The first seven years I taught was at an elementary school that had all the legendary problems Americans hear about in the news media. Students graduating from the fifth grade were going on to middle school unable to read. The odds of their graduating from high school were less than one out of three. Drug gangs ran the neighborhood, and elementary school children were able to join those gangs. Poverty is what they knew. Crime is what they learned.
I remember Nicole. She came to school one day and I could tell something was the matter. I asked her what she had for breakfast, and she said, “I had macaroni.”
“Did you cook it or did your grandmother?”
“It wasn’t cooked, Mr. R.”
“Was it raw? Did you eat raw macaroni for breakfast?”
“Yes,” she replied, with her head hanging down.
It was Bus Week. Bus Week meant the casinos sent a fancy bus into the neighborhood to give everyone a free ride to the casinos. Not a school bus like the kids rode in, but a “Step up into the High Life” bus with TV screens and plush recliner seats. The casinos knew when to send the bus. It was the day the government subsidy checks arrived in the mail. Nicole’s grandmother had gambled away their bread money. I hate Bus Week!
Brandon couldn’t read. He had a sight vocabulary of about fifty words, but that didn’t serve him well when attempting to read a fifth grade textbook. Brandon didn’t qualify for Special Education services because he was achieving at his potential. His IQ was extremely low, in the low seventies as I recall. It might have had something to do with the fact that his mother and father did drugs, and his mother probably used drugs during his pregnancy. I asked Brandon if he had ever seen an adult use drugs. He casually replied, “My uncle and my dad did heroin on the sofa last weekend.” I remember what he said because it conjured up an image in my mind of the two men on the sofa. I still can see them, but fortunately, only in my mind. Brandon had a front row seat.
Carlos’ teacher before me warned me that Carlos once replied to his comment that if he didn’t change his attitude about authority he would never have a job and make money. Carlos replied, “I won’t have to. I’m gonna sue everybody like my dad does and live on welfare.” Sure enough, his dad tried to sue me but only succeeded in chasing me out of that school.
Jacqulyn wrote an interesting story during writing class about her parents’ party. I was unable to let her read her story to the class because she included explicit details of adults shouting and fighting, and in the morning she went in to get breakfast and found a man and a woman lying naked on the kitchen floor. She poured herself a bowl of cereal and ate it with them lying there, conked out.
Jose was the first student at our school to do well on the required SAT exam for elementary school students. I had an announcement made over the school P.A. system informing everyone of his outstanding performance (97th percentile overall). I saw Jose three years ago enrolling in high school summer school. He spoke of dropping out.
Martin did drop out. I saw him at an oil change shop as I was pouring my oil for recycling in their barrel.
From behind me I heard, “Is that you, Mr. R.?”
I turn around and there’s Martin. “Martin! It’s great to see you. How are you doing?”
“Good. I got a job here, Mr. R.”
“Did you graduate from high school?”
“Nah. I dropped out after a couple of years.”
“What did your parents say to that?”
“My dad didn’t graduate, so they weren’t too upset.”
Monique was a memorable girl. She had a wonderful personality and was very pretty. She padded her training bra on the way to school, and sometimes her “breasts” were shaped like hastily folded Kleenex. I heard that she has had two illegitimate children and is living with her grandmother.
I didn’t teach Manny very much reading, but I do think I got through to him on the importance of not drinking water from puddles on the ground. Manny.
I took Alan to the principal’s office one day during recess for running away from a teacher after hitting another student. On the way there, he was fuming mad and angrily yelled, “One day I’m gonna kill you, Mr. R.”
I asked him, “Alan, do you believe in the hereafter?”
Alan never blinked an eye but said, “Yeah! And I am on the side of the devil.”
I didn’t blink an eye either. I answered, “I am on God’s side, Alan. That means if you kill me here on this earth, you will have to kill me again in the hereafter because I will NEVER give up or give in. I will battle you forever, Alan, until you are willing to learn to respect yourself and others.”
That shut him up, but Alan graduated from elementary school with a horrible chip on his shoulder and a nasty disposition. Of course, it may have been the fact that his mother and father didn’t want Alan, and neither did his grandmother. Most grandmothers in that neighborhood did, but not Alan’s.
Calluses grow on the hands of time.