursday of the first week of school. My Second Period Honors English class was struggling with third person omniscient narrators when Cheyenne Resnik arrived at the door. “Mr. B, get me out of American Lit before I hurt somebody.”
Everyone turned to see who was interrupting our discussion of “Emma Zunz” by Borges. The freshman boys collectively inhaled. Cheyenne wore leopard skin stretch pants and a tight black knit shell. Her black boots had three-inch heels, and she wore too much makeup. I’d left my classroom door open, and Cheyenne walked in. I was used to that.
“What’s the problem?”
“Mrs. Schertz is loopy. I mean, part of it is the class…. AP American Lit? Please, where do they get this stuff? Thomas Paine? Who cares? Twain’s all right and Poe. I love Whitman, but the selections from Leave of Grass on her syllabus are horrible. Mrs. Schertz said we’re going to act out Our Town. Our Town? Yuck! Why don’t we read Wit or Dinner with Friends? That would give us something to talk about. We could read Death of a Salesman…. I want to play Willy Loman.”
“Cheyenne, you’re interrupting.”
“Oh, you’re in class?” She scanned the room as if seeing the students for the first time. She winked at Bob Brunswick. “Honors English?” Several males hurriedly affirmed her assessment. “I flunked this class.” There were several groans. “It wasn’t Mr. B’s fault. He’s an awesome teacher. I wasn’t much of a student my freshman year. No focus. I blew the class off. Don’t make the same mistake.” Cheyenne turned to me. “So are you going to get me out of American Lit or not?”
“Not. Suck it up.”
“Yeah, right. Like that’s possible.” Cheyenne left.
The rest of the day was uneventful until my last class, Debate. Fifteen minutes into the period I was explaining inherency. Students can’t debate before they learn the terms. They can’t understand the terms until they debate. Cheyenne appeared at my door. She apologized for interrupting my class. There was no irony in the apology.
“Cheyenne,” I told her, “I’m worried about you. You can’t control your impulses.” This immediately got the attention of several senior boys. Flip Burberry whispered to Eric Loft, “What’s her name again?”
“My impulses are fine. Control isn’t everything.”
“You need to do what it takes to graduate. That means passing classes. That means control.”
“With my GPA, what college will take me?”
Lucky Winston called out. “Go to community college. They’ll take anyone.”
Cheyenne struck a pose, hand on hip, head tilt, as if it was almost beneath her dignity to respond. “Thanks a lot.”
“Lucky’s right,” I said. “Just because you trashed your grade point doesn’t mean you don’t belong in college. Go to Union Valley Community College. Use the two years to get some money together. Bring up your grade point. Then find some sucker who’s willing to write a recommendation telling how you’ve gotten your life together.”
“Oh, I know what you’d write, Beiderman. ‘Cheyenne slept through her freshman year but woke up last week.’”
“Something like that.”
“Do I look like Rip Van Winkle?” Several of the senior boys shook their heads. “Why would you even care?” She turned. “I have to get back to Beowulf. English Lit really blows.” She left.
The next day Debate class started inauspiciously. I was lecturing on the issue of deterrence and how it affects the death penalty debate. “Studies suggest that each execution may deter as many as 26 other murders. Other studies suggest there is no deterrence. If the affirmative can show a deterrent effect, then other arguments open up. For example, when the negative argues cost, they can show that the average cost of the death penalty is over $3 million per execution. That’s greater than the cost of life imprisonment. However, the affirmative could argue the extra money is well spent because lethal injections deter in ways that life imprisonment does not.”
The varsity debaters were bored because they knew all this from camp. The novices were lost. They didn’t know a disadvantage from a critique. That’s when Cheyenne appeared at my door again.
“I hate her. I want to say to her, ‘All right. I agree. Your life is perfect. My life is crap. Now for God’s sake stop talking about your kids.’” Cheyenne wore tight black stretch pants that made her legs look like overstuffed sausages. A bare expanse of belly revealed a belly button ring. Her black sports bra was marginally hidden by a loose men’s oxford shirt with its sleeves rolled up and the tails tied right below her bust.
“Who are you talking about?”
Flip Burberry said instantly, “Mrs. Hollings. She’s always cheerful, always telling family stories. Nobody on Earth could be that happy without Prozac.”
Cheyenne looked at Flip and then back to me. “This handsome man deserves a prize. Why don’t you give him the rest of the period off, and I’ll take his seat. Mrs. Hollings doesn’t want me back. I already failed her composition class last spring. Now I have her in Brit Lit. Why does she need the grief? Besides, she’s had a bad day. She’s misplaced her chirpiness.”
I walked over to Cheyenne. “Why are you taking both British Lit and American Lit?”
“I need two English credits to graduate. One of them has to be a lit credit. My counselor, Ms. Slack, figured that given my track record, I should take two lit classes in hopes of passing one.”
“Shouldn’t you be in Brit Lit right now?”
“How ironic you should mention that.” It was then I noticed the pink discipline slip in Cheyenne’s left hand. “What began as a simple discussion on fashion and the school dress code became a full-blown criminal investigation by the Hollings One-Woman Decency Police. She’s kicked me out.”
“I’m afraid Mrs. Hollings had a difficult lunch.” I was in the faculty lounge at noon when Susan got a phone call from Channel 8 News. Her husband had just been indicted for securities fraud, and the reporter was hoping for a comment.
“Now you tell me,” Cheyenne said with mock outrage. “I could have tucked in the shirt and gone all conservative on her if you had warned me.” She waved the pink slip. “This is your fault.” She looked around the class. “You have room for one more thirsty mind?”
