Today is the last day before a much-needed Fall Break, and so the day’s schedule is different. Today, our kids go to every class for 45 minutes instead of the usual block schedule. As usual, though, I stand outside my door to welcome the morning class into my room. Jose and I don’t say good mornings, but he gives me a look—a look of false mischief. But I know. I know that today Jose is going to be on my team.
Because it’s a strange kind of day, the kids are a bit livelier. Strange days throw kids off their routines, and so they’re chatty and off task.
My new ally calls across the room, “Hey, listen up, she’s talking!” And I have to do everything in my power not to stand there beaming despite the fact that the class refuses to settle down.
Jose still acts like his usual self—still making snide comments where appropriate and, of course, necessary. But today he’s on my team. Noticeably. For everyone to know and see. He’s not shy about it. He’s the best teammate to have. My very first pick.
I don’t take any special notice of him because I know that if I do, the bond will break. We operate on an esoteric Knowing—one that goes without recognition because it’s a covert code that only we can really know about. So I send a nod his way or glance in his direction with a thankful look when I know that no one will notice.
First hour comes and passes, and at 9:00 I send my class out to take their five minute break before they come back in for second hour (I have the same group for two periods).
Five minutes later, in comes everyone.
Except for Jose.
I ask one of his friends where he is, and he tells me Jose is in the office. I ask what he’s done, but his friend won’t tell me. And now I’m worried and confused, but I don’t have time for investigation. I have a class of 30 more students ready and waiting for me to begin my next lesson with them.
Fifth hour rolls around and I keep two of my students in to eat lunch with me. Eduardo* and Angel* find me in my room with their lunch plates piled with scoops of (fake) food. I’ve kept them with me—and they stay gladly—to talk to them about their work in my class.
Eduardo, who used to do absolutely nothing but stare at his desk and whine that 6 sentences for a paragraph was way too many, has suddenly come alive. He’s raising his hand to answer questions. He’s putting real, raw effort into everything I give him to do.
Angel, on the other hand, refuses to pick up his pencil—still. And this after numerous deep talks about his life and his dreams. This is the kid—the first of them all to warm up to me. He was the first one to pour out his heart to me, to stay after school in my room just to talk, to stay in my room during lunchtime. Angel is the one I bonded with first. He’s like my first son.
But he won’t do anything. He’s given up, he tells me. He wants to achieve his goals of being a singer and aw writer, but he knows it won’t happen. So he’s given up.
I have given him gentle, nurturing love. I’ve given him sisterly, straight-talk love. Some days, he will slowly pick up the pencil and slowly write his name or a one-word answer on his page. But most days—9.8 out of 10 days, he does absolutely nothing but rest his head on his arms. I’ve moved on to tough love, calling him out sternly in the middle of class when he decides to put his head down and nagging him relentlessly, firmly to do his work.
He skirts around the issue when I bring it up during our lunchtime conversation. I am sitting on the table in front of both of them, and I’m not my usual friend-like self with him this time. I’m telling him—urging him—to realize that if he gives up on his education, he’s giving up on guaranteeing himself a life he will love. He shrugs and smiles goofily in an attempt to put up a front for his friend. The real Angel, the Angel that comes to my room at the end of the day, is so unlike the one he is in public. The real Angel is quiet and small and worn down by the world.
After spending most of my lunchtime urging him to wake up to reality—or rather, urging him to do something about it—I have to go. I slip off the table I’m sitting on and land on the ground with a thump of defeat. I’m disappointed. I’m frustrated. Not just at Angel, but at the world that made him give up on himself.
I pick up the rest of my students from the cafeteria and bring them back to the classroom. It’s the day before Fall Break, and they are mere hours from their freedom now. They’re hyper and off-task, talking and giggling about other things. I’m calling for the attention, waiting for it to no effect. I’m dragging them chatting and laughing through the assignment I’ve given to them. I’m trying to talk over them to tell them to turn in their papers, but their attention is elsewhere. I move behind the podium and steady myself on it, looking down at it as if I’m reading something but really I’m just trying to hold back the stupid tears that are fighting their way forward against my will and permission. The kids begin to notice that my demeanor has shifted, they are hushing each other--
“HEY! Be quiet! Can’t you see she’s waiting on us!”
The end of the class is nearing. I stand there embarrassed by the tears welling in my eyes. The clock signals that it is time for them to leave, but unlike every other day, they remain in their seats without so much as a peep or a blink. I wave them away and tell them, “Go.” They don’t rush, they walk as though they’re tip-toeing, treading delicately so as not to shake me and make the tears slip out.
But they do.
Some students have stayed behind and they are tending to me, delivering hugs and apologies. The kids from my next class are making their way in, and they see me crying. They yell at the other students, “What have you done to Ms. Myers?!” And they come to me with hugs and love and apologies for the other class.
I feel stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. But I can’t help myself. And I can’t even figure out in that moment why I’m crying. It’s not like we’ve never had days when they talk while I’m talking. I figure it’s because I’m emotionally exhausted and feel so frustrated on the days when they don’t realize their own greatness that I cry for them. Mostly, it was Angel that made me cry. In fact, I could feel the ball in my throat coming up when I was talking to him at lunch. I twisted up my mouth to keep it from quivering right before I hopped off the table to go get the rest of my class.
My sixth hour is perfect. Any time I’m talking and someone so much as whispers they jump on his or her back with, “SHHHHHH!! Ms. Myers is talking! GOD! Ya’ll are rude!” They leave me smiling.
Even though sometimes it takes tears to show them that we are all just humans with real feelings, they have big hearts. They can be nurturing—even the toughest ones. They can show deep love and loyalty. And it is truly heart-warming when they do.
Sixth hour is my last hour of the day, so when they leave and passing period is over, I make my way down the hall to find Jose because I have a feeling he’s been sent to in-house suspension. But when I get there, I look around and he’s nowhere to be found. I leave the room and see several administrators huddled in the middle of the hallway, talking about disciplinary-administrator type things. I cut in.
“Do you know where Jose Montoya* is?”
“Oh, he’s gone.”
“Gone? Gone where?”
“He went home.”
“Why? I just had him in my first hour and he was perfect, then he disappeared for second.”
“Yeah, he won’t be back until probably after spring break.”
I can feel my blood draining from my head.
“Spring break? What did he do?”
“Oh, he got caught dealing. Big wad of cash in his pocket. He deals to the high schoolers. Yeah, he’ll be gone for awhile.”
I put my hands to my face and say, more to myself than anyone, “I had him. We were a team.”
I quickly slip away and make my way back down the hall to my room. I walk in. Close the door behind me and turn the lock slowly. I leave the lights off and numbly walk to my desk and fall into my chair. The back is tall and I turn it so that no one can see me if they look through the window of my room. And I just cry. I just weep because I had him. He was mine. We were a team. And now he’s gone. And I cry because I’ll miss him. I cry because he was my favorite. I cry because I know he made a poor choice, but that he is such a good kid with a good, good heart. I cry because this fucking country has hardened him because it’s told him he can’t be anything or do anything more with his life than this kind of thing—the same kind of thing that sends so many just like him to prison or to their early death or to a life of gang violence or drug dealing because there is no better option for them. I cry because I was just about to show him what he could do with his life. Because I had him. He was mine. We were on a team. And then The System took him away.
So I just cry until I have to stop.
Jose Montoya* is the kind of kid that can walk into a room, and you just know. You know he’s going to give you some kind of hell just by the way he struts—sly and cool, no hint of effort on his part. He makes a plain uniform look cool with his clean red Vans, his white shell necklace, and his hair spiked into a faux-hawk that looks like he woke up that way.
Jose Montoya is the leader of my first class of the day—a class dominated by fearless boys, who will do anything to entertain each other.
Jose Montoya is the leader because he is the most fearless of all. And he is the most intelligent. He understands the world around him—he understands injustice and he has learned a method of adapting that makes him seem invincible to all of it.
When we discuss social justice issues in class—which we do just about every day (the perks of teaching English)—Jose Montoya raises his hand to answer every question and to comment on everything said. And what he says is provocative and real. The things he says are the things the silenced voices of his people are saying. But he is fearless as he says them. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t back down.
And most of the time, what he says is dead on. He’s the fuel to every conversation. He is an integral part of the class, and he is there—without fail—every single day.
But he is there—without fail—every single day. On the good days and the bad days, which tend to be many.
He leads the male-dominant class into defiance with the comments he makes at me, and the way he gets out of his chair on a regular basis to strike up a conversation with his pal across the room in the middle of my instruction. He leads them into defiance by the way he chuckles at me like I’m helpless against him and the rest of them.
And yet I don’t back down—even when I do feel helpless. I chuckle with him. And I call on him every single time he raises his hand. And I listen to him every single time he talks out of turn before I tell him, “Can you raise your hand and say that?” And I let him know he’s the fuel to the conversation—that he does have brilliant things to say.
From day one, we have exchanged looks—challenging one another to cave. But then, there’s a kind of camaraderie in the way we look at each other, and there are days when I can see him soften, his head cowering a bit—not in a show of fear but in a show of respect. Jose and I speak in a secret code of body language and facial expressions so that he can protect his dignity and his reputation as Troublemaker.
But I have sensed from the beginning that Jose Barajas likes me. He respects me. And he gets that I respect him. He’s just been testing me to see if he can trust his instinct with me.
Today was terrible. His defiance was so strongly directed at me that he influenced the entire rest of the boys in the class to blatantly defy me. There was a point during the hour and a half that I stood there, filing through the rolodex of things-to-do-in-a-classroom-crisis, staring blankly at their faces and hoping that doing nothing would do the trick.
By the end of the hour, they were somewhat on track, but it was so miserable that it set a bad tone for the rest of the day.
As Jose walked out of my class, I told him, “Jose, I want to talk to you.”
“When?” he said as he made his way down the hall.
“Just whenever you have the time.”
He laughed. “Never,” he said over his shoulder and strutted away.
I folded my arms over my chest and thought: Typical.
At 12:50, I take my next group of students to lunch and, alone, make my way back to my room to enjoy my own. Usually, I have a horde of students trailing into my room to eat lunch with me. But, thankfully, not today.
Five minutes don’t go by before Jose’s head pops into my room. I wave at him and then realize what he has just done: This is his way of telling me he has time.
“Come here, let’s talk.”
He doesn’t hesitate but comes in, right up to my desk. And the words come out of me like I’ve been preparing for this moment—like I’ve been waiting for him to finally soften enough to just hear me out.
“Why is it that some days you are my shining star student, raising your hand to answer every single question brilliantly, and other days you act like you hate me and don’t want to do anything I say—?”
“I don’t hate you,” he interjects.
“Oh, I know you don’t hate me. You love me. I’m your favorite teacher, am I right?”
“Yes,” he says, again without the usual sarcasm or hesitation.
“And you are one of my favorite students—even though you give me hell sometimes. We have a connection, you know what I mean? I can feel it. You know?”
“Yeah,” he nods. He’s looking at me, fully engaged in what I’m saying.
“It hurts me when you come in here and make the choice to refuse to do your work or go against me because you are so brilliant, Jose. You have so much potential to be so great. You are a leader. You’re the alpha wolf of this class—and I know you know that, right?”
“But you have to make the choice to lead your pack to greatness or to lead them in the opposite direction. Sometimes you are great, and other times not so much. You have so much power--so much. Think of all the things you can do if you use that power for good.
“When you come to this classroom, I am trying to equip you with the tools you need to make a difference in the world. Because I know you CAN make a difference, and I know you want to. I know how much you care about the Hispanic community and the injustices you face. Here’s the deal: I care so much too. I know the other day you told me even though I really want to be I’m not Mexican because it doesn’t count to have Mexican step-family—”
We laugh at the memory--
“But, Jose, just like those are your people, those are my people too because they are my family. I love my step-dad and my grandma. My little sisters are half Mexican. Those are my people. I want to do everything I can to help the Hispanic community, too, just like you. You and I can be a team—but you have to let me be on your team. You’re the alpha of the pack, so if you don’t let me in, then we can’t work together and achieve these great things. You need me, and I need you. But you gotta let me in.”
He’s nodding, watching me intently as he listens and hangs on every word I’m saying. There’s no hard front in his demeanor. This is Jose Barajas—real and true—that I finally have the privilege of talking to.
“Can you do that?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says with finality. “Yes, I can.”
“So we’re a team. We’re working together. And you’re going to put in the effort, and so I am I. Because we need each other. You are too smart not to put in the work when you’re here. You deserve so much, and you can--Jose, you can—make a difference. You have that power. I expect great things from you. So when you come in this classroom tomorrow and every day after, we’re a team.”
He nods his head, looking at me directly in the eyes, promising me with that look.
I nod my head to gesture that I’m stepping off the soapbox. The bond has formed between us solidly now.
He turns to leave.
“You know I love you, Jose,” I call to him, smiling.
He turns as he’s walking out. “I know,” he says. “You too.”
*Name has been changed
No amount of college could prepare a person for a job like teaching. It’s much like becoming a surgical intern (yes, I watch Grey’s Anatomy when my mind has been fried by a day of teaching—which happens to be every day). You are plopped into the middle of things having read all the articles you could stuff your brain with but left without a clue about how to do what you need to do every day to be the best for your patients—your kids.
