My first year as a teacher, I had a class that was wild no matter what I did. There was the kid who could not keep himself from jumping up and dancing in the middle of the room. The class clown, who drew a large, photo-realistic penis on the back of his clipboard, to universal acclaim led by the class president, Felipe*. Two super-smart alpha girls who’d yell “this is boring, miss!” if the class slowed down and one boy from the soccer team who, for reasons I could never determine, just plain hated my guts and would walk out, slamming the door, when I got on his nerves.
And then there was Clarisa, a skinny, quiet girl with braces sitting ramrod straight amidst the chaos of the class, eyes fixed on whoever was speaking. Though she rarely spoke, her writing was sophisticated, perceptive and honest. “Don’t underestimate her,” warned a teacher friend of mine. “She’s the one kid that all the other kids respect.” Another teacher, putting together an awards ceremony, was filled with frustration. “I can’t just give all the awards to Clarisa!” he said, then added, “even though she deserves them.”
That year, my favorite part of the day was lunch, when various crews of students would drift in, eat with me and chat about life; though the kids varied, the one constant was Clarisa, who’d come in with her funny and opinionated cousin Oscar and his ridiculous friends Henry and Luis, who were obsessed with Monty Python. On days when only Clarisa was there, we’d talk about books and writing and what it was like to be the oldest of four children, something we had in common. She wanted to be a psychologist. She wanted to fight for LGBT rights since her two best friends Gerardo and Katia were both gay. She wanted to know more about everything: art, poetry, theater, music.
But at the end of the year, she pulled me aside during the school carnival and, as the kids around us shrieked as they dunked their favorite teachers in the water tank, told me that her parents had split up and she was going to move to Texas with her mother for her senior year. At the end of the year, we hugged and cried. I gave her my email address, asking her to stay in touch.
I wasn’t sure I’d ever hear from her again, but occasionally she’d email me a poem or write a little about her life in Texas. The town she lived in was isolated. Her school was terrible. Teachers were indifferent. Her grades were slipping. That December, she came to Los Angeles to stay with her dad over winter break and, Gerardo and Katia in tow, met me at a café near USC, where, as we watched the winter rain drip down the windows, she told us she had not applied to college. She had no support at school. The college counselors took no interest in her. Aside from her bad grades that semester, her mother needed her at home to help take care of her siblings.
The story should end there. I cannot tell you the number of stories I hear from my former students that do end there, or near there, with a couple of semesters of community college, little support from college administration and a morass of family responsibilities.
But that afternoon at the café, Gerardo and Katia gave her some radical advice. She needed to leave the rest of her family, come back to L.A. and finish senior year at our school. Even though both of them were flunking most of their classes (a long story, another story), they knew she’d get a better education here. She could live with her father, they pointed out. Clarisa was concerned that the move would be a betrayal of her mother and that she would be abandoning her siblings.
She also knew that Gerardo and Katia were right.
In the poem Clarisa wrote about the morning she left Texas to come back to L.A., she described not wanting to wake her mother up to say good-bye:
Instead of two crying
it was only me
I gave you my blessings
and leaned over to give you
a kiss on your cheek
Even if you didn’t feel it
you still carry it with you.
She slipped back into our school as though she’d never left. Though she’d missed the application deadline for UC’s, the college counselor recommended Mills College in Oakland, whose deadline wasn’t until mid-February. In April, she was accepted on a full scholarship.
Today, four years later, she sits by a window in the same café, now on winter break from Mills. The shy, skinny girl who almost didn’t go to college is now a graceful young woman in cigarette-leg jeans and a lacy shirt, her high-cheekboned face framed with bangs. She will graduate this June with a B.A. in psychology. She’s a feminist and an activist, working with groups on campus that advocate for the rights of undocumented students.
She tells me about her friends from home, my former students. A couple of them are still in college. Felipe, now a film major at Cal State Dominguez Hills, will graduate in June. Gerardo and Katia are taking a class here and there in community college, but mainly working jobs to help support their families. But none of those smart, funny, Monty Python-loving guys are in college. Henry works as a security guard. Luis is disabled with a chronic illness and has been unable to take classes anywhere. Oscar left Humboldt State in the middle of his junior year and has been living at home ever since. Why? She’s not sure, but the thought pains her.
When I ask her what advice she’d give teachers, she’s unequivocal. “Really try to get to know your students,” she says. “Those relationships are what gives them the confidence to keep going.” She says that in college, the most important skill is not academic. It’s the ability to network. She wishes she’d learned better in high school how to talk to adults one on one—another reason why she thinks individual relationships with teachers are essential for high school students.
Remembering how hard it was to find the strength to leave home in order to achieve her dream of college, she starts to cry. She still can’t articulate what gave her that courage. It wasn’t easy for her mother to let go. “But my mom is going to be proud of me at my graduation,” she says, brushing away tears. Over winter break, she will finish her applications for graduate school in social work. She’s aiming for the best programs: University of Michigan or USC. When she’s done, she’ll come back home and work for a community service agency in South Central, which she still considers home.
We make plans: in five years, we dream of being colleagues at a community-based school with wraparound services for families. And isn’t that the dream, really? That one day your student will become your colleague?
That you will realize over and over that you’ve learned more from your students than they’ve learned from you?
I started this journey with two questions: what’s a great teacher? And what is education?
I still don’t have answers. Sometimes I think the search for those answers is actually a kind of answer.
Sometimes I think that’s an excuse.
All I know is that when I talk to Clarisa, I feel lucky and proud to have been a part of her life. I wonder if my quest to be a great teacher has blinded me to the real job, which is to do something. To keep going even if, as I felt that first year, you are failing every day.
Because you never know who’s listening. You never know who might grow up and change the world.
This post is the end of the first half of my yearlong search. I’ll be taking two weeks off to be with my family and will resume posting again in early January 2014. Till then, I hope you have a wonderful, happy, healthy holiday season.
*All the names have been changed, even Clarisa’s (she insisted).