The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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THERE IS A BOY standing on the corner of Twenty-eighth and Bloomington on the south side of Minneapolis, Minnesota, hawking drugs to those in the know, lounging aggressively on a parked car or against the fence that separates the barren lawn from the street. I loved that boy. No, I love him still — a raw, angry, mama-tiger kind of love. If I were smarter than I am, I would have let go of these feelings by now, but I am not, and I have not.
All teachers have a story like this to tell, except they never tell it to the end. Nobody likes how this story ends, and I’m sure you won’t either. It would be easier to end this story in the middle. Really, I could do that. Everyone else does.
The teachers who tell this story halfway have elevated it to the status of myth. That myth is everywhere now. You can find it in teacher-training textbooks, in educational pamphlets, in made-for-TV movies: A starry-eyed, idealistic teacher (almost always white, almost always female) goes off to work in a tough, urban school, hoping to Make a Difference. Teacher arrives at the school and realizes from the first fistfight she is In Over Her Head. Teacher meets Nemesis, the tough, urban kid (almost always black, almost always male) who sits in the back, slides way down in his chair, clutters the aisles with his lanky legs, his large, sneakered feet; the kid whose eyes are half closed, whose chin juts sharply forward, whose lips hang loosely in a sneer. Nemesis plots to make Teacher miserable. Nemesis succeeds. Nemesis tries to drive teacher away, but Teacher has a few tricks up her sleeve. Nemesis starts participating in spite of himself. Nemesis completes homework on the sly and starts bringing a pencil to class. Nemesis finds himself inexorably drawn to Teacher due to her unfailing faith in him. Teacher discovers that Nemesis is actually brilliant, a veritable diamond in the rough. Nemesis, so touched that someone can finally see his potential, becomes equally starry-eyed, equally idealistic. Teacher packs up her books, takes one last, longing look at the cramped, dingy classroom, and, with the music swelling behind her, returns to her normal life in the middle-class land of white people, where things are safe and ordered and, presumably, a little dull.
But there is more to this story, a second half that doesn’t play well in a movie. In this part the kid is doing well, yet is still desperately at risk. The teacher painstakingly develops a connection, and then loses the student anyway. That’s the sequel they never make. If they dared talk about that second half of the story in teaching textbooks, we’d have an even greater teacher shortage. Instead they tell us only the first part, then send us into America’s classrooms with lofty ideals in our heads, useless lesson plans in our brand-new briefcases (a graduation gift), and the latest theories and catchphrases on our tongues, but with no clue as to what sort of pressures these kids face every day; with no clue how much it hurts to care about a child and still lose him forever.
MARCUS IS lost forever. I know it. He knows it.
Actually, I need to rephrase that. Marcus is lost to me. Let’s be clear whom this story is actually about. As teachers, we delude ourselves into thinking that it’s all about the kids, and that we slave selflessly in the background with saintlike devotion to our calling. But that’s a lie. We are just as much at the mercy of our own egos as anyone else, and when it comes down to it, most students are no more than minor characters in the complicated dramas of which we are the stars. This isn’t to say that we don’t help the children who sit in our classrooms, or that we don’t love them. Of course we do. We love them more than is good for us. That is our tragedy. There was a brief moment when I could have helped Marcus, but I missed it somehow. And now any saving has to come from him. It cannot come from me.
I see him from time to time on that corner of Twenty-eighth and Bloomington, his hair perfectly coiffed in intersecting braids that accentuate the smallness of his skull, the thinness of his neck. He is sixteen now, but for all his swagger, he is still a little boy. He’s been under the impression that he is a man since he was ten — ever since his brother went to prison. I slow down when I see Marcus. I know he recognizes my car, but he continues to lean against a chain-link fence, or a rusty Camaro with its engine rumbling. He is dressed from head to toe in baby blue and white: gang colors. They are all he wears now. His friends wear matching clothing, and I like to pretend they belong to a sports team that requires them to wear their uniforms all the time.
I slow my car even more, and Marcus’s eyes slide lazily along the pavement. He will not make eye contact with me anymore. Twice before I have stopped, causing the traffic to back up angrily behind me. I have lowered the passenger window and invited Marcus in for a ride. Both times he looked to his friends for guidance. They shrugged. He shrugged at me and turned away. He did not speak.
I FIRST KNEW Marcus by his constant muttering. In my tracked eighth-grade classes, he was in the lowest track. He had failed every class in every quarter the previous year, for the simple reason that he had not completed a single assignment. Not one. He never did the in-class work I gave him. Instead he drew lovely and disturbing pencil sketches on his desk: city scenes, or collages glorifying marijuana. There were even a few pictures of me, and they were actually pretty good likenesses, if you took away the pointy hat, fangs, and broom. Marcus threw balls of paper at girls he liked. He looked out the window. He hummed. He refused to take aptitude tests. No one knew his reading level. No one knew which math class he should be in. Everyone knew he was a royal pain in the ass. He sat in the far back corner of the room, regardless of what seat I assigned him. He would not bring paper to class. He muttered incessantly.
