Tales of a Tutor: Student Profile №2

I was in the middle of watching TV when I received a call from a random number. I saw the Chicago area code, so I decided to take it.

“Hello Mr. Sanders, this is Paul from Chicago… I have something I need to tell you.”

“Sorry, who?”

The phone was silent for a few seconds, and I was just about to hang up, when the voice reappeared.

“Nah, I’m just messing, it’s Michael, what’s up.”

He’s only 15 but played me for a sucker.

After a few minutes of catching up with Michael — I hadn’t talked to him since the last day of school about a month ago — he asked, “So, you’re writing a story about me, huh?”

“Yeah, I spoke to your mom about it, and — ”

“Just remember, I was hit by a car, not shot at. Remember that.”

“Oh, that’s right. How could I forget?”

His mom must have told him that I was planning to write about a specific photo he showed me during one of our classes. It shows Michael in a hospital bed, all bandaged up, as a result of being hit by a car in the fall of 2015. He was doing nothing wrong at the time — someone had simply ran a red light.

When he described the incident to me in class, I can vividly remember how nonchalant he was about the whole thing. It was as if he were discussing a version of himself he doesn’t even recognize any more.

In the grand scheme of things, this injury pales in comparison to the other hardships Michael has faced in his short life.

Like many students within the CPS system, Michael has gone through his fair share of trauma. Not only did one of his friends have a death by suicide during the school year, but earlier this summer, another friend’s younger brother was shot dead, simply minding his own business. (When this was brought up during our phone call, his tone drastically shifted, and we switched topics.)

When Michael had one of his bad days, perhaps after a death or an instance of racial profiling, it was obvious to everyone at the school. Normally he’s a social butterfly — in between periods you can usually find him chatting it up with one of the security guards — and the only time he’s by himself is when he’s running to make it to class on time.

But when he’s off, he’s off. His cheerful smile and welcoming remarks get replaced by a defeated look and total silence. At first I was hesitant to go on with normal lessons when he got like this — I hated to put him under additional stress — but he insisted I stay the course. Even if he was feeling down, he didn’t want to take off a day of learning, so he’d say to me, “Mr. Sanders, it’s OK. What are we doing today?”

And that was that. I’d give him work, and he’d do it, not only for himself, but for his mother, Ms. Wilson.

Whenever he talked about his mother with me, Michael would refer to her as his “O.G.,” meaning “original gangster”; a signficant term of endearment for Michael. He strove to make her proud and wanted to know whenever I was going to call her to report his progress in class. She, in turn, believes the sky is the limit for her son, and recently suggested that he should run for president someday.

Their bond wasn’t always this solidified, though. Michael admits that before we met, he stressed out his mom because of the people he was hanging out with, the activities he was up to in the streets, and his lack of effort in school. (He’d remind me when we moved to a certain topic that he “already did this stuff last year.” As an 8th grader he had already taken Algebra 1, but refused to take the test at the end of the year which would have allowed him to take Geometry as a freshman.)

According to Ms. Wilson, it took until that near-fatal car crash for her son to put the importance of their relationship into perspective.

On the night it happened, Michael tried to normalize the situation, saying, “Momma it’s gonna be OK,” but she didn’t hear him. All she saw was her son on the ground with his head wide open.

After coming home from the hospital, she wouldn’t let him leave her sight, even adding an extra bed so they could share a room. As she went through sleepless nights, tending to his every need, Michael realized the toll this was taking on her.

“While I’m feeling his pain and his hurt, he’s feeling mine as well,” she said. “He knew and understood right then and there how him not being in my life, how I wouldn’t be able to breathe anymore.”

By the time I saw Michael for the first time last September, it was clear that he had left his poor decision making in the past. He showed up to school every day, took his academics seriously (his report card was full of A’s and B’s), and was going out of his way to make a difference within his peer group. For example, he would share his life story with others in hopes that they too would stay on the right path.

One of those students just happened to be Jason.

The 7th period, when I taught Michael and Jason at once, was often the highlight of my day. Not only were they two of my top students, but they sure knew how to make me laugh. Whether it was clowning each other’s hairlines (‘You look like your barber had a stroke”), pretending to be too tired to work (“Mr. Sanders, you know we ain’t doing this”), or even taking shots at yours truly (“You’re probably still a virgin, right?”), they kept me entertained the whole time.

But even more than the jokes, what stood out with these two were the heartfelt conversations (or “real talks”) that would take place about once a month. This is how they usually went down: Jason would come into class feeling lousy, and Michael and I would eventually pry out what was wrong and share our thoughts on the matter. At some point, I’d let Michael completely take over, because to be quite honest, Michael actually knew what he was talking about when it came to things like trouble at home and the streets. Not exactly my strong suit.

Michael is just 15, but during these important exchanges, he sounded like an old wise man who’d seen and experienced a lot of hardships. Think Gandalf or Dumbledore.

Like these two literary icons, Michael wouldn’t sugarcoat anything. Even if he knew what he was saying to Jason was harsh, he’d put it out there anyway, because it was the only way to get through to his classmate.

In private, Michael would tell me that Jason was “his little brother,” and based on their relationship, this couldn’t be more apparent.

In the future, Michael wants to serve as the older brother to his entire community. He wants kids from all over his area to feel comfortable enough to turn to him for life advice, or simply for a clean pair of shoes.

Michael also has strong beliefs about some of the more famous members of his community. For example, he believes that Chicago rap icon Chief Keef isn’t a positive role model to the kids who idolize him. He’d rather he promote positivity than a gangster lifestyle.

Hearing this stuff from a 15-year-old astounds me, but it doesn’t surprise his mother in the least. After all, this is the same young man who’s spent his adolescent years cultivating relationships with younger kids in the neighborhood, taking them to the park to hang out or simply providing them with some spare change for a slushie.

“He feels that in order for him to be a good person, it’s not just doing stuff for yourself, it’s about giving back to others as well,” she said.

Moving forward, I don’t see what could stop Michael. He has a mother who cares for him beyond belief, three older siblings who are great role models themselves, and a work ethic that can’t be taught.

I don’t exactly know what lies ahead in his future, but if Michael stays on the right path, he’ll be known as an O.G. to an entire community.