My truth right now is that I’m getting depressed as hell at all the shit my students have gone through in just the first semester of school. In the schools where I taught before, there were suicides, arrests, and students being abused at home, but they were few and far between. This year, it’s been an avalanche and it’s making my life feel really heavy and sad. A kid was murdered; Cristobal and Lisa were arrested and are going to be tried in adult court. More than one student at my school is homeless; a lot of my students are abusing drugs every day (and in some cases, I mean every single day, before, during and after school); students are processing a lot of trauma of different kinds and manifesting that process in lots of different ways.
But the worst one was Devon getting murdered two weeks ago. I’ve known other students who died, but Devon was the first one who was in my classroom one day, then was dead the next. Devon and I had a difficult relationship. He didn’t do any work in my class and he sometimes came in stinking of weed. At first, he was belligerent and disruptive. The first week I knew him, he tore his notebook and a comic in half, threw them on the floor, and stormed out. Later, he would just listen to his music and draw, and ignore me when I tried to teach him anything. I suspect his reading skills were exceptionally poor, but he wouldn’t let me get close enough to help him. I don’t know how I would feel if a student who was easy to work with was killed—well, I know I’d feel like shit, but I don’t know how it would differ from my feelings about Devon. It’d be a different flavor of shit, I suppose. With Devon, I feel guilty. I feel guilty because I wasn’t always sorry when he walked out of my classroom. As a student, he was prickly and hard to manage, always pushing me away because I represented a threat to a part of his heart that was vulnerable. The funny thing is, when it wasn’t class time, Devon was always friendly and smiling. He always greeted me cheerfully in the hallways. He didn’t seem to hate me or even dislike me on a personal level. It was only when I asked him to read or write that we had problems.
Now, I wonder, would things have turned out differently if I’d been able to reach him, to get him to feel confident in his ability to read and write? Did I not do enough to win him over? Should I have tried to stop him when he walked out of my class? Did he secretly want me to? Could I have taught him to love himself and his future enough to be willing to back down and walk away from an argument, to be brave enough to allow himself to be punked, as he would have called it? Did I fail him? I wonder: could I have changed the trajectory of his life enough that the last day of January would have been different for Devon? I don’t believe in fate or destiny or even God, so I don’t think his murder was written in the stars or anything. Just a few things needed to change for this to have a different outcome. Maybe I could have and should have done some of those things.
And another element of this whole cesspool of emotions is the experience one of my female students is having. She’s 10 months younger than my daughter and she is being treated like merchandise. A thing with no feelings, like a table or toilet. And her experiences have led her to think that that’s an acceptable way to be treated. She is complicit in her own suffering because she allows it, even actively chooses it, but how else should she think of herself when she has grown up around people who haven’t taught her otherwise? All her life, adult men have repeatedly treated her like something to exploit, and so this is the logical subsequent step on that path. I can’t teach my own daughter to empty the dishwasher without being told. How can I teach this girl to reevaluate her own sense of self-worth?
And then there was the start of the year. A 15-year-old was stabbed to death over a bag of weed. Two of my students were arrested: Cristobal and Lisa, who as the first month unfolded, seemed to be falling for each other. Our site lead caught the pair in a compromising situation in the community garden by our school. Now, they’re apart, sitting in separate cells, about to be tried in adult court. I was just getting to know Cristobal, but Lisa I’ve known since last year when she wrote an amazing short story about police harrassment that was included in our school’s literary magazine (“I’m sorry, officer, I couldn’t hear you over your racism”). Lisa, too, has a big smile and a great sense of humor. She knows me pretty well, too, and would say, “that sounds like something Sato would say.” She and Cristobal seemed like a good match, personality-wise. Cristobal is a charmer, full of confidence. He would look me in the eye when he shook my hand, like a grown man who knew his worth. So, how could he throw his life into the concrete wastebasket of prison over a bag of weed? He seemed like someone who’d know better. But there he is, in prison, being told when to sleep, when to eat, when he can walk around a bigger space than his cell. It breaks my heart.
And then there’s the homelessness. I used to think homelessness was living in a tent under a bridge or sleeping in doorways on the street. But now, through my students’ experiences, I realize that there are a whole lot of other forms of it. Some live in shelters, like the trans girl who writes insightfully about a band she likes. That’s obviously homelessness, but a lot of my students are moving from one temporary place to another all the time and that’s homelessness of a different kind. Couch surfing, it’s called. Families move in with a relative who says they can’t stay there forever. Kids get kicked out and end up living with friends or a significant other. And when you’re living in a place due to the good graces of your boyfriend or girlfriend, there’s a power imbalance and you find you have to stay in the relationship, no matter how awful the other person treats you, because without that person, you’d be sleeping on the streets. I know fewer of the specific details about my students’ homelessness than I do about other problems, but I know it’s always going on quietly behind the scenes. They don’t like to talk about it.
Finally, there’s the history of abuse and bullying. One student wrote about having been repeatedly raped over a long period of time and spoke to me about her suicidal thoughts and cutting. One dark-skinned African girl wrote about being called ugly for so long and by so many people that she believes it herself. She says it explicitly—”I’m ugly.” And this is coming from a girl who—no joke—is beautiful enough to be on a magazine cover. If I could show you a photo, you’d agree. The discrepancy between what she looks like and what she thinks she looks like is unbelievable. She’s also one of the kindest people I know, the sort of person who invites the autistic boy to have lunch with her because she knows he’s new and afraid.
The burdens of my students don’t usually break me down. I’m pretty sturdy and can keep marching forward through a lot of bad stuff, but this year, my knees are buckling because there’s just so much of it in so short a time. And the biggest was the murder of Devon, who was in my school on Tuesday, then was dead on Wednesday. I think that it’s important for me, the teacher, to model being strong and resilient, so I don’t usually display it if I’m feeling a little shaken. I get up and keep going because that’s what I want them to do. I figure if I’m strong, students can hang onto me and I’ll carry them for a little while. At the very least, I can give them something more positive and forward-thinking to chew on. But this time, when I’m telling my students to “tell your truth,” I have to share this grief I’ve been feeling every day, like Fukushima radiation humming incessantly in the background, infecting my more conscious thoughts and thinning my patience. Even if my voice shakes a little, even if I have to look down at the floor when talking about it, I have to do it because it’s the same thing that I’m asking of them. How can I ask them to be brave and candid unless I’m willing to do the same? If I write clever things on safe topics, that’s what they’ll do too. They imitate the behavior the teacher models.
So this week, my truth, as I explained to the atypically attentive faces in my classroom, is how awful and depressed I feel, and how I’m afraid they’ll start to think these kinds of things are normal. I talked about the frog in the pan of hot water, who boiled to death because he didn’t notice the temperature slowly rising a degree at a time. I talked about the danger of dulling their pain and rage, fear and frustration with constant weed smoking, how it was like them being the frog in the pan; they get so high and so chill that they don’t do what’s necessary to jump out of the hot water. They stay in the pan and are destroyed. It kills me to see it happening.
So, if you ask me how my school year has been so far, I’ll say it’s going great, and that the kids have done some wonderful work, and that last part is true. But the whole truth is I feel a little broken right now and I felt it was in the kids’ best interest for me to tell them that. I’m hopeful for the remainder of the year.
Students’ names have been changed in the interest of privacy.