My first Marcus moment went like this: We had just begun a unit on the civil-rights movement by watching a documentary and making posters. He’d slept through the documentary and refused to make his poster. I’d unwisely let it slide. Now we were about to start reading the novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred Taylor, about an African American ten-year-old growing up in rural Arkansas against the backdrop of poverty and institutional racism. When I passed out the books, Marcus threw his in a clean arc over the heads of the kids in front of him, over the podium, and right onto my desk chair. He eyed me defiantly, then crossed his arms, squinted at the marks he’d made on his desk, and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like “I ain’t going to read that fucking book.”
I felt my blood pound at my temples, but continued to pass out the discussion questions to the class. “All right, everyone,” I said, “read pages 1 through 7, then turn to your partner and talk through the three discussion questions. Then, on your own, write down your answers to the questions in your notebooks. Remember: talk first; write second. Marcus, will you meet me in the hall, please.” It was not a question.
He extricated himself from his chair and shambled slowly to the door. I picked up the book he’d thrown and followed him out.
“Marcus,” I said, feigning patience, “is there anything I can help you with?”
“No,” he said.
“Why did you throw the book across the room?”
“ ’Cause I’m not going to read it,” he said.
“But everyone else is reading it. It is what we are doing in class.”
“So?” he said. “It’s about racism. I don’t want to read a book about racism.”
“But,” I said, faltering slightly, “we’re in the middle of a unit on the civil-rights movement.”
He looked at me blankly.
“You know, the civil-rights movement?”
“Yeah, I know what it is. I just don’t want to learn about it.”
He looked at his shoes. I tried in vain to think of something to say. “Your grade depends on the successful completion of this book,” I told him, feeling that I had him there.
“Think I care about grades? This is middle school. None of this matters.”
I reddened again. Crap, I thought. Who told him that he won’t be held back for failing grades? Next thing you know, he’ll find out there’s no such thing as a permanent record.
“Here’s your book. Sit down and do the assignment. I’ll be calling your mother this evening.”
He narrowed his eyes and grinned. “Yeah, you go ahead and do that.”
When I called after school, I discovered that his family’s phone was disconnected.
A week later Marcus still had not cracked the book, and the time had come for me to take drastic action. While the other students started working on their daily writing, I again asked Marcus to meet me in the hall. I had a new book in my hand.
“Listen, Marcus,” I said as his eyes traced the tiles on the floor. “I feel like we got off on the wrong foot, and I’m ready to make a deal with you.”
He muttered something incomprehensible, but it sounded close enough to “What kind of deal?” for me to continue.
“There are two kinds of learners: people who do well in groups, and people who are independent thinkers. I can tell that you are an independent thinker.”
He made eye contact for half a second, then looked down again, nodding ever so slightly.
“So I thought that you would like to do an independent book project. I will exempt you from all classroom activities as long as you are constantly working on your project. I will give you the choice to read either the assigned book or an alternative. You can read at your own speed, and then write me a five-page paper, with five illustrations.”
“I have a choice?” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “I spoke with the district” (a lie), “and they said that you can either read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry or you can read this.” I placed a tattered paperback in his hands.
He looked at it, puzzled. “Anne of Green Gables?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“What’s it about?”
“Well, like Roll of Thunder, it’s a coming-of-age novel. It might be a little more palatable to you, however, because it doesn’t have a single instance of racism in it. It is the story of a spunky, red-haired Canadian orphan who wins the hearts of all who meet her.”
We stood silently for a moment. He looked at the cover photograph of a girl with bright red braids holding an old carpetbag. Then he sighed slightly, and I swear the tiniest smile rippled across his face.
“I think I’ll read the first one,” he said.
“Good choice,” I said, patting him on the shoulder and leading him back into the classroom.
He read the book. In a day. He wrote the essay. It was rough and unorganized, but insightful. His illustrations were beautiful. I moved him on to Invisible Man, The House on Mango Street, and The Outsiders. He devoured them all. He stayed after school to sit and read in my comfy chair while I worked at my desk. He still muttered in class.
AS FALL moved on, I continued to try to contact Marcus’s parents. I had a rule for myself at the time to make eight parent phone calls a day, no more than four of them negative. There were days when I had to break that rule. The blow-job club, the entire class of candy thieves, the racially motivated brawl on the lawn, and the six-student sex ring all come to mind. But on the whole, I followed it. I liked to corner parents and tell them their child was doing well. It caught them off guard and, I hope, added a dizzy giddiness to their day.
