Every year I create a special bond with a student. I can’t help it.
It’s always the toughest kid, the one who never brings a pencil, or paper, who can’t read past fourth grade, who has never written more than a paragraph, who hates books, adults, authority, school and the law, who can sit only with his back to the wall, who doesn’t let me get close, doesn’t look me in the eye, doesn’t answer my questions, doesn’t say anything in class, but then finds me during my prep periods and spits out his story, bit by painful bit.
Every year, for ten years of teaching, I get attached to these boys-want-to-be-men, who grew up without fathers, or saw them beat their mothers. They have no role models other than their gang brothers; they know no love without fear; they see no future beyond the jail cells or borders of their neighborhoods.
And how exactly can I, the little Junior English teacher, with my required reading books, my poems, and writing assignments, help them? Just who do I think I am? And just what is it I’m trying to prove to myself? I’m sick that have to admit it, yet Hollywood movies and TV shows are full of teachers like me. I’ve become a cliché, a parody of myself – just another idealistic white teacher trying to save the poor brown kid.
Sure enough, every year, I’m heartbroken by the unhappy endings of their stories, that don’t end in passing grades, graduations, or a sober life, but a predictable scenario that looks like a movie I have seen before many times: not passing the High School Exit Exam, or flunking all class, or dropping out or jail.
It’s no different this time. R is spiraling out of control awaiting his court date in a few days. He knows his time is up again for breaking probation, for getting Fs, for cutting school, telling teachers to fuck off, refusing to give up his cell phone and not being able to give up weed.
Not knowing what else to do to reach this boy, to keep him out of trouble in the vacant afternoons on his block, I gave him a book to read, A Place to Stand, about Jimmy Santiago Baca’s teenage struggle with incarceration and illiteracy, and about poetry that helped him get through. But R returned the book a few days later, telling me that he doesn’t understand anything it says, that he gets headaches seeing the tiny font on the page, that the noise in his head overpowers the words. He admits that he can only understand it if he reads aloud, like he does when he is in class. To further try to ‘fix’ this boy, in whom I have invested so much time, patience and energy, but whose days at our school are most likely numbered, I suggested I get him that book on CD. “No, but I really want to read it. I have never read a book before.” My heart snaps again.
So instead of detaching myself from him, knowing that he will be locked up again a few days after Valentines Day, I offered to read it with him at lunch. I couldn’t help it.
So with Baca at lunch and poetry in class, we are making progress. I know that it can’t be measured in test scores. I know it can’t keep him from the street or curb his explosive anger. I know it might make no difference at all, this time, or ever.
So with R this year, I realize that maybe it’s not about him or others like him from years past, at all. Maybe it’s about me trying to give it my all, try to force the universe to turn back time so that R could make a better choice, turn left instead of right, stay home instead of going out into the night. But since I can’t do that, since I can’t stop him from making wrong decisions, and convince the judge to keep him free, I read to him. And we write. Because that’s what helps me survive this day at work, makes me feel less pain. It is always all about me.
This week, I found a poem on my desk. It was R’s, written in his best handwriting:
I’m sorry I got high
I get home and smell like weed but I still lie
I look in your eyes and you look like you want to cry
I feel bad inside that I want to die
Looking for answers so I look up to the sky
Now I got court, gots to get a tie
See friends smoking but I just pass by
Don’t care because Ima protect mines
I get locked up and do time
I’m sorry momz but I don’t drop dimes
I hate this world, provoked me to do crimes
Even if I’m caught against enemy lines
So I’m sorry momz but you son gets high
It’s the end,
so it’s ending with Bye