More Complicated than Cheese

Rooster wasn’t understanding fractions. It was the simpifying he was having trouble with. What number goes into 10 and 26 without a remainder? He stared up at the classroom ceiling rummaging through his multiplication tables, but the answer was nowhere to be found.

“Two,” Stanley said standing at the board with chalk in hand. Standley is a tutor like myself. He’s black, as most of the class, with the exception of Rooster and his friend Ramon, a Serreno gang member.

“Two,” Stanley repeated. “10 divided by two is five. That’s your numerator. How may times does two go into 26?”

Rooster gave a blank starem, and it occurred to me why people call him Rooster. It’s his eyes – red and yellow and beady like the eyes of a chicken.

Ms. Williams entered the room.

“It’s 13! 26 divided by two is 13!” called a frustrated voice from behind Rooster. Dobbs, a black student, sat up in his seat and threw his hands to the board. “What don’t you get? 10 divided by two is five, and 26 divided by two is 13. Five over 13! That’s you answer!”

Rooster swiveled in his seat and glared his beady chicken eyes at Dobbs. The rest of the class became silent, and Ramon leaned over and said something to Rooster in Spanish that I couldn’t understand.

“Hey, bro. What the fuck’s your problem?” Rooster said, his eyes aglow.

Dobbs leaned back, puffed his chest, and raised his arms – an open invitation.

“Dobbs!” cried Williams. “Come with me. Come with me right now!” She jerked open the classroom door and pointed to the hallway. Her other hand was poised at her hip, right above her radio. Dobbs didn’t move.

“You sittin’ there wastin’ everyone’s time and shit!” Dobbs accused.

“Dobbs! Now! In the hall!” shouted an edgy Williams.

Dobbs stood reluctantly and swaggered up the aisle of desks, past chicken eyes, and out the door. Williams left behind him.

Ramon and Rooster exhanged more words in Spanish, and then they too go up and left.

Outside in the hall, teachers and officers scrambled to contain the riot that threatened to unfold. The Mexicans rallied in the library while the blacks congregated in the halls which echoed with the jangling of keys and radio alarms.

Rooster, Ramon, and Dobbs were quickly taken to the SHU, the crowds were dispersed, and the Education Department eventually settled down.

Afterwards, when class had ended and the last of the students had left, I stared quietly at Stanley who sat behind the teacher’s desk at the front. His eyes were off someplace else.

“What are you thinking about?” I asked.

“Oh, just thinking about all the typing I have to get done tonight for this guy,” he replied, his eyes still unfocused.

“You’re kidding me.” I said disbelieving.

“Why? What were you thinking about?” he asked.

“I was thinking about the riot that almost broke out!”

“Oh, that?” He chuckled through his teeth. “You get use to it. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve see stuff like that. Hormones. Egos. Pride.”

“I was also thinking about all the shit that’s been going on with my cellmate. I was thinking about how I had once considered the Education Department my sanctuary, my refuge from all the bull shit. But obviously I was wrong. There really is no escape, is there?”

“No,” he said. “There is no escape. Is your cellmate still giving you the silent treatment?”

“No, he finally confronted me the other day, told me he had some things he needed to talk to me about. He was upset that I didn’t give him my cheese.”

Stanley bared his teeth and laughed. “Cheese, huh?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I wouldn’t give him my cheese.”

He leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms wisely. “You gotta realize that most of the people in here have personality disorders.”

“And the whites don’t like me either,” I said. “I don’t fit in. They resent me for not being racist and for getting along with the blacks and Mexicans.”

“Same here,” Stanley said. “The blacks don’t like me because I treat everyone as equals.”

“So what do you do?” I asked.

“Nothing. You can’t do anything but stay true to yourself. Stay who you are.”

I could feel my eyes begin to burn, and I dropped my head.

“You can’t let these people get to you,” he continued. “You’re a good person – a really good person. Don’t ever change that for anybody.”

I wiped tears from the corner of my face, and his voice softened.

“What’s going on?” he asked. “Talk to me.”

I couldn’t stop crying now, but I didn’t mind because if there is one person I feel it’s okay to cry in front of, it’s Stanley.

“I can’t talk about it,” I said, my voice breaking.

“Yes you can.”

“No…every time I confide in someone…I get burned.”

There was a brief moment of silence while I dried my face and composed myself.

“I’ve been in prison for a long time now,” Stanley said, “and I’ve seen a lot of things. Has he hurt you?”

I shook my head. “No.”

“Are you involved in something?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” I said with slightly more confidence. And then I added, “It’s just complicated.”

“Complicated,” he repeated. “More complicated than cheese?”

“Yeah,” I sid. “It’s more complicated than cheese.”

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