When Compassion Fails


When I was contemplating what this post for 1000 Voices for Compassion was going to say, I read this insightful post by Melissa Firman; When the Bully is the Teacher.  It tore a few more holes in my soul.  You see, I was a teacher.  And I was not the safe, self-satisfied, sit-behind-the-desk-and-pontificate sort of teacher.  I was the walk-up-and-down-the-aisles-between-the-student-desks teacher.  I was the look-over-your-shoulder-and-care-what-you-are-learning teacher.  I took the risks necessary to connect with kids and find out what was really happening in students’ lives.  I was definitely aware of teachers who belittled their charges and used negative comments and punishments to motivate them.  I did what I could to steer those teachers in another direction.  I was involved in campus improvement teams.  I provided in-service training to my fellow teachers on methods and implementation and best practices.  I was a department head for middle school English for a decade.  I tried very hard to get other teachers to love kids too.  But I learned very early on that for every hard-won, consistently-practiced teacher super-power that I developed there was an even more powerful bit of Kryptonite lurking somewhere.  Bullying broke my heart my second year as a teacher.

Ruben was an eighth grade boy who came to my class late in the school year.  He had moved south from big-city San Antonio, Texas to our little rural school because of family upheaval.  He was a slight, short, skinny child with large, liquid brown eyes and a haunted stare that could pierce your soul.  Almost from day one he was the center of attention for one of the eighth grade attack roosters in our little school.  Vicente Feyo (not his real name) was a beginning Gold-Gloves boxer following in his older brothers’ footsteps.  He was a fairly short kid, too, but muscled like an athlete because he trained as a boxer.  The girls all loved Vicente and followed him like a flock of hens all around the chicken house.  His only obvious objection to Ruben was that Ruben existed and was defenseless against any mean thing Vicente could think of to do.  Fortunately, Vicente had been hit in the head enough that he couldn’t think of anything too terribly evil to do to Ruben.  He called Ruben a girl in Spanish, belittled his manhood, and constantly treated him to the Feyo Stare of Death and Dismemberment.  He would corner Ruben and say things like, “Just go for it, vato.  What are you afraid of?”  He forced Ruben to back down in front of girls.  He forced Ruben to back down even in front of Ruben’s own younger sister who had caught up to Ruben in grades and was in the same class with him.  The child was dying before my eyes.  I had to do something.  Our principal was a good man with a good heart, but Vicente had parents who were very prominent and powerful in our little South Texas Hispanic community.  He couldn’t handle having to risk backlash in reprimanding Vicente over something that he told me, “…is just part of our Mexican-American culture.  Boys just have be macho and strut in front of the girls.  He doesn’t really mean anything by it.”

One day, after class, I pulled Ruben aside and tried to talk to him.  “What can I do to help?” I asked.  “I am not going to put up with him acting like that in class, or in this school,” I said, “but what else can I do?”

“You can’t do anything, man.  You are a gringo teacher.  This has to be between me and him.  You just don’t understand, man.”

I didn’t understand.  I thought teachers were heroes.  Teachers are supposed to be able to solve problems like this.  Of course, I was just a second-year teacher at the time.  Maybe there was something I hadn’t learned yet.  It was not going to be beyond my power forever… but it was.

Ruben solved his problem the following year.  At the time the Bloods from L.A. hadn’t moved into San Antonio yet to become the San Antonio Kings.  The Crips hadn’t moved into San Antonio and become the Ffolks.  There was only a gang on the South Side called the Town Freaks.  Ruben moved back to San Antonio and became a Town Freak.  Nobody was going to mess with him ever again.  One night they stole a pickup truck and went for a joyride.  Ruben was riding in the back.  When the police chased them, the truck overturned.  Six Town Freaks were killed.  Ruben was one of them.  Nobody was ever going to mess with him again.

What does this have to do with compassion?  It tore my heart out.  I can’t write this post, even thirty-three-years after it happened, without tears blurring my eyesight and sobs wiggling my laptop.  I still believe  that if only we could’ve found a little more compassion in our hearts for Ruben Vela… if only more adults would’ve honestly tried to see things through Ruben’s eyes… well… you know.

I never use the real names of students in posts.  They have a right to their own stories.  They need to have their privacy respected.  Ruben Vela is different.  Somebody needs to remember that boy’s name whenever we pass off bullying as inevitable, as a part of our culture, as normal.  I have never forgotten.  Remembering what happened to Ruben made me more aware for the rest of my teaching career.  It will affect me for the rest of my life.



Filed under 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion, compassion

36 responses to “When Compassion Fails

  1. Mr. Militant Negro

    Reblogged this on The Militant Negro™.

  2. Oh, I have tears in my eyes now. I can’t think what to write in response other than thank you for sharing this. There is nothing to add – your post says it all. Thank you.

  3. What a powerful post. You are a wonderful person and it was not your fault that you were not able to fully help. I’m sure, in some corner of his heart, Ruben was touched by your love and concern but he was pushed by the rest of society to take a stance. Unfortunately, he paid a heavy price for it. May he rest in peace.
    Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful piece.

    • Thank you for showing your appreciation. I think it is a wonderful thing if people actually know Ruben’s story. I’ve told it before, but I have never had so many people really listening.

  4. I can’t even begin to find words. There is simply no reason for this kind of thing to happen. This is why 1000Speak even exists – because these things should not. I wish that young man peaceful rest where no one can hurt him and I wish you peace as well.

