Dear Javier (so I’ll name you because it’s a popular name these days):
I heard about you last weekend, your story told to me with great compassion by your teacher. She told me how you are up against incredible odds: the only one of four siblings not in prison, your attachment disorder, your mother frightened of the monster you could become. Just one of these put you at risk for criminal behavior; taken all together you and the people who care for you have every reason to be concerned. Listen, you don’t have to be the person society and statistics expect you to become; you are just as capable of overcoming the odds as becoming part of them.
Be strong, young man, and heed your kind teacher, not just when she teaches you the Pythagorean Theorem and the Table of Elements, but also when she tells you about her travels around the world and her heart for people everywhere. That’s where the real learning takes place. Look at the excellent teachers around you and recognize their support and concern. They truly care about what becomes of you.
Who am I to say all this to you? Who am I to say that I’d like to offer you a firm hug even though you’d probably refuse it? I work with criminal youth who come from backgrounds that resemble yours (a handful come to me as a complete surprise). No matter what their background, in prison they come to learn and experience terrible things. Believe me, you don’t want to be around these people, to think like them, to learn to treat people as they do. You don’t want to have to explain your felony charges the rest of your life or to make your dreams that much more difficult to achieve.
The young men who land in my classroom all come to me whispering of an abiding, deadly ache for love. Not romantic love, but familial love. Missing that in their lives they turned to gangs, bad friends, alcohol, drugs, and sex which contributed to their lives of crime in order to fill that hole in their hearts. I have bad news: no matter what you turn to, you will not find a spackling compound for that kind of emptiness. You’ll just have to learn to cope and find find affirmation elsewhere. You’ll need to find satisfaction in academic, athletic, or other personal success rather than from controlling and hurting others. You’ll need to work out your own salvation and frustrations in wholesome ways. If you’re not sure how to do that–you’re not alone–then ask.
These tasks are not easy, but they are easier now than from the bottom of a slippery slope. The Bible admonishes us all to think of the praiseworthy and excellent things in life, but I urge you to cling to all that is right, pure, lovely, honorable, admirable, and commendable. My students who have changed their lives around would tell you to do the same. Run from the things that would put you in their midst.
To your teacher I say thank you. To teachers everywhere I exhort you to seek out a student like Javier, even one, in whose life you might breathe a little care. In the end that will be more significant, I promise, than seeing your student take first place at the National Junior Classical League. I do not want to see your student in my classroom. But I digress. Back to you, Javier.
In literature the greatest hero is not the one who saves the greatest number of lives, but the one who saves his own. The literary heroes we classical English teachers celebrate overcome their personal battles with courage and grace. Javier, I hope you become a classic hero.