Eleven years ago, I had an encounter with a student that stayed with me for years. In 2001 at a writing retreat for teachers, I wrote about that encounter. The essay entitled “The Stories They Tell” talks about a young man named Duane who has given up trying to complete a senior project he needs for graduation. I write about how I am afraid to confront Duane, afraid to reach out to him – he seems so angry. But, I do. It’s a hard thing for me to do. And I almost lose courage. What happens next is what the story is about. The miracle of connection – the healing balm of stories — the presence of hope and possibility. Ten years later, I get an email from Duane. He is in Afghanistan, serving in the military. While in the desert, he remembers that moment when he didn’t give up and sends me an email from across the world to thank me. I tell him how important that moment was to me too, and I send him the essay I wrote. He reads it on a computer in the desert.
Today, Duane is back in the country. He found me on Facebook and we’ve chatted from time to time. Today, we were chatting and he told me about some poems he’d written. They were posted on his page. I read them and thought they were pretty good — smart, informed and passionate. A few hours later, Duane chatted me up again. He said, I have one more poem for you to read tonight. Go to my profile. I did. And this is what I found there.
IT SEEMS LIKE YESTERDAY
I USE TO CONSIDER MYSELF 1 OF MRS. URBAN KIDS.
FELT HELPLESS, CORNERED, AND TRAPPED LIKE KIDS IN THE URBAN DID.
THEY SAY “ALL THUGZ AND STREET RATZ WENT TO SIMON GRATZ”
AND ME BEING NAIVE I BELIEVED THAT WAS A DEFINITE FACT.
I LOOKED DOWN SHE LOOKED UP AND LOOKED ME SQUARE IN MY EYES
SHE ASKED GINGERLY ” HOW HIGH ARE YOU WILLING TO FLY?”
SHE WAS EITHER BRAVE AND STUBBORN OR CRAZY AND HIGH.
SEE I WAS A BAD BOY AND BAD BOYS BECOME BAD ASS GUYS,
WE SLIDE THROUGH LIFE FAST AND DIE YOUNG HELL WE DON’T FLY.
SHE STOOD THERE STRONG AND FIRM THE EMOTION IN HER EYES
BANDAGE MY SORES AND HER STILLNESS ALLOWED HER TO TAKE A WALK WITH ME
THROUGH THE JOURNEY OF MY LIFE AS A YOUTH
SHE HELD MY HAND WHEN WE WALKED THROUGH MY PAIN
WE RAN THROUGH MY RAGE THAT RAN THROUGH MY BRAIN.
SHE LISTENED LIKE SHE WAS THE STUDENT AND I WAS THE TEACHER
I WAS THE RABBI I WAS INSTRUCTOR I WAS THE PREACHER.
HER SON WAS THE SAME AGE AS ME BUT SHE WAS BLIND
FROM THE VISION OF MY KIND
WHEN SHE OPEN HER EYES SHE RAN
AND REACHED OUT FOR ME LIKE I WAS LOSING GRIP
ON A CLIFF OF A BOTTOMLESS PITT.
LOL LITTLE WHITE LADY LIFT ME UP
THE PURITY IN HER SPIRIT GAVE HER THAT BOOST.
SHE PICKED ME UP VOICE SHAKING TEARS IN HER EYES
SHE ASKED “ONCE AGAIN HOW HIGH ARE YOU WILLING TO FLY?”
SHE DID WHAT MOST PEOPLE WOULDN’T DARE……SHE CARED.
AND FOR THAT I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU MRS. PINCUS!!!
The Stories They Tell
I remember my students by the stories they tell. For the past 33 years, I have been challenged, moved, and most of all transformed by the young people I have encountered in my inner city classroom.
There was Steve Woods whose angry outburst of “That’s whiteman’s bullshit!” during my introductory lesson on Cry the Beloved Country sent me on a decades-long journey to re-educate myself. Or Carlissa Russell who during a discussion of feminism and African American literature, screamed at me –“Mrs. Pincus – to you this is just political. To me it’s my life!” Or Terrance Jenkins whose nearly twenty revisions of his play Taking Control taught me that it is often their very lives my students are trying to control and revise.
Then there was Duane.
It is April 1998. Duane is not doing the senior project that he needs to complete in order to graduate. Duane has been struggling. He has taken to avoiding me, the mentor he has chosen to marshal him through this complicated research process. And even though I know it won’t be easy, I find the strength to confront him.
At first, he will not look at me. His head is bowed and his chin is dug deep inside his chest. I talk in what I hope are soothing tones, trying to encourage and convince him to do the work. Suddenly he jumps up from his seat. What’s the fucking use anyway? Bull’s out there crazy! They gonna kill you. I have no future. What’s the fucking use? What’s the point in doing this? What’s the point of graduating? I’m gonna fucking die!!!!!
When he finishes, he sits back down, assumes the same tucked position while his words echo in the silence.
Slowly, he begins to tell his story. It is one of violence and anger. He lifts his shirt to show me his scars and the terrible injury he has received.
I take a deep breath and try to gather the pieces of myself that have been shattered by his story. What can I, a white woman, a mother whose son is the same exact age as Duane say to him. In telling his story to me, his teacher, in school, Duane has transgressed a boundary and ripped through the silence that separates students from their teachers. He has made the call. I must make the response.
Duane, I say, touching his arm. Are you positive you’re gonna die? Are you so sure that you’re willing to bet your future on it? At least consider the possibility that you could be wrong here. You’re not always right, you know.
There is a long silence because I have run out of things to say. I am overcome by a desire to get up and run away and never see Duane again. Then through the silence, his response. Thrusting his notebook towards me, he says, Show me how to do this. Step by step. I’m confused.
As I reach across to Duane, I suddenly remember another story – one from nearly thirty years ago. It was the first day of school of my senior year in AP English and Mrs. Laskin asked us to write an essay –something like how I spent my summer vacation. My friend Steve had died from a heroin overdose one month to the day after his 18th birthday on August 9, 1969 – one week before
Mrs. Laskin gave me a B-minus on that essay – a grade I now know teachers give when they don’t know what to say about a paper. It’s a safe grade. It will raise no eyebrows and cause no complaints.
Looking back, I wonder. What did Mrs. Laskin think of the young woman sitting before her who was in so much pain? How might my life have been different if she or anyone in that school had responded to what I was saying – the story of my life I was trying so desperately to tell her?
Teachers have a responsibility to listen to our students. We must make sure that we never give into despair. We must gain strength from our students’ stories of struggle, courage, hope and possibility. In urban classrooms today, the stories are all we have and they are what will save us.