Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Different Life?

      When every male member of your family belongs to a gang, when you can't even remember the last time you saw your dad sober, then school becomes a refuge, a ticket to the possibility of a different life.  "Mari" came to high school every day for two years, until the one day she finally decided to ditch, to "comfort" a friend in need, and the dream went off the rails.

     The first year I decided to give up ESL and teach 9th grade English instead, I did so because the administration decided to provide at-risk, behind on their skills 9th graders an extra period of Language Arts, to be taught by their English 9 teacher.  There was no mandated curriculum.  No extra directives appeared in my mailbox.  I was essentially free to analyze my students' academic needs and then invent a curriculum to solve those issues.  That was a challenge I couldn't refuse.

     Some teachers, and we all know people like this, kept to their same half-baked level of effort, and ended up spending an extra hour boring the crap out of their students.  I decided to form a "family" with my class, and since I come from a culture where a lot of problems are solved with food, I devised a way to get to know them individually, starting the second day of the semester. 

     The double class lasted two hours, followed by a twenty minute breakfast break, so every day I brought in a cooler with several juice boxes and huge individually wrapped Otis Spunkmeyer muffins.  Starting with the students I deemed to be most at risk, and because the principal had told me I could keep kids for the entire 20 minutes if I fed them, I "invited" one student a day to have breakfast with me, turning two desks to face each other in the open doorway, and engaging in the eternal social dance of "getting to know you" with each student.

     The first student selected tried to wiggle out of staying, but no dice.  He had to sit and chat over juice and muffins.  By the third day, students were begging to be the one selected to stay.  I got through three rounds that semester, and by the end knew all of them, and their outside issues, pretty well.

     The first time I invited "Mari" to stay, she told me about a group of girls she'd known in middle school, who were threatening to jump her after school and beat her up.  She had to cross their turf to get home, so she asked me if I could give her and a friend a ride each day across the hostile 'hood until she could work things out with her adversaries.  Each day, for a couple of weeks, I drove "Mari" and her friend half-way home so that she could get there safely.  That was how we bonded, as she told me more about her family and home life.

     "Mari" did so well in 9th grade that she opted to join the special inter-disciplinary program I taught in for her 10th grade year.  Again, she worked hard and did well, but toward the end of the year one of her 9th grade classmates, who had not stayed with me for 10th, got in trouble with another teacher and was suspended for a day.  He asked "Mari" to join him, because he was "feeling low and needed her."  

     I knew about the suspension, and when "Mari" did not show up for class, I knew, from some deeper wisdom, exactly what would happen as a result... and sadly, I was right.  For the first time, she had surrendered control of her life to another, and he had taken full advantage.  I knew, that day after, that she was pregnant ... and once again, sadly, I was right.  She completed the semester, but the fire just wasn't there any more. In June, she told me her parents were sending her to live with an older sister in another town.  Did she have the baby?  Did she complete high school?  I don't know.  

     What I do know is that some kids, whether due to family or economic circumstances, have very little margin for error in their lives.  One step off the path can result in disaster, the shattering of dreams.  I've known students who've had babies in high school, even gone to jail for a while, and they've made it through, but with so much more drama and struggle.  

     Someday, I may learn if "Mari" made it.  Until then, all I can do is hold her in my heart and hope for the best. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Kid in the Back

      Smaller than the other boys, J kept a low profile in class, but often stayed after the lunch bell to hang out with the students who preferred to stay indoors and out of trouble in my room during the lunch period.  Sometimes he'd chat with me, telling me all about his passion for the Highlander TV show, which I had never watched, and describe some of the show-related gear he'd managed to acquire.
     Just before the two-month break for our "track" at this large, inner-city, year-round school, he came to tell me that a close family member had passed away, and that the family was going to be leaving early for El Salvador, to attend the funeral and to visit relatives they had not seen for many years.  I wished him a good trip, and he promised to be back when the track returned from break in March.
     March arrived, as did J, but he seemed even quieter and more subdued than before the break.  His passion for Highlander had morphed into an obsession.  At the end of April, we began to read Elie Wiesel's account of the Holocaust, Night, reading it in class, sometimes in small groups, sometimes together, discussing it as we read.  One day we read a part where the Nazis are throwing babies up in the air and using them for target practice.
     When the lunch bell rang, the students filed out somberly, finding it difficult and painful to read of such evil.  J remained.  "Something like that happened to me."
     All I could think of to say was, "Do you want to talk about it?"  He did, so I sat and listened.
     When he was eight, he lived with his parents and his three year old sister in their village in El Salvador.  Civil war raged in the country, but until that day, his life and his innocence had not been poisoned by that war.  Then, on that day, soldiers came looking for his uncle.  Because his uncle was not there, and to send a "message" to all in the village, the soldiers took J's three year old sister, held her up in front of the house, and squashed her with their jeep.  J smashed his fist into his other hand to illustrate. The family fled to the US soon after.
     Yes, he'd had lots of counseling when they first arrived.  No, he did not want to be referred for additional help.  After all, how does one "recover" from exposure to pure evil, especially when one is a child when that happens?
     That afternoon, I went through the TV guide, hunting for reruns of Highlander, and over the next few weeks watched a number of episodes. What was it about the show that held such fascination for this young man?  My best guess would be that in a world where evil can destroy innocence, J needed to believe that in the end good would triumph, as the good character always seemed to do on the show.  It gave him hope.
     Why do I tell these stories?  I'm a witness.  How can I be silent?