We did not exactly get off to a promising start.
I had just taken over as a permanent substitute and was overwhelmed by the chaos that was supposed to be my classroom. He stood defiantly by his desk, refusing to take his seat. I had not yet learned The Look given by all mothers and teachers (a skill, apparently, that is learned and not an innate gift of womanhood) and he was unimpressed by my authority. I was embarrassed and helpless and he knew it. But he overplayed his hand.
“That’s right,” he pulled himself up to his full height, “you can’t tell this N**** what to do!”
The strength of my reaction would later surprise me. Why did I care what some pain-in-the-neck kid called himself? But I did care. Enough that my frustration changed to a remarkably quiet, stern anger.
“Pick up your backpack,” I said, amazed by the composure of my own voice. “I will not have language like that in my classroom.”
He was slightly taken aback, but still belligerent, “I can say what I want. ‘Sides, I’m black.”
“I’m a woman,” I answered calmly. “You’ll never hear me call myself a bitch.”
Some hesitation in my voice let the class know that the word was as unfamiliar for me to speak aloud as it was for them to hear from a teacher. They fell silent, all eyes on Ed and me.
“You’ve gotta respect yourself or I guarantee no one else will.”
Great. I thought. I sound like an actor delivering a line in one of those “inspirational” race-issue films.
He glared down at me. His anger was palpable. I returned his gaze, hoping he couldn’t see through my bluff. If he didn’t listen, there was literally nothing I could do. At almost fifteen he was too old for his grade. He was half-a-foot taller than me and at least a hundred pounds heavier, already used to being in charge, to being intimidating.
I was fresh out of grad school, barely a decade older than most of my students. A week ago I had been full of the self-assurance of youth. Academically successful, excelling at all my previous jobs, I was excited to be offered a teaching position for the year: my own classroom, a place to implement my own pedagogical philosophy. The night before I started, I dreamed of introducing these under-privileged students to the world beyond this small town, helping them discover a love of history, guiding them in discussing the great questions that drive men and nations.
But that’s not quite how it worked out. I inherited my classroom from a senior teacher who’d had a nervous breakdown. It took approximately 6 hours to destroy all my self-assurance. I left the school defeated at the end of the day, worked late into the night trying to catch up on lesson plans and make some sense out of the former teacher’s grade-book, and collapsed into dreams full of the hopelessness panic that defined my work day. Then woke exhausted the next morning to do it all again.
A week in, I had yet to teach a lesson. I was fully aware that, for the first time in my life, I was facing real failure.
I prayed he couldn’t tell.
Our standoff lasted for seconds that felt like hours. Then he reached down, picked up his bag, and left the classroom (not without slamming the door). I turned back to a strangely subdued class. For the first time we completed the lesson.
The next day he was back, sullen but not defiant. It may be imagination imposed on memory, but things got better after that. I perfected The Look, and on the advice of another teacher, began making students line up outside before I let them into the classroom. It would take months (and endless prayers ) for my class to remotely resemble my early expectations (we never did quite get to eager shining faces and orderly discussions) but students at least sat in their seats, and we made it most of the way through most of the lessons.
One morning a few weeks later, a picture in the social studies book reminded one of the students of Barack Obama’s campaign logo. “Isn’t he’s the best president?!” someone asked.
“If you’re into that Hope and Change stuff,” I answered wryly, moving the conversation back to the 11th Century before we got too far off track.
By lunch, I’d forgotten my flippant political commentary when I looked up to see my young nemesis standing in my doorway.
“Hey, what’s up?” I asked. I’d established an open-door policy for lunch, and my room had become something of a haven for sweet quiet girls and little nerdy boys who needed a place to hide from bigger students. Needless to say, he was not one of my regulars.
He did not return my smile. “Miss T. We need to talk.”
He was very serious, but did not sound angry. “Alright. What do we need to talk about?”
For a moment he tried to look dignified, but his boyishness got the better of him and he blurted out “WHY don’t you like Obama?!”
I laughed and turned the question around “Well. Why do you?”
He shrugged ,“A lot of reasons.”
“Well then I guess you better come in and sit down.”
