“Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing. Use the pain as fuel, as a reminder of your strength.”
- August Wilson
The sub gods must be smiling upon me because the gatekeeper called me two evenings in a row, so I could sleep in just a little bit. Monday evening’s call surprised me since it was an early release day on Tuesday, so I was POSITIVE that I wouldn’t get a job. The gig was for my old school for a Math teacher I’d worked with in the seventh-grade during my first year as a teaching assistant.
This teacher was strong and tough, two qualities necessary at a failing school in a city. As a seventh-grade assistant, it was my job to make photocopies and follow around 7A, a notorious class. This group had so many problem students that it was nearly impossible to control them. But she did. And this Math teacher liked me, telling me that I was better that the previous assistant because, “when I asked her to make two-sided copies, she asked me which side I wanted face-up.” I certainly could do better than that.
I arrived at the school, happy that I didn’t see too many people I knew yet as I hurried up the stairs. Truthfully, as much as I love being back, it’s emotionally draining. I told myself to buck up, so I wouldn’t get as down as last time*. Foreshadow….
My schedule: homeroom, team meeting (which wouldn’t apply to me), a mainstream class, and an ISP (Intensive Studies Program) class. Then the students would have lunch and recess, and I’d have them for fifteen minutes for advisory before the day ended.
When team meeting began, I heard the name of a former fifth-grade student, I’d taught two years ago when he was in fifth-grade. Last fall, he’d been in the school at the start of the school year for sixth-grade, always sure to give me a hug, but then I noticed that I hadn’t seen him in awhile. I asked around and found out he’d moved to New Hampshire with his mother.
This was bad news. Bad. His mother was a drug addict and his father was in and out of prison (And may have been a drug user too). For most of the year he was in my class, he lived with his grandmother, his “uncle” (who was only a couple of years older than him, and whom I’d taught the previous year), and his baby brother. Yes, his mother had another kid she couldn’t take care of.
At the start of the year this student was in my class, he lived in a homeless shelter with his mother because his adult uncle had committed suicide (he’d suffered from mental illness), so the grandmother needed some time to mourn. Why she had to do that without caring for this kid, I had no idea. I remember once, a bunch of students were talking about a television show, and this boy admitted that he didn’t have a TV. I intervened when the other students started teasing him. They didn’t know that he lived in a shelter.
The television conversation was the inspiration for a scene in my book, Indigo in the Know. In my query letter, I state, “This manuscript was written to give a voice to my impoverished fifth-grade students.”
This student was blonde, with a cute face, and he dressed like every other kid. Like many students I’ve taught, you’d never know from looking at him what his life was like. He was a straight A student, who wrote better stories than any other fifth-grader I'd taught (note that they always had a lot of gore) and read on an adult level when he was ten-years-old (A rarity in that school). He enjoyed my Social Studies classes so much that he was annoyed when the student teacher psychologist pulled him out during my class once a week.
That December, I asked him what he wanted for Christmas. He said, “My nana hasn’t worked a long time since she’s on disability. She doesn’t have a lot of money, so we agreed that we’d only buy presents for the baby.” He added that when the tax refund arrived, he and his “uncle” would be getting a video game system. My heart broke a little for his circumstances and how well he rolled with it all.
That spring, I saw his mother for the first time in the office. She appeared gaunt. So many things swirled through my mind that I wanted to say. “You have the best kid! Pull yourself together for him and the baby. They deserve it.”
I talked to the student teacher psychologist about seeing the mother. The psychologist said that the boy tried so hard because he thought if he did well, one of his parents would have an incentive to take him back. She worried that when he figured out that they couldn’t reform, he’d give up. I said, “I hope you’re wrong.”
Nana provided stability, but even that wasn’t enough. I knew her well because when I had been an extended term substitute, I taught her son (the young uncle), who often slacked and occasionally got in trouble. We had several meetings about him.
Besides not working, nana was an older woman – not at the stage of life to watch three boys who ranged from thirteen-year-old to eighteen-months. And looking at her two adult boys – one had just committed suicide and the other (my student’s father) was a criminal. Recently, I wrote a post about occasionally wanting to take students home**. This was one of those times.
The school year ended and new one began. As I mentioned, he left early in his sixth-grade year and returned for seventh-grade. The teachers at this team meeting weren’t talking about the boy I knew. He's now in ISP, but not completing assignments. They knew he was capable, but he was getting C’s instead of A’s. These teachers saw him as a problem rather than the wonderful boy I’d taught, which saddened me. His grandmother and the boy were on their way to the meeting, so I left, but I thought about him while I waited the teachers’ room.
Last period, my former student was in my class. “I know you,” he said with a smile. He was taken aback because he’d never seen me with straight hair and over a year has passed since we’d seen one another. He may have grown a few inches, but he looked almost exactly the same. He’d lost some of his wide-eyed innocence, though I didn’t know if that was from age or circumstance.
I asked about his brother, who is nearly four, and learning to read. “That doesn’t surprise me,” I said. He mentioned that he’d gone to a very good school in New Hampshire, where he got straight A’s. “If you can get all A’s there, you can get A’s here too. The next time I come in, I hope to hear you’re doing better.” He shrugged in reply.
He was on his best behavior during class and got all of his work completed. The boy he was sitting with kept trying to talk, but my former student didn’t want to act up in front of me. In the cafeteria, I saw him hanging out with another troublemaker. This troubled me. I wanted to witness him making good choices. It was bittersweet to see him again. The last time, he’d been doing well. I’d hoped the move to New Hampshire gave him the life he deserved. It didn’t. I can only hope with all of the things pulling him down, he finds the courage to fight past it. This time, for him.
“Anyone can give up, it's the easiest thing in the world to do. But to hold it together when everyone else would understand if you fell apart, that's true strength.”
- Author Unknown
*Here are two posts about the last time I subbed at my former school:
** This is the post from the other day: