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.