What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.—-Ralph Waldo Emerson
Long ago I was teaching some rather rough and tough characters. Many of my students belonged to gangs and had parents who were in prison. It would be an understatement to say that their lives were difficult. There was one young man who had a checkered history both academically and behaviorally, but for some reason he and I hit it off. I had a sense that there was way more to him than met the eye or was capable of being recorded on paper. Before long the two of us were often conversing and I learned that he was a naturally gifted artist. He often spoke of his dreams for the future and I did everything possible to encourage him. He did well in my mathematics class, but failed so many of his other courses that he had to repeat the entire grade. It seemed a bit unfair that he was not allowed to take the next level of mathematics because he had made a strong “B” from me and I knew that he understood all of the concepts quite well. The only positive aspect of his retention was that he was placed in my class once again because his reputation as a trouble maker made the other teachers leery of having to deal with him.
I began the new school year by making him a tutor for the other students, telling them that he was a bright fellow who would be able to help them whenever they became confused. He enjoyed his role and took it very seriously. I decided to do something special for him, and so I purchased a portfolio for his artwork from an art supply store. He had never seen such a thing, and got super excited when I explained that it was designed to store his best pieces safely. Before long he was filling it with impressive works that excited both of us.
One day I learned that one of my female students had been sexually abused by her uncle. He had been living with her family but when her parents learned that he had impregnated her they went to the police. The uncle was furious and sent word that he was going to kill the young lady even if he had to stalk her to get an opportunity to do so. The principal of the school instructed me to be observant and immediately let him know if the uncle showed up at my classroom. Together we agreed on a code word that would alert him when I pushed the panic button. It made me sad and quite nervous because I wanted to be certain that the child would be protected from further harm.
I decided to rearrange the seating in my classroom so that the girl would always be close to me and as far from the doorway as possible. While I was in the process of attempting to design a safe place for her the young man whom I had made my assistant walked in and asked me what I was doing. Of course I was not at liberty to tell him what was happening. I simply mentioned that it was time for a change, and so he began helping me move the furniture and place stickers on the tables to let the students know where I had decided they would be sitting. Somehow he almost seemed to figure out what was really happening because as soon as I placed the label for the young lady he suggested that he should sit at the same table, and he even sat down in one of the chairs as though he was determining whether or not he had a clear line of sight for the door. He pushed the furniture around until it was just right, and then looked knowingly at me as if to reassure me that he was taking responsibility for the girl’s safety.
It would not have been too difficult for this young man to know what was going on even though I had said nothing. He was the leader of a powerful gang in the neighborhood, and very little information got past him. I don’t know how much talking the girl was doing, but her growing belly made it clear that she was pregnant, and the fear in her eyes gave away her state of mind. She literally looked like the very image of a madonna on a Christmas card, so lovely and pure, but she was also anxious and filled with a kind of pain.
Nothing ever happened to the sweet young mother. Her uncle eventually fled to Mexico and never came back, but before the coast was clear my young man watched over her easing all of our fears.
Eventually they both moved on to eighth grade and then high school. I never saw either of them again and hoped with all of my heart that they were happy and doing well, but my good thoughts were not to be. I one day learned that the young man was an inmate at Huntsville prison. He had been found guilty of armed robbery and would be in jail for a very long time. Learning of his fate was one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life for I knew all too well that in spite of what he had done and what his future fate would be, he was a truly good person inside. It pained me that he had made choices that so damaged all of the possibilities that most certainly might have been his. My heart hurt for him and for his family. I was angry that he had succumbed to the evil temptations of his lifestyle rather than finding a way out as so many of his friends had managed to do. At the same time I still loved him, and so I still often think of him and wonder how he is doing.
Perhaps if his behavior improved he may have been released from prison by now. I hope that maybe he continued his education and worked toward a positive goal. I know that he has the heart for such things but I worry that he may not have had the will. His story is one of those that haunts me, because it is not all that unusual. There were few who were surprised by his fate. He had not impressed many of my colleagues with his talents and his sweetness, because he had rarely shown them to anyone. He seemed to have become victim to a self fulfilling prophecy rather than realizing how much greatness there was inside his soul.
I’d like to think that maybe he matured and somehow found himself. It comforts me to believe so. Not to believe that he was ever able to rise above his circumstances is too depressing to bear, so I allow myself to have a glimmer of hope whenever I think of him. If my thoughts were somehow able to travel through time and space and reach his mind he would understand that I believe in him and pray that he has been able to believe in himself.