I didn’t teach this summer. I figured it would be best to stay ouf of the classroom until September, what with all the stingrays and writing workshops … and the fighting to save the funding for my program and juggling money to maintain as many classes as possible … oh, and having to fire people. 😦
But being out of the classroom hasn’t meant not seeing my students. They’ve shown up on the phone, via text and at my office door. I like that they know I’m still here for them, even if I’m not seeing them in the usual way.
Friday Jacob came to fill out an application for the GED exam and because I had made an appointment for him with a job counselor. Jacob is a fast-talking, hip, wheeler-dealer kind of a kid, and (big surprise) he totally has my heart. He’s funny and open and charming, and he always livens up the classroom when he’s there (which isn’t often enough, but still …).
He filled out his application, met with the counselor and came to say goodbye and to thank me for helping him. My usually smiley Jacob was pretty somber.
“I’ve gotten used to having to figure everything out myself,” he said. “No one ever takes any time to help me. But you and [the job counselor], you’re going out of your way for me.”
I told him we were doing what was, in fact, our jobs, that we are here expressly to help him.
“And besides,” I said, “we like you, so of course we help you.”
He repeated how little help he’s gotten in his life, how hard he’s had to work for things. And then he said — and I think it’s the first time I’ve ever heard anyone actually say this seriously — “It brings a tear to my eye the way you’ve been so willing to help me.” And Jacob, tough-as-nails, everything’s-a-joke-to-me Jacob, was actually tearing up as he said it. And then he gave me one of his funny, how-you-doin’ head bobs and opened his arms for a hug … which I happily gave him.
His eyes were still full as he left, but no actual tears were shed in my presence (my own don’t count).
Dylan Thomas’ “Ears in the Turrets Hear” has the excellent repeated image and question about holding poison or grapes that I chose for the title of this post. I think of that line a lot when I think of my students. They are so often suckered in for the bait and switch: what’s on offer looks like grapes but it’s another story once they find themselves in the middle of it. They have been cheated and mistreated enough times to make it almost impossible to believe that the world isn’t out to get them.
I’m glad Jacob can feel the love when he comes here for services. That tells me we’re doing something right. But it makes me sad how starved he is for that feeling. Here he is: this beautiful, funny, intelligent kid who should be — as Duke Ellington would have said — living in the palm of someone’s hand, being gently cared for and shepherded along. Instead, he’s excessively grateful for what really amounts to me handing him a piece of paper and making a couple of phone calls. There is something so wrong with that picture.