Once, I was able to get a hold of Marcus’s father at work and tell him about his son’s essay, but there was a lot of noise on the other end, and the conversation was cut short. I called the number again, only to learn that his father no longer worked there. I tried stopping by their house, but no one was ever home — or, at least, no one answered my knock.
If I had been able to contact his parents, I might have learned about Marcus’s older brother. I might have been told about his deep involvement in the Crips gang. I might have found out that he was currently in prison on a conviction for rape and drug possession, and that he was due out in December.
No matter whom I talked to, though, Marcus still probably would have slipped slowly, imperceptibly away from me. Even if I had known the whole story, the other events of that school year would have been equally intense and distracting to me. It is likely that I still would have missed the fact that he was slipping away. It is likely that I still would have failed him.
In mid-October I had to give the students a standardized reading test on the library’s computers. Marcus, of course, refused to take it. Jeanine, the librarian, kindly offered to keep an eye on my class while Marcus and I sat in big red reading chairs to talk.
“I already know I can read,” he told me, collapsing into the chair’s deep foam cushions.
“Obviously you can read,” I said. “Everyone else in class can read too. That’s not the point. The reason I’m having you do this is so you can look at your reading level in October and then look at it again in May and feel good about how much you’ve improved.”
“I don’t need to improve,” he said.
“Everyone needs to improve.”
He scowled and looked away.
“Besides, I’ll be totally honest with you: There are some teachers who don’t believe that you read an entire novel in one day. They think you pulled a fast one on me. Wouldn’t you like to make them eat their words?”
He was silent for a long time as he fidgeted with the hem of his ridiculously large Rangers jersey, his thin neck twisted to the side, chin pushed nearly past his shoulder.
“Fine,” he said. “But you have to take the test too.”
“Deal,” I said, hoisting myself up.
He stared at me in disbelief. “You’re serious?” he asked.
“You’re taking the test?”
“Yes.” I chose a computer monitor, logged in, and opened the appropriate page. “Shall we?” I said, my fingers poised above the keys.
He narrowed his eyes and rubbed at the masses of denim that billowed around his knees. “All right, but you have to show me your score.”
He took the test that day, finishing before the kids who’d started on time. When Jeanine printed out the scores, she waved me over.
“Well,” she said, “I’ve known this kid since he was in sixth grade, but I certainly never knew this.”
She showed me the printout. Marcus was reading at a level of 13+: college level. There was no higher score on the test.
“See,” he said to me later with a barely concealed smile, “I told you it was a waste of time. I already knew I could read.”
In that moment, I thought all the movies and the teacher-training textbooks were right, that this was my glorious payback for hard work and good teaching. I thought I had saved Marcus from whatever it was he needed saving from, that my work was done. My own personal orchestra cued up the first strains of swelling, heart-tugging music in my head, and I was alight, aglow with the thrill of my success. My success. Not his.
© Edis Jurčys
LOOKING BACK, I see that things began to go wrong in December, though I did not notice it at the time. When Marcus stopped coming to my classroom after school, I figured he had found a more convenient place to read and do his homework. When he started throwing things again in class, I thought it was because he, like everyone else, had too much pent-up excitement over the approaching winter holiday. When he started drawing on the desks again — including the old favorite of me in a witch’s hat — I thought he was just demonstrating his separation from me as a mother figure.
By January I was thoroughly distracted by my job. Marcus, of course, was far from my only student. Every day he would leave my class with twenty-nine other thirteen-and fourteen-year-olds, and thirty more students would stumble in, groaning loudly that they had homework again. Multiply that by five teaching periods a day, and add to it the fact that by the end of January I could no longer conceal the five-and-a-half-month bulge of pregnancy around my middle.
In February Marcus started wearing a blue bandanna to school, though it was clearly against the rules. He swore at another kid in class, and I had to send him to the behavior room. I pulled him aside before he left and asked if there was anything that I could help him with, anything that was getting in the way of his success in class.
“You can’t do nothing for me,” he said, and he walked slowly out the door.
I’VE OFTEN SAID that I lost Marcus in April, but I see now that Marcus was never mine to lose.
What happened was this: In the first week of April, it became clear to me that I would not be able to finish the school year. The stress was causing rapid contractions, and I had already been to the hospital twice with false labor symptoms. I stood in the hall at work, back and pelvis hurting, veins bulging, and counted the days until I could take my maternity leave. That’s what I was doing when I heard Marcus cursing around the corner, and he and Nathan and Louis tumbled into view in a tangle of knees and fists and elbows, somebody’s blood decorating someone else’s fists. Mouths spurted insults and more red. I called for help, hooked my arms under Louis’s shoulders, and heaved. He struggled, straining to plant his boot under Nathan’s eye.
