Desirée is slipping. Through much of this term she’s been a strong student, an active participant, one of the students whose ‘up’ energy regularly infects the rest of the class and keeps our momentum high.
And then came Symphony Space. The ride uptown to the theater meant an hour on the subway with three groups of our raucous, hormone-fueled kids pressed together in an unsuspecting subway car. Which is when she met Rafael, a student in the high level class. Rafael, who spent the evening trying to get close to both Desirée and Haila — the cutest of the Cute Girls in my class. And the youngest.
I’m sure Rafael is a perfectly nice guy. He’s a little bad-looking, a little little-boy-looking, a little rough at the edges. He doesn’t wear gang colors, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. I have nothing against Rafael. Maybe if I were sixteen, I’d want him paying attention to me, too.
I don’t worry about Haila. Not only does she have a boyfriend to whom she is entirely devoted (even when they’re ‘in a separation’), she has a series of family problems that consume all of her time, including a good chunk of our class hours. She is the object of desire for the boys in my class and several other boys in the program — her detached, melancholy, dreamy affect coupled with her prettiness make her the challenge prize. But Haila floats above it all, aloof and very nearly oblivious.
What troubles me about Rafael is the affect he has on Desirée. She is completely distracted, has gone from a funny, sunny student who took notes and did pretty much all of her home work to an often-cranky, wise-cracking student who barely manages to do our in-class work and laughs at the idea of doing homework. She can be manically happy when he is focused on her, angry and morose when she sees him talking to another girl. (Which he does regularly and unashamedly … right in front of Desirée. “I ain’t her man,” I heard him say to one of his friends the other night. “And even if I was … ” Yeah.)
I’ve tried to check in with her about how she’s feeling, how she’s doing in class, but I’ve gotten nowhere.
“I’m fine, Stacie. I’m handling this.”
“What about class, sweetie? I haven’t gotten an assignment from you in two weeks.”
“I’m making all that up, don’t worry.”
And maybe she will really try to do that, but with her attention so removed from the class, success seems unlikely.
Why do girls go to this place? Why do we let our plans and ambitions be ruled (and derailed) by the attentions of a boy? Ok, it’s not all girls, and boys can get just as messed up over girls, but the question holds. Why? What is so missing from our sense of ourselves that we will jettison any and every thing to bask in someone’s affection for five minutes?
And how do I help? How do I help them see that their needs, their ideas, their goals have value and weight?
We’re still reading Jean Ferris’ BAD, and seeing how the girls in the story navigate through the difficult circumstances of their lives. We’ve read how Ray treats Dallas, how Revere treats Damaris … and we’ve talked about those relationships and other choices — better choices — the girls could have made … but there just seems to be a disconnect between the conversation and the reality of Rafael (or Jeovany, for that matter).
And how do I help? I mess myself up over boys, too. Maybe not as frequently or with the same public drama as my students, but enough that I can hardly be qualified to offer them a helping hand, to be any kind of role model.
Desirée comes in crying from break. Because Rafael walked around the corner with a girl from the mid-level class. Around the corner where his car is parked.
“Stacie, I’m going home. This isn’t a good time for me to be here.”
“He’s just trying to make me feel like nothing.”
“So you could stay here, keep working for your GED, show him how wrong he is.”
She shakes her head, packs her bag, and leaves.