They drove me nuts. Smart, chatty, gregarious, popular, Gerardo and Katia talked incessantly to the people around them in class, a river of disengaged, casual gossip that stopped flowing only when I stood next to them glaring with all my powers, and even then sometimes they wouldn’t stop.
They did no work.
Gerardo and Katia, for all their considerable charm, did not do work no matter how much you begged, called home, commiserated or threatened. They did no work in spite of the fact that they were extremely intelligent—Gerardo was one of the highest-testing kids in the school–and extremely courageous; they were the first students to come out at our school, starting a gay-straight alliance and supporting their younger LGBT classmates. Though if asked, Gerardo and Katia would say that they did no work because they were lazy, in fact their refusal to do work was more like Bartleby’s existential “I would prefer not to,” a renunciation of all that we begged them to believe about themselves and about the world.
It took both of them five years to graduate. Though our school received no state money for them after they were eighteen, the school let them stay for an extra year and ate the expense because everyone believed in them (Katia wept, devastated, at the discovery in her fourth year that she would not graduate—and then still did almost no work).
By some miracle, they graduated at the end of a fifth year. Though they had both expressed an intention to go to community college, I lost track of them for a long time.
Then, when I set up my interview with my son and his friends, I asked Clarisa, my former student who is about to graduate from Mills College, to set up a parallel interview with some of her friends who were also twenty-one. Unlike my son and his friends, who attended a mainly white private school costing $33,000 a year, Clarisa and her friends attended Animo Pat Brown Charter High School in South Los Angeles, one of the most low-income neighborhoods in the city, where 97% students, who were mainly Latino/a, lived below poverty level. Almost none of the students had parents who had attended college. In fact, many parents had not been able to complete high school because they’d had to work as children to support their families. One mother I knew had had to leave school at eight to support her family by becoming a housekeeper at a convent school in Mexico. Another mom had supported her family selling popsicles on the street from the time she was eleven.
In other words, though the age of the interviewees is the same, these are young people who grew up on opposite sides of the economic divide in this country.
Which brings me to Gerardo and Katia—Clarisa’s pick for the interview.
So now I’m sitting at a café near USC, vaguely alarmed to see Gerardo and Katia again. What in the world can have become of them, with their stubbornness, their barely submerged anger, their combative and messy family lives? As I’m sitting there, I barely notice a fashionable, polished young professional woman who, curiously, is headed over to me, beaming.
It’s Katia. Katia! Katia? The weeping, moody wreck I used to yell at? Yes, Katia, her hair smooth, her makeup perfect, enveloping me in a bone-crushing hug.
She’s become a surgical technician. In four months, she’ll have her associate’s degree. Already, she has job offers from surgeons at Cedars because she’s interned with them and they’ve been impressed by her professionalism. She plans to become an R.N. through a work-study program.
She is supporting her family. Her mother was a housekeeper for thirty years and, as Katia tells me, one day her mother’s body just gave out. “You worked all your life to support me,” Katia told her mother a year ago. “Now it’s my turn.” After long days in school, Katia works nights to pay the rent, buy food and pay her school’s tuition. “I’m doing really well, miss,” she says. “I’ve changed so much.”
Clarisa walks in, dragging a beaming Gerardo, taller than ever and also impeccably dressed. After another bone-crushing hug, we sit at a back table and talk.
Gerardo’s path has been rockier than Katia’s. He went to community college for a year but had to leave because he could no longer pay the tuition. Like Katia, he supports his family; his father has been unable to get work for a long time and his mother has had two strokes and a heart attack in the last few years. To pay the bills, Gerardo works as an aide at a nursing home, where he makes $10,000 a year—causing him to be notified by his community college that he no longer qualifies for financial aid. So for now, he just works, saving money so that in a few months he can pay the bills and pay his tuition. It’s a delicate balance because if he makes more than $1,200 a month his family will lose their food stamps.
And yet, in a situation that would make almost anyone bitter, he is absolutely without self-pity. He has his eyes on his dream: he wants to be a teacher here in the community where he was raised.
A teacher? Gerardo? I’m dumbfounded. Gerardo, the topic of so many wretched teacher conferences, the obstinate refuser of…everything?!
