In one pile, all these stories: a dead father. Fear of heart attacks. Giving a drunk man your bus pass so he can get home. Loving the smell of Febreze. The dream of paying off a mother’s debts. Just one pile. I fidget as I read them, tear up, rub my forehead. These stories, all these stories I read, and live with.
One of my students is in jail. I probably won’t ever see him again. He did something that would scare the piss out of me, had I witnessed it. He did something that should have serious consequences.
I feel I should jump in and say that my students are good people, people who deserve education and almost always make wise choices, and want to be architects and lawyers and open businesses, people who are always on the news as violent, soulless tigers, because that is what makes news. People who have to sometimes project menace for self-protection in one of the most violent cities in America.
But either you believe that, you believe that people without money who live in violent neighborhoods are good people, doing the best they can, or you don’t. I want to say he had a goofy smile, and still had a boy’s body, he still wore his height like a too-large suit, and he was nothing but polite and mild in my presence. I can’t imagine him in jail. He’s just a boy.
I should have moved him to the easier class. The work was over his head. I knew this. I err on the side of keeping kids in a challenging group. I err, yes, maybe. I should have encouraged him more. I shouldn’t have been so blunt about what he was missing, and how far he had to go. When he took a desk in the corner and turned it to the side, I should have known he was separating himself from our healthy student body, enough to act in ways that would shock us, pansy school of kids who can’t be gangbangers, whose lame posturing would get them pummeled down the street. I should not have left town, and left my class with a sub who doesn’t know them the way that I do.
What I know, from these few years of teaching, is that I can’t predict human behavior. I have suspicions about who could go violent, but they are only suspicions. I have suspicions about who might mouth off at the wrong party, or on the wrong corner. Projections. Estimates.
“I’m going to feel guilty about this for fifteen minutes,” I told my friend, the teacher who had given me the bad news. “Then I’m going to try to let it go.” We joke and pray and wonder, we’re awed by how things go, for good and for ill. And since we do all that together, we are all right.