I have spent the majority of my teaching career teaching Spanish speakers in South Texas. So, believe me when I say that for a gringo like me, there has to be some kind of art to it. I have taught so many surly, excessively macho boys and very feminine, but definitely aggressive girls, that I think I may have found an insight or two on how to do it.
First, you must be brave. And you must recognize that bravery means remaining outwardly calm while on the inside your heart is pounding wildly and you are fighting not to wet your pants. My first year we had to walk our eighth grade boys to and from the cafeteria four blocks away on another campus. I, being a rookie teacher, was given the delightful job of forcing the two most evil vato locos (crazy dudes) to return to classes and schoolwork after lunch instead of wandering off for the afternoon. I had to face down El Mouse and El Talan and convince them to catch up to the rest of the class without killing me. I have to say, at that point I did not have a forceful personality and could not give the laser eye of death that all South Texas teachers need to develop. I didn’t make the mistake of saying please, but implied I could actually do something to them to make their lives more miserable if they didn’t let themselves be herded along like cattle. El Talan picked up a metal fence post as if it was a baseball bat, and I got the chance to review my whole short life for a few tense seconds. But they relented. I didn’t show fear, and they put down the post and sauntered on with their lives. I got them back to the corral for afternoon classes. Both of them went to prison after dropping out of school. Both of them are dead now. One was killed by a rival drug dealer. I made the mistake of telling that tale to my mother. At the time, she nearly submitted my resignation for me.
Second, I learned you must have a heart. Veteran teachers told me that I should not smile before winter break, and even then, I should only smile at students’ misfortunes. That advice turned out to be a vat of puppy doo. I learned early on that students are people. They have feelings. They will return what they get. Unfortunately they often dish out what they get from other teachers, from parents, and even from local law enforcement. But more than once I was given a kid that everyone else said was a bad kid, and I treated that kid like a human bean… er, I mean being… and was forever after that kid’s favorite teacher, and someone that they would do anything for. I was one of those teachers who kids return to visit. Faces would appear in my doorway often like so many blooming flowers, blossoms lit up with sunshine. They would be high school kids who came back to get an encouraging word, or graduates coming by to tell me how successful they were. Often they came because of something they remembered from class. They felt they had to share their sunshine. Believe me, sometimes it was vital to me to be able to continue to get a little of that sunlight in the midst of daily darkness.
I have to confess, I did not reach every kid. Some have made poor choices and died from them. Some have turned to the dark side of the force and are unrepentantly Darth Vader. Some I could not stand and did everything in my power to extinguish their bad behaviors with punishments that never worked. Some that I could not stand were among the ones that came back to visit too. Funny how you can do everything you possibly can to defeat a kid, and they will still come around, still tell you that you were their favorite teacher, and the only thing they remembered about middle school was something that happened in your classroom. It’s not even always something you want them to remember.
The kid in today’s Paffooney was not one of the bad ones. Manuel was the son of a border patrol agent. He was smart. He knew what was right and what was wrong. I don’t know where he is now, or what he is doing, but I believe in him, and I know he was worth every effort I ever put into teaching him.