I have a student I’m going to call “Benny.” He’s a young-ish Puerto Rican guy who has taken classes at my day job off and on for three years. Mostly off. He’s always been a bit of a screw up: in trouble, smoking too much pot, disappearing for days, weeks, whole semesters. He’s one of the students you know needs the help, needs the services, needs the grounding that thinking he’s working toward his GED can give. At the same time, he’s one of the ones who makes us wonder if he’s being well served by the program.
He drives Lena, my assistant, crazy. She finds him utterly annoying and would be only to happy to see him expelled … not that we actually ever ‘expel’ students, but still. He’s always driven me a little crazy, too, but there’s a soft place in my heart for him, no matter what he does. (Yes, I have a lot of soft places in my heart. Yes, I am the word ‘pushover’ made flesh. What’s your point?)
He is what Lena calls one of my ‘benditos,’ the ones who I make excuses and allowances for because it’s so obvious that no one else does and they could use a little kindness and forgiveness and understanding. (She has her benditos, too. I’m not the only soft-touch in town.) So, because of Lena’s name for him, I’m calling him Benny.
When I walked into orientation for my night class in September, there was Benny, enrolled in that other program, enrolled in my class. I asked if he was leaving the day class, and he said no. And that ‘no’ meant that he would be my student day and evening. Because yes, I am now teaching in the morning and at night.
(This is another gift from our funding loss: if we wanted the Pre-GED class to go on, I needed to teach it because we have no more funding for it. And, while I am absolutely loving my day class, teaching nine hours in the morning makes it very hard for me to do my full-time program director job. Just saying.)
Now that Benny is my student, I am seeing more every day just how right I’ve been to have faith in him. He’s had consistent attendance and he’s an active participant. What’s more, he knows so. much. stuff. About world history, about politics. It’s very impressive. And he’s been loving the conversations we’ve had in class about the elections. And I’ve really enjoyed having him in both of my classes.
Last Thursday night when he came to class was the first time he was seeing me since Obama had become our president [sigh of relief and joy!], and he wanted to talk. At first I tried to get him settled into the writing activity, but I gave that up. Why? Because Benny asked what a person needed to be to be president, you know, legally-speaking. And before I could start to answer, he got a look of amazement on his face and said:
“You see what this man has done? He even has me thinking about what could be possible!”
Yeah. Exactly. I don’t really have words to say how much that moved me.
So we talked about rules like the one about having to be 35 … and suddenly Manny (a young Mexican man who almost never speaks) says, “I’ve got two out of three. I’m just not 35 yet.” And I suggested that it would be hard for him to wake up on his 35th birthday and suddenly become president, that there were things he should maybe be doing during the next 15 years to get himself ready.
Things? Like what? Turns out the idea of local politics has never really occurred to them. The idea of any kind of activism has never really occurred to them. We talked about the fact that a job like Benny’s — working for a small, way-left grassroots organization in the neighborhood — can be a good first step toward a career in politics. After all, our new president was a community organizer once … We talked about the Community Board (which they are looking up for homework) and the City Council (more homework), about mayors and governors and state legislators … and Jorge (another young Mexican man who is even more silent than Manny) says, “So I could decide to run for one of these local offices?” And Benny says, “Can’t you see it? All of us in politics, all of us becoming politicians? I never even thought about something like this.”
You see what this man has done?