One Thing That is True…


I was once a teacher.

This Paffooney is a picture of Nandito done in colored pencil.  I call the picture Satyrico. Explaining it is a difficult and complicated thing.  He was a complicated and difficult child.

He was in my fourth period English class in 1981, my first year as a teacher.  Fourth period was probably the hardest class I ever had to teach.  Twenty-eight kids, all of them Spanish speakers, six of them were Special Edwards with learning disabilities.  Fifty percent of the entire disciplinary case file from the previous school year were in that one eighth grade classroom.  Class in fourth period was completely shut down one September day by spitwad wars in which even the girls who were normally well-behaved were throwing wicked little wet ones at the backs of everyone else’s heads. I had to stand at the door to make sure none of the lunatics escaped and wait for them to get tired of flinging hastily chewed paper at each other.  The principal was a big help.  He called me into his office later for a tongue lashing about why I let it happen. Of course, he was not brave enough to try to stop it himself when it was happening.  So, Nando was in the worst possible class for anyone to be in.  And, looking back on it now, he needed me desperately.

There is no doubt that teachers would lump him in with the “bad kids”.  He was routinely disruptive.  He stole things whenever he could.  He was rude to everyone.  And he really couldn’t handle being around girls, except for two of them who were both his cousins, one that had the the muscles to beat him to a bloody pulp, and one who was generally sweet to everybody and looked upon him as her personal protection project.  Really, Sweet Thing actually defended him from bullies because she knew none of them could ever even say a harsh word to her.

Well, one of the best things I did my first year as a teacher was learn how to actually talk to kids in my classes.  I was careful.  I didn’t expose their secrets either in the classroom or in the teachers’ lounge.  I didn’t embarrass them in front of their peers the way other teachers did.  I learned to give them time to respond to questions and patiently waited for them to get things right on the second, third, or even fifteenth try.  It got so even the bad ones would tell me their regrets, their hopes, and their dreams.

My boy Nando started hanging out around my classroom at every opportunity.  And he found out where I lived and sought me out at home.  It was there, in private, I learned about the most terrible things in his life.  He was being sexually abused by his older cousin, a Vato Loco in that same fourth period class.  He even offered to become my lover in order to get away from what was happening.  That was a tense, dangerous situation.  I explained to him that I was not a homosexual.  We discussed it enough that he admitted he was not either.  And between implied threats of revelation and reasoned discussions with the perpetrator, we got things stopped without going to the authorities.  I was never able to tell Nando that I had once been a sexual assault victim too, but he knew that I cared about him.  He and some other boys began playing Dungeons and Dragons at my place on weekends.  He began to really blossom and become a more sociable and outgoing young man because of the story-telling games and the friendships I helped him form.

He was in my classes for two years  because he failed the 8th grade the first time.  He was the first child to treat me like a surrogate father.  He would become only the first of many.

He would not pose for a picture to be made of him.  I couldn’t even get him to hold still for a photograph.  So I had to draw this Paffooney mostly from memory.  He wanted me to promise I would never write or tell stories about him.  I told him there was no way I could ever promise that.  I did promise not to use his real name.  Actually, it probably is a promise that doesn’t really matter any more.  The last I heard of him, he had lobotomized himself with hard drugs.  If he is even still alive now, he wouldn’t be able to read this and understand it, or even remember me, let alone be embarrassed by anything I have revealed.

But I do know one thing that is true. Nando was a wonderful, valuable human being.  I was a better, more effective teacher because of what I learned from him.  And I deeply regret that his life was wasted the way it ultimately was. But to this very day, I will still go well out of my way and take risks to help wicked and wild little satyrs like he was, all dimple-faced and rude and not good with girls, because somebody needs to care.

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