students. every year they enter your classroom. 150 or so names on a roster. some years you make the time to look at the names before the year begins. some years you try and anticipate who these young people will be by gathering intel from their older siblings or their former teachers, your colleagues. your reconnaissance may even go so far as to locate and review their “cum” folder (a file of their cumulative educational career… at least the required legal documentation).
but most of the time for me, the students just appear, day 1. their eyes intent on sizing you up to see what kind of teacher you are… your own gaze meeting theirs with the same question, which is answered in a relative short amount of time. what is not answered, but is only hinted at in those first moments… how will this person affect my life? a smile, a stare, or a laugh. that is all it takes sometimes to know, that this student will be one you remember. one that will be a part of your life forever…
last Thursday i found out that one of my former middle school students had been shot. unfortunately this is not the first time a student of mine has been shot… i found out via text from a colleague who found out from social media via this article.
i immediately tried to discern whether this was indeed one of our students at Hawkins, because her last name had changed. to my horror, it was… Patty.
i first met Patty at John Muir Middle School. she was in my 7th grade history class. she was one of my difficult ones. always cursing, getting out of her seat, talking smack to other students, coming late, forgetting her homework… and ALWAYS SMILING. her smile was infectious, in the most deviant way. her eyes glowed with the same intense mischief. she was a true middle school student. we often butted heads, she was as stubborn as i was, but then again… maybe less. we could relate to each other, often given the time to have talks about behaviors, patterns, feelings, and the future. her future crossed my path again just this last spring at Augustus Hawkins. she had transferred in late, having bounced around from whatever school. the mischief had not left her smile nor her eyes. but neither had our relationship. i pulled her aside in the hallways a couple of times, counseled her from a more mature and removed perspective. when time passes, both people in the relationship must acknowledge change and growth of the other… and this was my attempt to do so. she was not enrolled in my small school, and she would never again be my social studies student.
as soon as i found out it was her, i reached out to her sister (who was one of our first graduates at Hawkins last year and whom i have also known for many years) on Facebook… it was her sister’s birthday. she immediately confirmed what i had hoped would be a mistake.
i entered the weekend feeling very overwhelmed. distracted from the many things that are piling up already this academic year. i was deeply saddened. maintaining dialogue with her sister, she informed me that Patty was indeed on life support… and there is little chance of recovering from her coma.
while on Facebook again i scrolled past a photo posted by another former student of mine whom i taught at Manual Arts in the Freshmen Prep Academy. she had posted a picture of her and her friend Eric, another student of mine during the same time. i commented in this post, happy to see two smiling students using social media to reflect on the past and posit about their future. and yet as i continued reading the responses of others to this photo i soon began to fear that something was not right. i reached out to my student who posted the picture originally and asked her about Eric. her response couldn’t have been shocked me any more than i had already been this week… but that was not true.
i remember Eric as if he were in front of me today. he had a comical side kick… and together they would always make everyone, including myself despite my effort in trying to keep a serious face (part of my teaching persona, convincing students that i am always serious)… his smile too was completely infectious. he had this ridiculous variation of a typical handshake that he would so with his sidekick seven or eight times as fast as they could… eventually i had to learn and so we would greet each other in this manner. or we would use the handshake to confirm that something was indeed funny, no matter how serious school was supposed to be. i remember particularly how excited Eric and his comical counterpart got when they heard that my pregnant wife was coming to visit me at school. he was certain that she would love him for being a pleasant break from the serious guy i was perceived to be… he was right. she did. she thought he was hilarious.
this past March Eric was involved in a fatal shooting outside of Korea Town. i had not heard about this before my student shared this information with me upon my asking. she sent me a screen shot of the original news post on her social media timeline. my heart sank.
as i prepare myself to go into work tomorrow i can’t help feeling saddened, angry, guilty, helpless… after teaching in South Central Los Angeles for a decade i know that i am not the great game changer that every teacher hopes to be. i realize that life is a system of complex choices and situations that every young person must traverse. and yet i know that still have an impact on my students… because i feel their impact on me.
so to Patty,
your energy was an intensely bright light, full of passion and rage, a candle that won’t soon fade in this world. i never gave up hope that you would some day come around and figure out how to harness that energy to accomplish al of your dreams. i am sorry if i ever made you doubt your capabilities as a student, and know that if i did it was only because i doubted my abilities as a teacher. i can hear your laughter echoing in room 40 still… and it still brings a smile to my face.
and to Eric,
you also had a gift for brining out the light and care free nature of people, always helping them to remember that life should be enjoyed, through laughter. i enjoyed having you in our learning community immensely and i am sorry if i didn’t fully communicate that when i could have, for it was the truth. thank you for taking the time to teach me the most ridiculous hand shake i have yet to partake in… i won’t soon forget it.
you both will forever be in my heart. i thank you for allowing me to be your teacher and learn about this life with you. much love – mr. gomez