I never realized the disconnect that existed between my small town and our school until the reality of gang life showed itself. Like yesterday, I remember being a first year teacher finishing a project at the end of the day. My students ran from the room and left so much trash that I would’ve been there all night cleaning it. One student stayed behind and asked if I needed help. After telling him yes, he left the room and returned with twelve of his friends. He nodded his head and they cleaned. When they finished, they looked to him again for instruction and only after receiving a final nod did they leave. That was my first experience with a gang. Unfortunately, several of those young men are serving time for either drugs, robbery or murder. The sad part is that this type of behavior was common and often ignored.
My next year, I met “Koolaid”. He was the young man that would go on to challenge my career in ways that only he could do. As a junior high remedial math teacher, I was tasked with teaching kids who needed more than just math. They needed love and someone who would not give up on them. This was my second year as a teacher and my final leg of my Masters degree. One would think that I had enough education, but the best lessons that we learn as teachers often do not come from books but from the stories that our students indirectly share…if we listen. Believe me, I listened.
“Koolaid” was unbelievably brilliant. If he was interested, he learned. If he was not interested, he didn’t. There was no such thing as a gray area with him. Teachers would throw him from their rooms because he did not have school supplies. Yes, this happened in my school. No matter what, he showed up at my door because my door was his safe place…not the whole school…MY classroom. There were days that he would spend entire school days with me and it was allowed because he did his work and that’s all that mattered. For some, it wasn’t about the personal connection but about the letter grade. We had a personal connection so work wasn’t about work…it was bigger than that.
In December of that year, “Koolaid” was stabbed in a gang related incident out of town. He missed school and that is how I knew something was wrong. He never missed school. I called his home everyday to check on him. No teacher had ever done that. Not one person from school even called except me. He got better and came back and finished the year.
When the counselors came to ready schedules for the next school year, “Koolaid” told his counselor that he wanted to be a doctor. She “kindly” reminded him that his JUNIOR HIGH science scores were too low and that he had no chance of doing that. She suggested a different path. What she did not know was that he dreamed of this since he was 5. He allowed himself to think of it again after having some success during that school year.
The worst thing that we can do to kids, especially children of poverty, is tell them that their dreams are impossible.
Again, “Koolaid” showed up at my door and we got through it together. Needless to say, I knew that there was no way on earth I was sending him to High School without the support that he desperately needed. The reason that I became a High School teacher was bigger than my desire to help students graduate. I knew that I needed to be there to push “Koolaid” to graduate. The reason that kids join gangs is their need to be loved. As teachers, we can make a difference and sometimes, we are the difference.
This was the end of eighth grade.