“Oh, my God,” he says. “I was so hard-headed back in high school! I just didn’t want to admit you guys were right, you know?”
All those years, all that pleading—he was actually listening?
Gerardo and Katia nod, emotional. “My teachers really opened my eyes,” he says. “It was that fifth year. All of my teachers, but especially my English teacher, Ms. Freeman. She pushed me, pushed me, pushed me. She was on my ass! And I fought back. But then she still didn’t give up! I mean, I didn’t even know this woman and here she cared so much about my education.”
“The teachers made me realize somebody cared about us. The affection they showed us…” says Katia. “Some kids don’t get that at home.”
They agree that for all the times they fought their teachers, what they were hearing was making an impact. “If I hadn’t gone to our school, I wouldn’t have graduated from high school,” Gerardo says with feeling. “I’d be working at McDonald’s. Or be on the street.”
“I’d still be in the closet,” Katia agrees. “I’d still be slacking off. I’d still be afraid.”
“It was the struggle,” he says. “The struggle with my teachers is where I learned. I think that’s what education is. It’s the struggle to change your life.”
For both of them, it is that relationship of love and struggle, the very relationship that at times drove us all so crazy, that they credit with changing their lives and turning them into the serious, motivated young adults I see in front of me today. Gerardo says it was a conversation with Ms. Freeman that made him realize he wanted to be a teacher. “As an LGBT Latino man, I think I could really help people. I wanna be as annoyed with my students as you guys were with us! I wanna be there in that struggle with them.”
I’m astonished by how committed all of them are to devoting their lives to helping others. With all this work, why not devote their lives to making money? They shake their heads. “I need to do something that matters,” says Katia. Clarisa adds that she wants to spend her life working with people she admires—people who share her ideals. All of them know they have picked a difficult path.
“I know it’s gonna be hard but I’m gonna finish,” says Gerardo. “I have to save money, I have no other choice. Look, my parents put up with so much of my bullshit when I was in high school, I owe them. It’s time for me to give back to them what they gave to me all those years.”
By now, all four of us are crying.
I don’t want to sentimentalize the economic inequality that has caused Gerardo and Katia to need to live selfless lives in which they have to carry the enormous financial burdens of supporting parents whose bodies have worn out from toil. It’s never easy to change your life, but to do it in a system that seems designed to punish any work you do by cutting off financial aid and food stamps seems so cruel and unjust that only a young person could ever dream it might happen.
But the fact that Gerardo and Katia have made the choice to live these difficult situations with such generosity is inspiring to me in a way I can hardly describe except to say that more than any conversation I’ve had this year, it made me want to be a teacher again. That struggle for our students’ futures—the exhausting and often profoundly discouraging battle that sometimes felt so futile—that struggle does matter. It matters as much as anything, even though we couldn’t see it at the time, even though we all felt like we were failing every day, even though on paper Gerardo and Katia will still register as failures because they took five years to graduate and may take God knows how long to graduate from a four-year college, if they ever do. But if they can come this far and turn into the people I see in front of me, I think we need to re-define success.
Isn’t life, in the end, about having the courage, wisdom and humor to grapple with whatever challenge you may find? How do you measure the value of finding the strength to change your life?
All those students, all those years, not just Gerardo and Katia but so many of my students who did not do work, sometimes as many of a third of any given class, dozens and dozens of students, who drove us all so crazy because they seemed not to be listening. Who fought us so hard. Who broke our hearts. Who refused to listen.
But the truth is that you never know who is listening.
What do we mean when we talk about accountability? We are all accountable for the struggle faced by talented young people who face such starkly unequal opportunities due to race and economic class, no matter how futile that struggle may seem at times. Young students like Gerardo and Katia deserve to have allies in that struggle who will fight for them even if it sometimes means fighting with them.
And yet for all that we need to be accountable, on the deepest level, maybe it’s beyond our ability to ever understand how profoundly, moment by moment, we change each other’s lives.
All I know is, as I say good-bye and hug Gerardo, Katia and Clarisa one last time, I think they’re going to be all right.