A teacher never forgets her students. Like the old woman in the shoe she sometimes has so many children that she doesn’t know what to do. She worries about them as if they were her own, sometimes lying awake at night developing strategies for reaching each of them. Even after they have gone she remembers them and hopes and prays that everything ultimately turned out well. Nothing makes her happier than hearing good news about one of them, especially if if that one had been troubled in the past.
A teacher carries the weight of the world on her shoulders. Her concern is so prevailing that she must find ways to ameliorate it or become so stressed out that she is unable to function. She joins in the sarcastic gallows humor of the teachers’ lounge. It helps to joke about the challenges that she is facing. Only those who do the same kind of work understand that a good chuckle now and again helps to maintain a positive outlook. Laughing is an imperative exercise for a teacher lest she become so engrossed in the seriousness of what she does that she loses focus. A teacher has to keep things in perspective, but it is often oh so hard.
I find myself thinking back to the students who gave me the most trouble. I’d like to believe that their bad behavior was only a phase and that they are now leading good and happy lives, but I sometimes lose faith. I hear that this one is in prison for armed robbery or that one murdered his girlfriend’s father. I saw the good in them and tried so desperately to bring it to the forefront of their personalities, but once they left my care they were beaten down by toxic environments and the poor choices that they continually made. I sense that it is impossible for me to completely understand how desperate their lives were even though I too had a difficult childhood.
I had the support of a loving family, wonderful neighbors, teachers who cared enough to guide me and a church community that watched over me. So many of my students had no one. They went home to abusive parents who were often drug ridden or alcoholic. Being part of a group meant joining a gang, and there were plenty of those from which to choose. I knew that so many of my kids were affiliated with very dangerous groups that offered them the protection and feeling of belonging that I received from good and caring people.
I often think back to a morning when I was on duty at the back of the school. My task was to keep the students as calm as possible as they gathered before the doors opened at the beginning of the day. As the time for the bell to ring drew nearer the crowd of kids grew by leaps and bounds, requiring me to be especially vigilant. This was one of the most likely moments for a fight to suddenly break out. It was up to me and my fellow teachers to quell excitement before it even happened.
On this particular day there had been no incidents. It was uncharacteristically quiet and when the entry bell rang the students filed dutifully inside. I stayed behind to shoo any stragglers or late comers to their classes. It was a rather lovely morning and I was happy to get a bit more fresh air before being trapped in a room with no windows for the next many hours. I was in the midst of a rather pleasant daydream when I saw two groups of students marching toward each other from opposite sides. My heart began beating in overdrive as I realized that this was not a good thing. I was all too aware of which gang was which and who some of the members were, and it was apparent that a battle was about to ensue.
The students seemed to not even notice that I was standing smack in the middle of their advance, or perhaps they simply chose to ignore me. They continued forward as I attempted to formulate a plan for stopping what was most surely going to happen. Suddenly one of the leaders drew a red bandana from his pocket and tossed it defiantly to the ground without saying a word. I knew that I had to act quickly and so without hesitation I dashed over, picked up the crimson cloth, and smiled at the student who had initiated the challenge saying, “I think you may have dropped something. Here you go. Now run along to class.”
There was a deathly silence from every member of each group and the young man who had formally begun the proceedings looked sternly at me as though I had broken the most sacred of protocols. He was actually one of my favorite students and he seemed to be struggling to decide how to treat my lapse of good manners. I attempted to save face for him by continuing to play the fool. I acted as though I had no idea what kind of battle I had just averted, and still grinning naively I asked them to please hurry into the building noting that I was quite tired and didn’t want to have to fill out tardy slips for such a large group. I then gave my still confused student a stern and knowing look that he interpreted quite correctly. Without ever saying a word he accepted the bandana and stowed it away in his pocket. Glancing briefly at his rivals he motioned with his head to his posse and then turned and led them in the opposite direction sauntering slowing into the building.
The other group stood in stunned silence with expressions that revealed their own confusion, frustration and anger. I simply motioned for them to hurry inside and with a shake of his head their leader complied as well. I breathed a sigh of relief that I had stopped what would surely have been a bloody melee and big trouble for all of the boys whose tempers and pride had become riled up for some reason that I didn’t care to know.
I dutifully reported the incident to the principal so that he might watch for trouble, but there was none on that day or even well into the future. I don’t know if the rival gangs eventually met up off campus, or if they just lost their motivation to battle, but I never had any trouble with any of them again. The boy with the bandana eventually asked me how I knew that he wouldn’t fight once I had intervened. I just reminded him that it was “because I love you and I know that you love me.” He flashed an amused and satisfied smile.
I know that one of the students from that incident is now a Houston police officer and two of them are in prison. As for the rest, I have no idea how things went for them, but I think of them and pray that they eventually found a way to live their lives without violence. I have so many stories and memories that both haunt me and brighten my heart. I will always be a teacher. I will always love my kids.