Stories Without Endings, Part 1: Jonathan

Some stories are neverending.

I am going to write some stories that don’t have endings. I’ve been tinkering with them all summer, but have realized that I’m never going to be completely satisfied because they lack narrative arcs. Real life teaching stories are heavy on exposition and conflict, but usually lack resolution. We lose students at the end of each year and rarely find out what becomes of them.

Like many of my colleagues across the country this summer, I’ve been wondering what the point of teaching is. Am I just perpetuating a toxic, inherently racist, classist, capitalist system that was created during the Industrial Revolution in order to pump out factory workers? Would my powers be better aligned against the woes of the world (as Norman Rush writes in Mating) if I were an immigration lawyer, journalist, barista, social worker, or karaoke DJ? This isn’t a new quandary. It’s been with me since I started teaching 13 years ago. But the world has changed a lot, and this life choice is always worth revisiting.

Last year, I started teaching in a new school after teaching in the same classroom in a different town and district for 10 years, which is longer than I have lived in any home. I am still working my way through the grief process, but this summer I unexpectedly reconnected with several former students who are (suddenly! miraculously!) adults. Each of these students experienced a different phase of my teaching life, and it has been interesting and affirming to sift through our shared histories.

If I can muster the energy, I plan to write stories about these students throughout the year. My plan is to work through them in a chronological order, starting with Jonathan (his actual name- he has approved the use of his name and this whole story), who I met about two weeks into the second semester of my second year of teaching (first year in that school), when he finally decided it was time to come to class.

The anticipation had been building a little more each time I took attendance and called his name without getting a response. I had heard all kinds of awful things about him from the other teachers, who just couldn’t figure out how to get him under control, and students, who he fascinated. Rumors said he was a Hurricane Katrina refugee (he wasn’t — he arrived a few months beforehand), that he was living alone, that he was a drug dealer, and that he was the kingpin of a cell phone-stealing and reselling operation. (This was pre-smart phone tracking apps!) Whatever, I thought. I’ll believe the rumors when I see evidence. I saw none, but I wasn’t looking.

I had spent the previous year, my first year of teaching, at a private school for kids who had, for the most part, been kicked out of every other possible school, including alternative schools. Many of them were in the middle of court proceedings and attempting to recover from addictions. That year, I visited a student in jail and had my life threatened. This new school wasn’t paradise, but it was relatively pedestrian. I didn’t care what the other teachers said. I wasn’t scared of this kid, or any of the other kids, for that matter.

And then he walked in grinning, arms up in the air, and shouted, “Sorry I’m late! Where do I sit?” about 10 minutes into the beginning of class one day. The students all started laughing. I could tell he was famous. I pointed to a seat, got them started on an activity and went over to confer with my new superstar.

I don’t remember what we said. I wish I did, but it was 12 years ago.

Here are the things I remember:

-He expected me to get mad at him, but I just thought he was funny.

-He couldn’t sit in a seat for more than two minutes.

-He flirted with girls at all times, no matter what. He got them to do his work for him.

The thing is, I don’t think I was a very good teacher in those days. I had no idea how to manage a class. My assignments were basic. I rambled because I didn’t know what I was trying to say. I rarely set or hit any learning targets.

When I cleaned out my classroom two springs ago, I worked my way through 10 years of old teaching materials. I really hope old transparencies are recyclable. There were so many lessons and units that I remembered as having been works of inspired genius, but when I looked at my creations, I found sugar and air where there should have been protein and vegetables.

I remember a tumultuous night in my tiny studio apartment at some point that year when I couldn’t stop writing in my journal. I kept listing all of the reasons why I had originally wanted to teach, and then, one by one, listing the factors that were obstructing my goals, squashing my dreams, and warping my ideals. I wrote dozens of pages, following every thought’s farthest thread, trying to get to the bottom of what positive changes I could realistically make in the world, given the exact parameters of my situation, skill level, place and time.

Even if my students learned the facts about the French Revolution that I was trying to teach, and remembered them past the next test, which alone would have taken more interactive lessons, repetition, and assessment than I had time for, as well as dozens or even hundreds of other variables working out in my favor, what civic good was it going to accomplish? Anything I thought of felt like too much of a stretch to be tenable.

I switched tacks. Say the content was irrelevant and just a vehicle for teaching the skills? If I could teach those skills, would I be changing the world enough to justify sticking with it? I believed (and still believe) that students need to practice reading and writing, using evidence to support claims, being critical thinkers, etc. But I knew enough about good teaching at that point to realize how bad I was at actually teaching those skills. I knew I’d get better, but I also knew that I needed to feel more effective soon or I was going to quit teaching.

Schools are not designed to help students or teachers live healthy, inspiring lives. Especially in the building where I was teaching, the quality of life at school felt substantially worse at school than it was at home. The air was toxic because of 100-year-old pipes, the anti-nutritional cafeteria food smelled awful and tasted worse, and the 7:25am start time meant that my students and I were all cranky, sleep-deprived zombies. The larger community was mostly unsupportive (our bonds kept getting voted down), the administrators were too busy putting out fires to check in on me, and 19 teachers were new that year, so everyone was struggling and I didn’t feel like I had anywhere to turn for support.

And then there were the oppressive larger societal systems I was beginning to understand in a much more tangible way than I had as a graduate student reading theory or even as a poor kid trying to navigate them. The school-to-prison pipeline was running like a river through our district. Students were getting suspended for skipping too many days. (That policy has changed radically, but that’s another story.) Many teachers (who left soon thereafter) spent meetings talking about how the school had gone downhill during the previous 10 years (as the demographics had gotten browner and poorer), and talking about how little “our kids” were capable of. I would sit in the front of the room during the too-frequent staff meetings, which tended, especially that year, to dissolve into shouting matches, and try to analyze the soul-crushing forces of teaching, so that I could design my own antidotes. I didn’t know my colleagues yet. I didn’t see how how hard they were working or what was going on in their lives, or the quality of their hearts, like I learned to see as time went on. Most of what I saw that first year was frustration and exhaustion.

After writing for hours and hours that night in my studio, it began to seem like the most I could hope to accomplish as a teacher under my exact parameters was to connect as deeply as possible with each student who walked into my classroom. Everyone needs human connection and wants to feel known. I could be an adult who students felt like talking to, even if we didn’t end up talking about my curriculum. And that was actually a great opportunity. How many other adults have non-creepy daily chances to influence teenagers by getting to know them (and also get benefits, job security, and summers off)?

So, when Jonathan screwed around in my class, I used what became my go-to “classroom management strategy,” which isn’t really a strategy. I got to know him, offered to help with his classwork, narrated the decisions he was making, waited for him to figure out who he wanted to be, and hoped for the best. I don’t necessarily recommend this strategy, by the way. I’m just saying it’s my default.

This anti-strategy strategy with Jonathan must have imprinted on him. Maybe it was because whenever he came to detention, I would let him plug his MP3 player into my speakers and play me his favorite rappers from the dirty dirty South as long as he’d listen to my Tribe Called Quest and Blue Scholars, or maybe it was because I was so glad to see him whenever he came to visit me because I was lonely and overwhelmed in my new job, or maybe it was because nothing he told me shocked me, or maybe it was just because we got along.

At some point, he swung a deal with a Vice Principal to be able to spend my planning period in my classroom with me instead of going to the class he kept getting kicked out of. I was too much of a rookie to complain about my lost planning time.

During these sessions, he told me all kinds of things about his life in New Orleans, especially how different it was from his life in Burien. He told me about his mom, who was a long-distance Greyhound bus driver and was away from home a lot. He would start telling me about illicit activities, but I would stop him before he told me anything incriminating so I wouldn’t have to decide what to do about it. (A rookie move, but then again, I didn’t trust that system to do what was in his best interest.)

And then he transferred to the alternative credit-retrieval school in the district and I lost track of him. Students’ stories sometimes get cut off mid-sentence like that.

A few years later, out of the blue, he reached out to me on Facebook and started sending me direct messages. He was rapping and he wanted me to come see him perform. He sent me videos. His shows were always on school nights, and I had become more responsible about Teacher Bedtime, so I never went. He told me he was “still hustling on the side,” and that I should “stay safe.” I didn’t hear from him for another few years.

Several years after that, my fiancée and I were walking at the park and this towering shirtless man who had been playing catch with his jock friends started waving like a lunatic and shouting my name. It was Jonathan. He bounded over and bowled me over with a bear hug. He was SO HAPPY. He had just finished welding school and had started playing Aussie Rules football. He had a “real job” lined up. Life was great and I was his favorite teacher forever, which he told all his huge friends and my fiancée. It was like getting steamrolled by sunshine.

As I worked on this story this summer, I Facebook messaged him to see if he’d let me use his name, and also to check in on him. We chatted for a while and then he wrote, “When I first moved up here I was doing everything under the sun and didn’t trust nobody, not even my mom. But I trusted and love the hell out of you.”

Honestly, I don’t know what I did to earn his trust and love, but my best guess is that he could tell I enjoyed him.

Looking back, there are some problematic parts of this story. I’ve watched enough “Safe Boundaries” training videos to see that I treated him differently than other students. My social justice training and theory and years of insisting on holding students to high academic standards tells me that I wasn’t doing him any favors by letting him goof around instead of doing his classwork. I know that my administrators gave me great evaluations without really understanding what was happening in my classroom. But I think I’m glad I made those mistakes. I needed to connect, and so did he.