The tall, solid-looking senior took up most of the space in my doorway. ”Miss, is it all right if I do work in here until Ms. C_____ can see me?”
I looked up from inputting grades at my computer. ”Sure.” I had several computers lining three walls of my classroom then, and I was used to students asking to use them after school. I thought R______ was coming in to work on a college applications essay, or a senior project slideshow, but instead he set out his calculator and math textbook and began to work on homework.
I recognized R______ easily; he was one of very few Latino students at our school, which was predominantly African-American. My last school, in contrast, had been predominantly Latino, and seeing R______’s face around school seemed oddly familiar in a comforting way, like seeing someone in a T-shirt from your alma mater at the gym or driving behind a car with your home state’s license plate. I asked him what middle school he had attended before coming to ours.
"CEP, miss." I knew about CEP; had never actually met a student who had gone there. My previous place of employment, a desperately floundering middle school, had never been able to get its act together to compile the paperwork that would transfer a student there. I knew that out of all the high schools in Philadelphia, theirs was the only one where 100% of the student body scored Below Basic on every single PSSA subject. I’d seen its students in their distinctive uniform polos at the bus stops, though; their conversations were rife with cruelly and casually tossed-out profanities, as if completely unaware of all of the other much younger children that rode SEPTA with their parents. Once I saw a bus driver refuse to let a gaggle of them on. "Y’all are nothing but trouble," he crowed as he drove away from their screaming pack. Another time some friends and I met a woman who taught there when we were in line at a store in King of Prussia. "Oh no, no learning goes on there," she laughed callously. "But we do have security guards stationed in every classroom. Because they can put their hands on the kids if there’s a situation, and we can’t."
I was shocked that this polite, mild-mannered young man claimed to have matriculated from such a place. ”What did you do to get in there?”
"I punched my teacher, miss."
"You punched your teacher? Where?"
"In the face."
"Why would you do that?"
"He was saying disrespectful stuff to me…I don’t know, I just got mad." He shrugged.
I digested this for a moment. ”Do you regret that now?”
"Oh, of course. I shouldn’t have done it. I’m better at making decisions now."
"What school was this at?"
"Oh, I don’t remember. I went to a bunch of schools. I don’t remember their names." He gave an embarrassed smile.
I told him where I used to teach. ”Do you know where that is?”
"Yeah, I’ve heard of it. What did you teach?"
"I taught history there."
A thoughtful look spread over his face and he tilted his head. ”I heard someone say once that those who don’t study their history are bound to make the same mistakes. Do you think that’s true?”
"Of course. That’s why I enjoyed teaching it. Do you think it’s true?"
"Yeah, I guess." He looked down at his math homework. "I don’t really like history though."
"That’s fair. Lots of kids don’t. You like math?"
"Yeah, it’s my favorite subject. I want to go into engineering."
I asked him what school he was planning on attending next year.
"I haven’t really decided yet. I’ve been accepted into three and I’m still thinking on two of them."
I smiled. ”Well, look at you. Coming from CEP and now you’re going to major in engineering at a college. Good for you!”
He smiled back. ”Thanks, miss.” He did his homework quietly and I resumed entering grades.
Ms. C_____, the college counselor, appeared at the door. ”R______, I’m ready to see you now.”
"All right." He packed up his things and walked out the door. "Bye, miss."
Later that year, there was an incident on the third floor between R______ and a few of our teachers. I did not see it, but this is what I heard. R______ had been using the copier to make flyers for a party. Two teachers, male and female, reminded him that the copiers were for faculty use only and asked him to leave. R______ nodded, but did not comply. Things became heated the more the teachers insisted upon R______ relinquishing his spot at the copier, and R______ became more and more insubordinate, until finally he angrily shoved the male teacher and one of the assistant principals—who had appeared at the request of the female teacher—aside as he stormed out of the copier room and off the third floor.
Technically it was assault on not one, but two faculty members, so there was a hurried disciplinary hearing, which then led to an expulsion hearing with the board of directors present. R______ was recommended for expulsion. I don’t know if he and his family chose to withdraw from the school or if he allowed himself to be expelled, thus leaving a mark on his permanent record. He was a month away from graduation.
I wonder where he is now, and what college he ended up decided upon, and if he even followed through with college at all after all that. He was a good kid.