“Pregnant,” I reminded him, my voice sharp in his ear.
He immediately went limp. I stood him against the wall, and he looked at the swollen belly between us, his expression stricken. “Sorry,” he said, and he started to cry. I wanted to kiss his forehead and tell him that everything was going to be fine. But I didn’t.
The gym teacher arrived and grabbed Nathan, while I pulled Marcus out from under him. He struggled and panted, his eyes red from rage and tears.
“Stop,” I said, my voice a quiet growl. “It’s over.” He relaxed, and the bandanna he had held tightly in his fist all through the fight fluttered to the ground like a bird kicked out of the nest. I reached down to pick it up and saw, nestled in the sweaty folds of fabric, four shriveled joints.
“What is this?” I asked. Marcus reached for it, but I clenched the bandanna in my fist and bared my teeth. “What the hell is this?” I poked him in the chest. A rage that I had never felt in my life swelled inside me, hot and sharp and foul. “What the hell are you thinking?” I was incredulous, furious. Here was this boy, this boy, the smartest student I had ever taught, and he was unable to see that the circumstances of the world we live in make it astronomically more dangerous for a black kid to get caught with a joint than a white kid. A boy this smart should know that, shouldn’t he?
“What are you, some kind of moron?” I asked.
He looked down. “You know I’m not,” he muttered.
“Well, you’re sure as hell acting like one.” I spat these words at him.
With more strength than I’d imagined possible from a child so thin, he shoved me to the ground, then grabbed the bandanna. I reached for a handful of his shirt or jeans, but he was too fast. Feet slapping the linoleum, he got away, his silhouette pausing briefly at the outside door before disappearing.
They held his expulsion hearing in absentia.
DURING MY maternity leave, I would come by the school occasionally to check in with the substitute and chat with my students. Each time I entered the building, the following scene played in my head: Marcus has returned and is begging forgiveness from the unyielding principal. Hearing his pleas from outside the door, I burst in and demand he be reinstated. Then comes the scene where I am sitting in a folding chair in the auditorium, four and a half years older (but still looking great), and Marcus is giving his valedictorian speech, his voice cracking slightly when he comes to my name.
Yes, it shames me to admit, these scenes played in my head every time I set foot in that school. He couldn’t have returned, of course, even if he had wanted to.
Two weeks before my baby was born, I drove to Marcus’s house, waddled up to the front door, and rang the bell. I could hear a television and a radio competing for attention inside. I could hear an old woman’s voice and a young man’s: maybe Marcus’s, maybe his brother’s. I never found out which, because the door never opened.
I stood out there for a long time, then finally gave up and left the package on the stoop, a hastily scrawled note on top. In the package were fifteen books I’d bought at a used-book store back in December: Catcher in the Rye, Things Fall Apart, House Made of Dawn, Go Tell It on the Mountain — books I had read in high school and college and had loved.
“You are not a moron,” I wrote on the package. “You are brilliant.”
I didn’t sign it, but I’m pretty sure he knew they were from me. And, really, it shouldn’t matter, because now this story is about him.
Despite everything, I believe that Marcus has read those books. Quickly. And probably more than once. And that is his success, not mine.
Like Kelly Barnhill [“I Star in My Own Made-for-TV Movie,” February 2007], I, too, was once a starry-eyed new teacher, out to change the world, or at least my little corner of it in central Los Angeles. Barnhill’s care and compassion showed through on every page, but I knew how her story would end. At the age of thirteen a child’s academic fate is sealed. It is far too late by then for a teacher to make much of an impact, no matter how promising the student might be.
Most of my kindergarten students were already lost to indifferent parents, an educationally barren environment, and the drug-crazed, money-mad culture that has taken over America’s inner cities.
I applaud all teachers who can remain committed year after year. I couldn’t.
To Kelly Barnhill: I am writing to answer your implied question about your student Marcus’s future. I work in a men’s prison as a psychotherapist and have met many Marcuses here. When they ask me how they can hope for anything better, I ask them another question in return: Is there anyone in your life who has seen the light in you, however briefly — a grandparent, a teacher, anyone? They always answer no. But over our months of working together, we discover there was someone like you, a teacher who planted the seed of hope, who recognized a student’s potential. I plant another seed: the notion that perhaps we have choices in this life long beyond the time when it seems there are no choices left.
Belief in oneself cannot be granted; each individual must claim it him- or herself. But that can’t happen until someone like you suggests what is possible. You have no idea what your recognition of the light in Marcus will mean to him in years to come. Do not sell yourself, or him, short.