She scrunches her eyes at nothing in particular. Two more tears, one to each cheek, roll slowly. I sit down across the table.
“He was in the back seat. In the middle.”
As if on the movie set of her life, upon her a radiant late September sun casts through the window. Shadowed from the sunlight, as we adults often are from the drama of our young people, I ponder the physiology of tears: can they ever run dry?
Class, the last of the day, has just ended. After saying goodbye to the others, I return to the room; she has remained in her seat, staring ahead. Her tears are rolling for the third time in the year.
Her senior year in high school, this is our first class together, a composition class. Bit by bit through the early weeks of school, she has released some of her life’s narrative. Through conversations. Through a few partially completed assignments. Through compelling college application essays. Through questions about life beyond the sector of urban, Chicago life.
Her hunger for college is as strong as any I’ve witnessed; her struggle with Murder, Inc. may be even more powerful than that hunger. Her resilience and resourcefulness will tell the tale.
“But, you’re not getting it.” That is true. The narrative she has been telling seems way too cinematic, bullet casings dropping on hot pavement as young men packed into a sedan get all shot up. Young men she loves.
She continues, “They were both in the back seat. My brother and my boyfriend, James. He was the one in the middle.”
During summers, but especially in August, America’s teachers prepare their hearts and minds for the extraordinary beauty of the new school year. New students, new learning, new challenges, new rewards. By the previous June, an exhilarating exhaustion has arrived, the price of a school year fully invested — mind, body, spirit. Summer brings reflection and necessary re-creation. August hearkens the new beauty, and teachers must be ready, mind, body, and spirit.
Society’s mandate to educators is clear. For the viability of its own future, and, of course, for its children, society demands, “Teachers, educate our children’s minds and hearts.”
Teachers welcome this demand, knowing that doing so will incur sometimes excruciating costs. