I tuned in to their conversation when I heard him ask the other one about family. Mr. S., I had gleaned through eavesdropping and his essays, felt like a victim of poverty and “the street.” While I couldn’t yet decipher what was fact and what was fiction about his childhood, I could figure out that he longed for some family unity. He filled that longing with homies from the hood.
I wish you could see him, dark as baker’s chocolate, strong, scarred, acne pocked jaw, and mature eyes to measure you. He’s one of my best students, but I couldn’t tell you why. While he has all the potential in the world, he doesn’t appear to have the desire or tools to leave the gang life behind. Guys like him… they make me want to get up and shout, or put them in the house next door for a month while they get life figured out, or something equally desperate and insensible. I don’t do anything like that, by the way, I try to just listen for what God wants me to learn from their stories.
You can tell by looking at me that I’m as white, as American, and as middle-class as it gets, and you would think from looking at me that I have nothing in common with the students I teach. You’d be right, almost. I understand that even though my story is different from theirs my life has also been touched by pain, loneliness, bad friends, and close encounters with opportunities to ruin my life. Because I don’t share my past with my students they don’t know that in many ways we are alike. My city friends are quick to point out that I obviously didn’t grow up around many minorities and that poverty looks different in city-block apartments than in the rural shacks where my childhood friends grew up. In other words, in the eyes of everyone, I couldn’t relate with my students.
If anything, it was this glaring fact that scared me the most about taking this job. Would I forever be one of them, the enemy? Would my students ever open up to me? Would my students ever tell me about their past so I could know? I wanted to walk away changed from this experience and with an education I couldn’t get from any college course or academic book. That’s why when the opportunity to hear a story presents itself…..
Like I was saying, Mr. Sg. was asking Mr. V. about home life. Mr. V., so I’m told, came from a small dot in the Pacific called Tonga (he corrected me later to say his parents immigrated from Tonga). The word “church” caught my ear, and I stopped whatever I was doing at the moment to listen to him describe how he and his family would get together every weekend for church. They would eat together, this small clan, at a massive table. He might have enjoyed some parts of this weekend ceremony, but he hated having to wear the traditional island outfit, a white shirt, a skirt-like wrap, and sandals. Family life, it became clear, centered around church. Wikipedia points out that 98% of Tongans subscribe to a Christian denomination, so this is not just a family thing, it’s cultural for him as well.
When he was old enough, he stopped going to the church gatherings. Soon after that something happened that caused his mom to split up her children among several aunts living in three different states. Mr. V. ended up in Las Vegas during this time. Whether that contributed to his presence in my classroom, I don’t know yet.
Mr. Sg. looked like he was trying to imagine such a weekly family tradition as Mr. V. described. I thought I might cry over the wistfulness in his eyes. Then they started to compare notes about people they knew from the city. It seemed like no one they talked about had a mom or dad, or if they did Mom would disappear months at a time. Meanwhile, Junior would be homeless and drift from aunt to friend to brother until Mom would show up for a few days. No social services or legal guardian or structure of any kind existed for these young boys. Are we surprised then that they end up in my classroom? I’m surprised I don’t see more of them.
I saw Allen and a handful of others in my mind’s eye. They had just as much opportunity and reason to be in my classroom as the ones in front of me. The first time I met Allen’s aunt, she complained bitterly about how her sisters had mistreated orphan Allen. “They treat him like an animal,” she declared. “His cousins get preferential treatment,” she almost spat, as she tried to explain how Allen got from Chicago to —. She failed to see she would go on to repeat the story. By the end of the year her doctor advised her to let him go because he was making her heart condition worse. Are you kidding me? A friend’s dad ended up becoming his legal guardian, but the friend wasn’t much better off. I don’t think either one graduated high school, but at least Allen is alive and apparently on the right side of the law. I still remember the look in his eyes when he told me he’d be shot to death if he had to go back to Chicago. Considering the statistics, he was probably right.
I’ll be honest, I don’t understand why God chooses whom He does when He has the power to save us all.