  5. TheMomCafe.com

    WOW. You shared this tragic story exquisitely. And what makes it all the more devastating, is I would hinder a guess that this is the EXACT same experience MANY of those gang members faced prior to stepping into the other side. How many kids are teased and bullied that finally turn against it all in the form of gang violence, or bringing a gun to school? I am so sad for your loss- and your heart to have to be stuck in that place as a teacher.

    And I’m even more sad, that this type of culture is everywhere.

    • I know what you mean. The things happening to black kids now in places like Ferguson hurt so much… because I know what kids like that go through and why they feel that authorities are the enemy. Kids are kids no matter what their surface differences are. What makes the difference in the long run is how the adults in their lives treat them.

  6. The most touching and heart wrenching post I’ve read today. Thank you for sharing your story with us. I know it must have been difficult to write, but if just one Ruben Vela is saved because of your words…well, just thank you. May he rest in peace and may you find peace in knowing you showed him you cared when many wouldn’t.

  7. Bless you for caring about your students so much – for doing what you could to help Ruben. Sometimes offering our help is all we can do. You did that! You didn’t just stand by and watch – your compassion drove you to reach out and try to help. I’m sure Ruben was touched by your concern. I’m sure your support helped him – if even just that day.

  8. This is a tough thing for any inexperienced teacher to handle by themselves. In my case, when my children were much younger, my children would mention if they noticed that someone was being bullied. I would invite the child over to my house for play. I have on occasion taken time to speak on behalf of the children with the principal to explain that this bullying needs to stop or I would contact every parent. I had a lot of credibility in this are. In short, teachers need support in dealing with this issue.

    • I am glad that this happened early in my career. It helped make me more sensitive to the needs of kids like Ruben. I did a better job later in my career being an advocate for kids, sometimes even having to stand up to administrators and other teachers in order to help them. I was able to do that because I already knew the worst that could happen.

  9. That is so very sad. I understand why this still hurts your heart. Thank you for sharing this story.

  10. I had to take a few deep breaths and wipe away a few tears. This broke my heart. It’s important to remember that not all kids escape the bullying. That it leaves a lasting mark. This piece was gorgeous. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Thank you so much for sharing this story. I have no words for something so awful other than to agree with the sentiment that yes, perhaps if others had reached out earlier he might have seen other options.

  12. I know this was in the past and times, as they say, they were different. However, not all that much has really changed.
    We kneed to do better once we know better. Glad you learned, as hard as you tried then, and nothing can be done about the past. It’s the present we focus on and the future we must do better within.
    Culture had influence back then, but we must stop letting it be the excuse things like this take place and so many young people, young men are destroyed.
    Glad you could share your story here.

  13. Reblogged this on Love Changes People and commented:
    ” Somebody needs to remember that boy’s name whenever we pass off bullying as inevitable, as a part of our culture, as normal. I have never forgotten. Remembering what happened to Ruben made me more aware for the rest of my teaching career. It will affect me for the rest of my life.”

  14. This is my favorite one yet! A huge hug to you and much love. Clearly, you’re heart just overflows! It’s tragically beautiful and bittersweet and THAT is exactly the kind of pain and the kind of love that change people!

  15. A heartbreaking story, beautifully written.

    This one made me cry, so sad..tragic.

    Your heart shines through, now in your writing..and then as you reached out to Ruben. – He didn’t feel able to accept your offer of help, but I imagine he appreciated it/was touched by it.

    All the best, kimmie x

  16. Heartbreaking……you and I are kindred spirits on so many levels..Thank you for being the loving, kind teacher/man that you are….Your unconditional kindness/teachings will be “paid forward” over time….

    • Thank you for understanding. It means the world to me that, as a writer, I can sometimes touch the heart of others… but I would give it all back to have given Ruben one more chance.

  17. Pingback: Walking On Sunshine Blog Hop – Will there be sunny bunnies? | yadadarcyyada

  18. I understand. 33 years high school social studies teacher in Miami.

  19. Pingback: When Compassion Fails | All Things Chronic

  20. Hi Authormbeyer. One thing we all know life is not easy for many. Everyday a struggle but for others they enjoy life all goes well. Thank you very much for liking my poem Ghost Hunt! Peace and Best Wishes. The Foureyed Poet.

  21. Pingback: Wide-Eyed Wonder | Catch a Falling Star

  22. firmfam4

    Thank you so much for this post. I’m glad mine resonated with you, as this one absolutely did. You can tell from your eloquence that you are far, far different than the teacher my daughter had this past year. You have made a difference to so many kids because of Ruben.

    • I appreciate your appreciation and I hope your daughter finds a teacher somewhere along the line that makes a difference for her. Sometimes a good teacher can find that secret switch in a student and turn it on revealing the sunshine inside that only that particular student is capable of shining down upon the world..

  23. Reblogged this on Catch a Falling Star and commented:

    I have waited a while to reblog this. It still breaks my old teacher’s heart to retell this story. But I would be letting Ruben down not to keep the story going.

  24. 😦

    But that is the way of the world. I remember all the bullying I went through as a kid. Being “different” in a way that doesn’t conform to social expectations will always be a curse. It is human nature.

    • It’s true that it is the way of the world. But it is also true that there are ways to help kids like that which keep them alive. I just hadn’t found them yet in my second year of teaching.

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