“Every day,” I began before trailing off. After closing my eyes and gathering my breath, I resumed my moment of weakness.
“Every day, you make my blood boil, and you humiliate and crush me when you make it so obvious that I care more about your futures than you do.
“It’s on days like these that you make me want to quit my job.” On cue, the walls of the room seemed to converge into the vacuum of my lips, siphoning all the oxygen as momentarily, the house I had built atrophied beneath my feet. My students gasped and despite the grating, wretched quality of it, it was I who was suffocating.
I was recently asked to consider students I would recommend for accelerated math courses next year. Out of my one hundred and fifty students, I pulled a paltry six outside my classroom to break the news. In exchange, I received six responses I’ll never forget.
When told that tutoring will take place on Friday afternoons — there is a significant skill gap between the regular and accelerated tracks, making the transition from the former to the latter far from seamless — one student said that he might not be able to make it because he has church on Fridays. We looked at each other for a few seconds in silence. “Nah … God will understand!” he proclaimed before waddling his way back into the classroom the way most sub-five-feet boys do.
A girl asked me whether I would be teaching the class next year. For various reasons, the answer is no. Dismayed, she said she wasn’t sure she wanted to take the class anymore. “Don’t be silly!” I said. I’ll always be there by email, in spirit, on top of it, insert-other-corny-prepositional-phrase here. With a reluctant smirk, she sauntered back into the room. She returned her permission form the next day.
Yet another girl, a close friend of the last, fretted at the thought that she might be in trouble, a myth I spun with an impromptu look of consternation. “Why do you think I pulled you out here?” I asked. “I just got your friend out here, and you saw how sad she looked!” She became nervous; I could tell because whenever she takes tests, her hands start flapping uncontrollably. One could almost hear the creaking of the faulty hinges that connect them to her wrists. Then, I laughed, and she jabbed me in the arm as she does at least once a day. She is the easy target of daily pranks. But any hard feelings she harbored dissipated with the news that she would be considered for a class she had been hoping all year to take. “You’ll finally be in a class where everyone is as ugly as you!” I joked. And we were back to where we started: a place I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Several hours later, I handed a girl who immigrated from Mexico a note in (my extremely shoddy) Spanish to give to her parents about the English-only permission form. With the most condescending glare a twelve-year-old can give, she told me that her parents both read and speak English. “Also,” she noted, “your Spanish is terrible.” Gracias, you antipática punk. She flashed me her toothy, mischievous grin — the one she conjures when she catches my arithmetic mistakes in class — and proceeded to ignore me for the rest of the period.
There was one more boy earlier in the day who didn’t receive his form because he wasn’t there. In fact, he is habitually absent, and it is a wonder to me that apparently, he was absent even more frequently last year. Despite missing nearly half of the previous school year, however, his standardized test scores far exceed his classmates’. And I never have to worry that he won’t understand the material when he comes back from his sojourns from school, often more than a week in length: although he may be confused for a class period, he somehow traverses conceptual voids that, to most students, span galaxies in a matter of minutes and reasserts himself at the front of the curve, totally unaware that he is basically a divine revelation.
His mother and I have forged a strong working relationship these past few months in light of his absences and—get this—his apparent learning disabilities. His family’s financial situation sometimes precludes timely transportation to school, and their underlying disdain for the public bussing system is hardly misplaced. After being left behind at the bus stop by himself in disreputable places without any means of contacting his parents, he has developed a fear of the bus. A society that lets such an innocent boy be scared of anything is a cruel one.
Because he is unable to be at school consistently, I had some reservations about sending his form home. As I wrestled with them, I thought about a conversation we had earlier this year.
My co-teacher and I had noticed that white flakes were forming in his hair. We decided that as a male, I was in the best place to talk to him about his hygiene. So I went to Target and bought him a bottle of shampoo before asking him to come see me after school one afternoon.
I told him that this was a clandestine conversation between men: one day, I confided, he would be a lady magnet, but until then, I had some concerns about how frequently he was washing his hair. In the timid voice of a cherub, he said that he and his family were having some “problems with the water” at his house for the past couple of weeks. When I asked him to elaborate on what he meant about the water, he told me without the slightest sense of urgency or self-pity that there just wasn’t any.
I didn’t know what to say. I handed him the bottle of shampoo before realizing it would serve no purpose. But if he noticed the futility of the gesture, he didn’t express it. He smiled wanly before turning to waltz giddily out the door.
One of my favorite students was so elated to receive the news that she couldn’t even smile right away. Since the beginning of the year, she has claimed that math is her favorite subject, even though it has always been the hardest for her. Last year, it was the only class in which she couldn’t earn an A.
But that changed this year. A few months ago, she was my “student of the month,” and it is a selection I defend even if she is not the brightest of my students. She earned a B in my class last quarter, and she is the only one of the six I referred to do so. But she grapples with problems that most of her classmates don’t: she falls prey to the symptoms of being popular and pretty, damnations disguised as blessings until we are rescued by hindsight. Even I, secluded (thankfully) from the social scene of my students, have heard rumors of her indulgence in age-inappropriate mischief.
What I doubt most of her classmates see, however, is the pressure she endures at home. Later that evening, she messaged me online saying that her parents don’t believe in her, that they were considering throwing the form away because they didn’t trust her to put in the work, to put aside her social life to succeed. Minus the rare failure to submit homework, I couldn’t think of a single piece of evidence to nullify the way she carries her struggling classmates through group assignments, the determined stare she gives when she asks what she could do to improve, or her ambitions to live a life better than she has. How her parents fail to see the sure bet that I see is beyond me.
I responded by saying that she needs to use her parents’ doubts as motivation to prove them wrong, that she will just have to work that much harder to show that she can do it. She asked, “Do you think I can?” Of course I do. There are few things in the world I know: I know that the sun rises in the east, and I know that Justin Bieber sucks. And, most importantly, I know invariably that you will go change the world someday, no matter what anyone says about you.
I sat in my principal’s office yesterday, fumbling a fat packet of papers through my fingers. By the time the meeting ended, I would turn the packet in, and my resignation at the end of this school year would become official.
She knows that I am young, and when I told her the nature of my future opportunities, she said she couldn’t fault me for leaving. But a selfish part of her wishes that I were staying, she said wistfully. In that moment, I thought about these past couple of years, allowing it all to zoom before me in fast-forward as seems to happen in the last moments of anything: all the experiences and children and people and things I’ve learned and things that have made me want to cry and things that have made me giggle to myself on the drive home from work each day and all the other stuff I can’t begin to summarize in any reasonable way.
It was a hard decision to leave, I told her. And I love my students so much that I hope I will spend the rest of my life serving them and their families and millions like them.
Heck, I said, they’re the reason I almost can’t even quit this job!