He sat on my desk. I quickly covered the papers I was grading. And we began our discussion. Initially, his praise of Obama was what you’d expect from a young teen, “he’s the first black president. . . . he’s such a good speaker . . . I just LIKE him.” But as I pushed him, his answers became more nuanced, more policy based, and – I noted – much more informed than I would have expected.
We discussed the war in Iraq, the welfare state, education, federalism and levels of administration. I was thankful for the example of professors who had pushed me to the limits of my arguments, who had respected me enough to disagree with me, and who had sharpened my mind even (perhaps especially) when they did not change it.
He warmed to the conversation, becoming more enthusiastic than I had ever seen him, his face relaxing into a child’s grin, beaming when I acknowledged the validity of a point he made. We were both surprised when the bell rang. “Thanks Miss T!” He called as he ran outside, “that was fun!”
The following afternoon the buses had all left and I was organizing my classroom when he walked in. “I’m staying for the after school program today, but it doesn’t start for half an hour. If I help you clean up can we talk politics?”
I agreed, and we discussed environmentalism while he straightened the desks and wiped off pencil marks with a damp paper towel. He told me about a tree planting he had attended and asked what I thought about global warming. I admitted a lack of knowledge but a certain skepticism.
“But you ride your bike to work!”
I admitted that the bicycle riding had more to do with personal vanity and an unwillingness to spring for a gym membership, then added that I did think caring for our environment is important, but had more to do with personal responsibility and living within limits. “We can’t just buy whatever we want, and throw whatever we don’t want away. We need to think about the decisions we make. Do I need this new t-shirt, or ipod, or whatever? What am I doing with my old stuff? Sometimes its easier to wear a ‘go green’ t shirt than it is to pick up your litter.”
“Like that,” he answered, pointing to some trash blowing past the open door, “But I still like my ‘go green’ shirt.”
We laughed and he promised to stop by again.
It became something of a routine on the days of the after school program. He would meet me when I got back from seeing off the buses, wait for me to prop the door open, and then come in and help me around the classroom. Since he was taller than me, I set him to work cleaning the high cupboards against the back wall while I scrubbed down the bookshelves.
I don’t think anyone had really cleaned that room in years, and as we cleaned, I found I hated the room less and less. One day in early spring, he was taking an inventory of textbooks while I graded multiple choice quizzes. We were discussing the relative value of liberty and equality, and I was making the case for freedom. He wasn’t sure. “So you think freedom is more important even if it means some things are not equal. What about education? What about college? Shouldn’t everyone be able to go to college?”
“It depends what you mean by ‘should be able.’ I don’t think everyone should go to college. I think there are a lot of people who would do just as well if they never went to college, who aren’t particularly interested in higher education and who could learn what they need to for work at their job or at a trade or technical school. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with that. I think college might be one example of how a push for equality has changed the whole system – it means a certain type of education is dying out. And losing that could result in a sort of loss of freedom; certainly in the loss of certain ways of thinking. But on the other hand,” I added, “I grew up in a family that could never have afforded to send me to college, so I’m very thankful for merit and need-based scholarships.”
He thought for a minute, “Do you think I should go to college?”
“You? Yes. I think you would love college. You like our conversations?”
“That’s sort of what college is like, only for four years. You’d be right at home. And you’d get to write about all the stuff you think about. At least if you get into a good college. Which you can, but it takes a lot of work.”
I said goodbye to him at the end of the school year amidst the intoxicating excitement of the sudden summer freedom. I wonder often how he is doing. He must be almost done with high school now. Has he kept up his grades? Has he thought more about college? Maybe he’ll get a football scholarship (the kid was just so huge). I can see him working hard through college – maybe going on to law school.
I like to imagine him, years from now, as a federal judge, writing an opinion in a wood-paneled office. And as he types the word “equality,” he thinks back to his seventh-grade teacher and how she would argue with his liberal interpretation of the law. Knowing him, that wouldn’t change his ruling, but it might make him add a paragraph or two by way of explanation and justification, even if he knows I’d never read it.
Statistically, I know that even college is unlikely, given his background and the quality of the local public schools. . . but then again, I guess being even a mediocre teacher makes it impossible to really think of your students in terms of statistics. They are too exasperating, obnoxious and precious to be anything but themselves. And if, somehow, he beats the odds, maybe some screen writer will want to make a movie of his life. There’s always that line about self-respect to help it get a nomination from the Academy.