Flip stood up. “Let me be the first to welcome you.” In his orange aloha shirt with lime green hula dancers, he joined Cheyenne and me at the door.
“She’s got to go to Mr. Powder’s office. She has a discipline slip.”
The angular scarecrow-like senior shook his head as if to suggest that I didn’t understand anything. “Powder will bust her for mouthing off to Mrs. Hollings, then he’ll turn around and bust her for the outfit. If he suspends her it will be too late to add a new class.” He swept his arm around the already crowded classroom. “We’ve got room.”
“She’s still in Mrs. Holling’s class. Maybe once the misunderstanding about the school dress code gets cleared up…”
Cheyenne struck a pose. “It was no misunderstanding. The dress code is a violation of my First Amendment right to free speech. My Honors Freshman English teacher,” she motioned my way, “taught us about Antigone and Civil Disobedience. If a law is unjust you must violate it in hopes that others will follow suit and the law will be changed. That’s why I wore my sports bra today, to challenge the dress code. The girls on the cross-country team run in them every night. Why shouldn’t I be able to wear one to school?” She looked around the room. “Nobody objects, do they?” A chorus of male voices told her they didn’t.
Mary Appel, one of my varsity debaters, seemed especially amused by Cheyenne’s antics. “At least the shirt tones it down a little. A bare midriff is still a violation of the ‘no belly button’ provision.”
“Actually, I borrowed the shirt to cover up a little before I went into class,” Cheyenne told her. “I was trying not to piss her off. She still kicked me out.”
Flip reached out and grabbed the discipline slip. “Let me see what Mrs. Hollings wrote.” He read the slip then looked up. “It says ‘inappropriate attire.’ It doesn’t mention what you’re wearing. It doesn’t claim you were mouthing off. Let me work my magic and make this go away.” The whole class was fascinated. Flip never showed initiative. Now, he was in charge.
“With your permission?” he asked Cheyenne, motioning to the oxford shirt tied below her breasts.
Flip untied the shirttails, shook it out. The shirt came down well below her waist. He then buttoned all but the top two buttons. That hid the sport bra. “Can I get some masking tape?”
Mary Appel grabbed a roll from my desk and brought it over. “What are you going to do with it?”
“Tape her mouth shut,” Caren Ash suggested. “That’s the only thing that will save her from Powder.”
Flip grabbed Cheyenne before she could slap Caren. “Focus,” he said. “Mary, could you tape the bottom of the shirt together so it looks like it’s been hemmed.”
“Like a short dress?”
“It’s too baggy. I look like . . ..”
“It will be fine,” Flip reassured her. He removed his black leather belt and fastened it around Cheyenne’s waist. “Does that help?”
“I feel a little over dressed,” she said, looking down on the outfit.
“Lose the slacks.”
“What?” Cheyenne and I said in unison.
“Everyone knows Powder is a leg man. He cuts no slack for females in slacks.” Flip snickered at his own joke. “When he reads the note, he’ll think Mrs. Hollings objected to your skirt length. He’ll give you a detention and send you back to class. Instead of going to class, you’ll go to Ms. Slack in the Counseling Office and get a schedule change. Debate class will give you your second English credit.”
Flip beamed. “You shouldn’t be wearing those slacks anyway, they make your legs look fat.”
Before I could object, Cheyenne peeled off the slacks and tossed them to Flip. “Hang on to these.” She grabbed the discipline slip. “I’ll be back.”
“There’s an empty seat near me,” he called out as she disappeared down the hall.
By the time the period ended, Cheyenne had not reappeared. After the others filed out, only Flip and Mary remained.
“I have to say,” Flip told me, “I’m impressed. Most teachers go ballistic when someone interrupts a class.” He stared at the empty doorway. “You think she’ll come back?”
He hesitated. “What’s her story?”
“Don’t you know?” Mary asked. “I thought everyone knew about Cheyenne Resznik. Her father used to be a cop.” She became tentative, uncertain as to how much to say. “I was in Honors English with her my freshman year. She got the top score on the first test and left the rest of us in the dust. She was out for debate, too.”
Flip shook his head. “Probably why I never met her. I didn’t join debate until my sophomore year.”
“And you avoid Honors and AP English classes,” I added.
“Most students do.” I think Flip sensed we were holding something back. “So what happened?”
“One afternoon she got a text message,” Mary explained. “There’d been an accident.”
“Her father was struck while making a routine traffic stop,” I explained. “Her mother fell apart. It was who Cheyenne organized the funeral.”
Mary remembered. “She changed.”
“I want my pants back,” Cheyenne called out from the doorway. She was grinning.
“How did it go with Powder?” Mary hurried over to her. “What did Ms Slack say? Are you in the class?”
Flip and I watched as the girls talked. “So, what’s it going to be, Flip?” I asked him softly.
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean.” He didn’t say anything. “You going to take a pass, or are you willing to take a chance? Play this one out?”
Cheyenne called over. “I want my pants back.”
“It will cost you,” Flip told her without hesitation.
“A cup of coffee.”
“Then make it a Milky Way latte, and you’ve got a deal.”
“You’re in no position to bargain,” he said grinning. “I’ve got your pants.”
“I’m in no hurry to put them back on.” She smiled. “And I don’t think you are either.”
After I signed her add slip, they left for Starbucks. Only Mary and I remained.
“That going to work?”
“No way to know.” I shrugged. “What could go wrong?”
For three decades Paul Lewellan taught high school Speech and Debate. Eventually he tired of locker bay duty and float supervision. Now he teaches Communications Studies at Augustana College, in Rock Island, IL. He has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and he published over seventy-five stories in journals such as North Dakota Review, Agrestes, Calliope, Big Muddy, and Small Pond.