I am tired like I’ve never been tired before.
This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It can also be the most devastating and the most rewarding—all in one day, which makes it all the more exhausting.
In one day absolutely every possible thing can go so wrong that you have to do everything you can to keep from exploding into a weeping frenzy. And yet one student—that toughest student you have—can give you a look that let’s you know she’s letting you in, and it can make the whole day—that whole rotten day—magical.
It took me weeks to learn how to sleep. And I don’t mean stop working and get in bed. I mean, it took me weeks to learn how to shut my mind off when I hit that pillow so that I could actually sleep and recharge for tomorrow’s 16-plus hour day. I would drift into the thinnest layer of sleep—the kind of sleep in which you aren’t dreaming, you’re thinking concretely about things you need to do in a dreamlike manner.
I would wake up exhausted and use coffee as a surrogate for sleep.
College spoiled me. Even during the busiest of weeks, when I would look at my agenda and want to run away, I still had time to eat and even time to write in an agenda. Those were the days… the days I actually had time to plan the millions of things I needed to do.
The first month and a half of teaching and I’ve become gaunt because I don’t even have time to remember to eat—or my mind is too occupied with something that seems much more necessary than taking care of myself.
The stress of being the caretaker of 120 lives each day is overwhelming. It sounds melodramatic. But the reality is that the stakes are higher for my kids. Their time with me is critical. They are behind because of America’s failure to uphold the things it claims to value. They’re about to leave for high school—a high school that has been deemed a “dropout factory.” And I only have 9 measly months to plant in them the habits and mindsets they need to be successful when they’re thrown to the wolves. And on top of that, they need the actual skills to fight them off—alone, without support.
I recently drove by a yoga place on Brookside with a sign that says “Do something every day that scares you.” I almost chuckled to myself because every morning when I wake up, I get a strange tinge of fear that springs up from the pit of my stomach and seizes my heart. It lasts a mere moment, but in that moment I am terrified of the day that lies ahead.
What if I mess up? What if they don’t do what I need them to do today? What if they say something I don’t know how to react to? What if they need too much from me?
But then I walk through the doorway of my classroom. I unlock the door, push it to prop it open and read the words I’ve posted on it: “When you step into this classroom, you are global citizens. You are scholars. You are explorers. You are important. You are respected. You’re loved. You are the reason I am here.” And I feel recharged—regardless of the amount of sleep I did not get or the amount of coffee that didn’t work to wake me up. It is 6:15 a.m. and I am ready for the day and the chance to be for my kids—the kids that in such a short time I have learned to adore—the exact thing that they need.
About 90 percent of them, at the corner of everything they turn in to me, write: “I am smart. I am capable. I am important.” They don’t whine about it anymore. I don’t even have to remind them to do it. Every time I get the chance, though, I remind them individually that those words apply to them whether they believe it or not.
They’re starting to believe it.
I can feel it in the atmosphere of my classroom. Some days there are hints of joy in the air. When I bend down at the desk of even my most difficult children, and I tell them how smart they are, how capable they are, how much they mean to me, I can see it in their eyes that they’re starting to believe me. Even the skeptical ones. Even the ones that have been hardened by a life much too heavy for their age.
I can feel the joy in the way my students stand close to me when I’m monitoring the hallways during passing period. The way they ask to eat lunch with me in my room every single day. The way the girls play with my hair. The way the boys put their hearts on their sleeves for just me to see.
Bonds are forming in between the walls of our tiny classroom. Some of them slower than others, but they are surely forming. And no matter how exhausted I am when I leave that classroom each day, I can lie on my bed, mindlessly watching Grey’s Anatomy, knowing that all the energy I’ve spent is for the best cause—and the best humans—in the world.
These kids—every single one of them—they’re my heart. They’re the reason I get up every morning at the crack of dawn. They’re the reason I can wake up without hesitation at 5:15 a.m. and work until 9:30 p.m.
Learning is happening in my classroom. This month, I can feel it. But even more important than that, love is happening in my classroom. And that’s the thing that’s making all the difference. Students that refused to pick up a pen are writing full paragraphs now. I don’t have them all yet, but I’m working—relentlessly—to make sure that I have them all in time.
It’s an arduous process. Some days, I come home and cry for no other reason than because I am overwhelmed. Some days, I can’t stop talking to whoever will listen about the breakthroughs I’ve had. Some days—most days—by the end of it, I’m a zombie.
But every day gets better. And my kids give me so much hope.