Daily I sit and listen to my students cry or just vent. I hand them paper towels because I have still failed to go by the store to grab a box of Kleenex. When they vent, I am still and I actively listen. I look at their body language, I listen to their words and typically every encounter ends with a hug and I remind them to go to counseling. Most of them do not go to counseling and they ask me not to push them to go to counseling. I don’t worry about many, but in the past those that I have worried about, I walk them to counseling services.
I have one young man this year that sends me messages almost daily to ensure I am going to meet with him in the library. We have a day during the week that we meet in the library and honestly he doesn’t need me there with him, but we discuss the assignments he has done throughout the week;, I remind him again what he has to do for my class, although he knows; and we learn about each other via simple conversations. He doesn’t need me there, but I am certain it is because I am holding him accountable for his actions. He is afraid to fail. I have called a number of my contacts to help him and encourage him during our weekly interactions. He takes notes sometimes and asked me one day, “How do you know all of these people?”
I write an inmate. I met this guy my sixth grade year at Huntington Middle School. He was a trouble maker and constantly suspended. Whether it was in-school or out of school, he was suspended. I wrote him a letter after I was searching the web almost sixteen years ago with my middle school year book next to me. I began teaching that year and I was at an alternative school. I taught kids that reminded me of him; the desire to be loved, engaged, but afraid, and hopeless because no one taught them self-efficacy. I took a bold step and sent him a letter and a couple of weeks later he sent me a birthday card. He remembered my birthday; June 1. I had not spoken with him or communicated with him in about seven years at that point and he remembered my birthday. He also remembered other things and was elated that I sent him a letter. Sixteen years (mostly continuously) we write and email each other. The second letter I sent him opened up conversations that helped me to become a better educator, better person, and will always remind me of the importance of remaining grounded.
I took a red pen and corrected his letter and mailed it back to him. I am certain I said something about you literally have nothing but time to write in Standard American English (pun and sarcasm intended). Over the years I learned about his living conditions as a young boy, I learned about sexual assaults made by teachers that we trusted, and I have had the opportunity to become acquainted with one of his five children that he had before he was eighteen years old. I recall him sending me a copy of his GED. That letter was full of excitement and I was proud. He admitted to being pretty much illiterate in middle school. Through is letters he shares how embarrassed he was when called to read aloud. I would send him worksheets that my middle school students were completing to help him with his writing. I praised him for all that he does and I also share what I have going on with him now and then. He praises me and one of the things that he always says to me is how proud he is of me. That makes my heart happy because he knows what Newport News, VA or what we call BadNewz was like. He has shared that I am his therapist and each time I plan to visit him in prison, I become scared because I have never visited a prison, although I have taught GED courses for ex-prisoners. I have read so much and I have listened to friends who have been to prison share their nightmares that I am unsure if I am ready to visit him.
I always leave the letters in the open and from my son’s younger years, I read them with him in hopes that he learns from the mistakes of this former classmate. He shared one of his son’s is in prison now. I watched my own son’s face when he read that part of the letter a while ago.
Whenever I am asked what he did, I always share I don’t really know because not only was I not there, but I have truly forgotten his charges. Each email or letter has shown me why our education system has to do a better job. He left five kids in this crazy world that loves to follow those generational curses. He never denies his wrong doing, but knowing his story is like many of those students that sit in my office using my hard paper towels (I promise I’m going to get Kleenex today) and share their hardships, their horrible encounters with educators, forces me to be a better human. He lives vicariously through the world of letters and emails that he receives. I am not always so great with sharing with him, but when I do write letters, I sit down and write very long ones.
One of his daughters who approved of me using her name), Skaakira De’Janae Carr was excited a few weeks ago to be approved for food stamps. She has lived her entire life via foster care and while we can make assumptions about choices that were made by both her parents, we should not. She shared that “…not having my dad in my life, [she] gets attached to the wrong men and hold on tight to them because I don’t want nobody to leave me or I feel like I have to have a man I my life to always make me happy.” She actually desires to be a lawyer to “work on bringing him home so we can replace all the times he wasn’t here with me…I pray about it all the time because sometimes I do feel lonely and something I always wish for was a family.” As educators, we are not mindful of the big picture. We are not just there to teach content, but we are also the gatekeepers to ensure students with such bad lives like Robert Hines are pushed towards their goals. One conversation that I will never forget is his statement sharing he never even set goals for himself because he saw what our environment did to their youth.
As a lifelong educator, whose desires are advocating for our youth by sometimes “fussing” at them to make smarter decisions, going out into their environments to truly understand their conditions, and hugging them when most never get hugs, this is what I find is key to progressing in our educational arena. Daughters and sons like Shaakira should have the same advantages and much of it begins in the educational arena where our students spend so much time. While we cannot change the world, we can take moments to actively listen and put down our red pens to help the next child.
Part II of Robert’s story will be available soon!