In the summertime, there are moments from the school year that come rebounding back to me, sometimes out of nowhere. Sometimes they stick around, like guests, too shy to ask for what they want. This is the story of one moment I have not been able to shake the weight of yet.
This spring, my 8th graders were writing original fiction stories. I was checking in with students as they worked on their plot outlines, thinking about the conflicts their characters would encounter. The assignment required that the story include some kind of power dynamic, whether that was in the context of a relationship or with society (our recent novel studies included George Orwell’s Animal Farm).
Raymond (a pseudonym) is a creative, vibrant adolescent boy, but he is also one of my most struggling and reluctant students. His formal education was interrupted from the ages of 6 to 9, while he lived in the Dominican Republic, and while his classmates in the U.S. were learning to read. He returned to U.S. schools confused, and feeling stupid for not knowing how to read. Spanish is spoken in his home, but he’s only learned to read in English. Mild dyslexia has made it that much harder to catch up to his peers. His school identity vacillates wildly between bright-eyed optimism—being eager to please and make himself heard—and anger and defeat–“I hate school; there’s no point.”
Probably every adult in the building has tried convincing Raymond that with effort, he can learn and succeed, and the work will eventually get easier. Somewhere in these conversations, he often makes a comment like, “I’m probably gonna die anyways, or go to jail. What’s the point?” He stares straight at you when he says this, neither smiling, nor frowning. He lives in a neighborhood full of gang activity. We know he used to get beat up regularly by kids on his way home if he got there past dark. We sense that it does not continue to happen, but we don’t know exactly what changed. We know he’s deeply sad, because he’s lost people close to him to gun violence. It is hard to compete with the fear and pain this child carries; but the smile that breaks through it seems to have the power to make it all go away.
Raymond was sitting next to Jose (a pseudonym), who has a sweet and mostly happy-go-lucky attitude in school. Jose also lives in a tough neighborhood, but far from Raymond. The one thing we all know about Jose is that he wants to be a police officer like his uncle. He reminds us of this almost daily. He writes police officer on some of his notebooks. He and Raymond are casual buddies in class.
I already know Jose is writing a story about a young man who becomes a police officer, because he asked me as soon as he began the project if he could write about a police officer. I’m not sure why he asked my permission about this—he doesn’t need permission to make such choices in his own fiction writing; also, any efforts to dissuade him from this particular choice would be totally futile!
I take a look at Raymond’s plot outline. He’s gotten farther than most of his classmates in mapping out the rising action. He’s almost at the climax. I ask him to tell me about it. “It’s about this kid. He lives in a bad neighborhood, and he wants to run away from home and join a gang.” He pauses and looks at me as if to check if I’m going to object to him writing about this topic. I could ask a million questions, but I want to hear from him first.
I give him a look that says, “Go on.”
“So he does join, and at first it’s good. But then he gets in trouble with the police,” he says. Raymond sometimes forgets to appropriately modulate his voice in the classroom. Though he began at a whisper, his volume is now high enough that the entire class can hear him. And he’s got their attention. For better or for worse, I do not ask him to lower his voice.
“The police are chasing me,” he continues, unconsciously making the switch to first person. “And then they chase me down an alley way, but I have a gun…. And then I shoot! And I kill Jose!” He stops talking and turns to me with a look of surprise at what he’s just said. He is aware of the class, and Jose right next to him.
I freeze too. Thinking of the rest of the class, I almost admonish Raymond for suggesting violence toward another student, but something doesn’t feel right about that.
Then, Raymond breaks the silence, puts his arm around Jose, and vigorously gives him a one-arm hug. “You know I love you, Jose,” he says, arm still around him.
Jose is grinning as he puts his arm around Raymond. “Of course, man. You know I love you too.” There was palpable shock and relief in the classroom.
In this moment, both Raymond and Jose played through in their imaginations one actual possibility for how their paths could cross in the future, for an audience of their peers. It was theater of realest kind—the kind that may only happen in classrooms, and in which teachers have the rare privilege of playing a role.
Nothing about the future was decided; but on that day, love won.