Teachers are not supposed to fall in love with students. Of course, when the school district tells you that, at the beginning of the year, they are talking mostly about high school students, and they are talking exclusively about romantic love. I have never had a real problem with that rule. Romantically, little half-brained and totally immature middle school students are downright icky. Especially the walking, talking, and sometimes farting middle school boys.
But schools, even though they can’t really say it, and some administrators don’t believe they want it to be so, they want teachers to have “teacher love” for students. That means, in a vaguely defined way in administrative brains compatible with the real meaning of “fully funded,”that they want teachers to become surrogate mothers and fathers to students, the kind of love you have for an orphan you have adopted because you can plainly see they need someone… anyone… to love them and care for them… no matter how ugly they might be on the outside.
“To be a good teacher, you gotta learn to love ugly,” Head Principal Watkins said to us all for the two years he managed to love our faculty. And he meant it. I was not the only teacher I heard him tell, “You are a wonderful teacher because you care about kids.” And he meant it. Not like most principals.
But when you see a picture of David, the way he was back then, you can see he was not ugly. Just his situation was ugly.
He was one of six kids that lived with his single mother in the housing project for low-income families. His mother had, at the time the principal called me into his office, been cited by authorities twice for neglect of her children.
“Mike, I know you have mentored and helped several kids outside of school. And we have a boy coming into your seventh grade class that we would like for you to help out however you can. We know you went through the whole social-services and foster-parent training from San Antonio. And David Gutierrez could really use a bit of a boost from you,” the Head Principal told me behind closed doors.
Boy, was that ever an understatement. I was spending considerable time hanging out with the pretty blond reading teacher. The first time I cooked for her, fried hamburgers and instant mashed potatoes, David had a plate already at the tiny table in my little apartment. And, skinny little thing that he was, he ate three quarters of all the food I had badly cooked. Annabel didn’t mind. And not because the burgers were burnt and the potatoes were runny… I am still not a great cook. She would become David’s second mom for those next three years. She gave him as much if not more “teacher love” than I did.
He was not a good student in any of his classes. But he was an adequate reader, and he actually improved noticeably in the time he was hanging out with us.
But he gave us a turn during that first fall when he got sick. He had the seventh grade History teacher first period every morning. And one day in October he reported to class all listless and red-eyed, And Mrs. Finch was a sharp and capable teacher, knowing what drug problems looked like, and what they didn’t look like. She sent him to the nurse. It was a fever of one-hundred-and-three degrees. The parent was called, but the parent didn’t answer. So, immediately after school Annabel and I took him directly from the nurse’s office to the doctor. And after it was determined he had a bad sinus infection, we took him to my place and put him in the spare bedroom (all apartments on North Stewart Street were two-bedroom, but there was only one of me.) Annabel stayed with him while I filled the prescription for antibiotics. We got him dosed and rested at least before his mother returned from her cleaning job in Laredo, sixty miles south. We told her everything that happened. And she took him home. His two older sisters took over nursing duty.
But when the school contacted the doctor, it was explained that the infection was severe mainly because David was malnourished and dangerously anemic. Of course, that was evidence of neglect and had to be reported.
In order to avoid having to give up custody to the State his mother moved him to Laredo, closer to her work. Both of the older sisters, Bunny and Bea had advised their Mom to give him to Annabel and me. But, of course, we were not married and in no position to become his actual parents.
So, David spent two months in Laredo, calling me every night from a pay phone. His grades in school tanked. He was miserable and lonely.
The problem was worked out in David’s family. His older brother sent money every month to his two older sisters. And Bunny had a job and kept the apartment in Cotulla for herself. So, as a compromise, since Bea was already living there with Bunny to attend high school, David came back to live with them, along with his younger sister. They returned to the school where all their friends were.
Through the rest of David’s seventh grade until the end of high school he was like a son to me. He was constantly at my place, playing computer games, watching VHS movies, and charming my girlfriend. (Annabel had the apartment next door for three of the next four years.) I played games with him. I fought with him about getting his homework done. I basically did the Dad-thing for him, something no other man had ever been bothered to do. In later years he would work as a substitute teacher for me. He would introduce me to new girlfriends. And the last time I saw him, in Uncle Moe’s Mexican Restaurant, he introduced his pregnant wife to me and my wife.
In Hebrew, the name David means, “Beloved.” Hence, that’s the only part of his name in this essay that is real.