Teachers like me often say, “There are no bad kids.”
And, boy! Are we ever wrong when we say something as dumb as that.
To be fair, when teachers like me say something like that, a clueless liberal-minded comment that reveals fatal levels of idealism, morality, and even faith in God, we are really saying that there is way to reach every kid and make the difference for them… if only we are given the tools, the time, and a decent amount of incentive. To go in front of a hostile audience five, six, or seven times a day, up to thirty of them in a classroom made for twenty, and teach them something worth learning requires an unquestioning belief in miracles, and a foolish notion that somehow goodness and light always win out. And often they do. But exceptions prove the rule… And the need for rules. Because there are some very bad kids in this world.
The first hour of the first day of my very first year as a gringo teacher in a mostly Spanish-speaking junior high school in deep South Texas contained two eighth grade boys who would die violently from gunshots.
Osvaldo “Ocho” Sotello put a gun in his own mouth and pulled the trigger after finally getting released from prison after serving five years of a sentence for armed robbery. He was guilty of that crime and many others he was never caught doing. But he was put in prison at eighteen, and repeatedly raped by other members of the Mexican Mafia because he had given himself teardrop tattoos by his right eye and had never killed anyone to earn that gang sign.
And Lorenzo “El Loco Talan” Marquez would die in a hail of bullets from the guns of rival drug dealers on the streets of Encinal, Texas. His family watched in horror as it happened. Neither of the names I gave those boys in this essay are their real names. But the gang names are real. And their life outcomes are real. And I even had to teach the son of El Talan when he reached eighth grade.
Both of those boys are proof of the idea that there really are bad kids out there. Evil kids even. But those two boys were both sixteen in the eighth grade because they failed seventh grade twice and had been “placed” in the eighth grade especially to welcome me into the jolly world of classroom management and discipline. Those were tough kids. They refused to do anything I asked of them.
They were disrespectful to me in both Spanish and English. And I am grateful for their tutoring of me in a wide range of profanity and swear words in Spanish. At one point, walking them back to class from another campus after lunch, El Talan picked up a metal fence post and was going to use it on me like a club because I tried to hurry them up and interfered with their plans to ditch afternoon classes.
Some kids are bad kids because they have been mishandled, mistreated, and misunderstood by all of their parents, relative, teachers, coaches, and classmates before you even meet them for the first time. Their paths are already set in stone. Fossilized footprints made rock-hard-certain a million years before they should’ve been set in stone. I had no chance to make any improvements on them.
Another bad kid I had my very first year of teaching was not really named Alonzo Angel Diablo (but certainly should’ve been named that.)
Alonzo was the older cousin of a kid in that class, Fernando, that I really liked and tried hard to help through two years in the eighth grade. But Alonzo was definitely too old and set in his criminal ways to be reached. Alonzo’s problem was that he was a gay young man living in a Catholic/Hispanic culture that actively persecuted gays. His own family had disowned him and treated him like a criminal. So, he was one. I had to get him expelled from school by reporting him for threatening the life of another student. Prior to that incident the boy had harassed me at the Halloween Carnival (a fund-raising event that the Baptist Church later made us rename the Harvest Festival.) He forced Fernando to sexually proposition me, and when I rebuffed that nonsense, he offered to do it himself. It would lead to a later discussion in which he revealed to me his sexual orientation and asked me for forgiveness. He was relentlessly bad. But he later contacted me as an adult and thanked me for being his teacher. I never taught him anything, but it was important to him to show me that he had a job and had achieved adulthood without further violence or jail time. If he’s still making his way in this world more honestly than he did before, I am happy for him. But It was all his own doing. I could do nothing for him as a teacher.
There very definitely are bad kids. But they are not all irredeemable. And I know conservatives and Old School types would prefer that we just threw all of them in jail to rot forever. I, however, like to think there is still room in this world for stupid liberal notions of making kids less bad through education, patience, and the Grace of God.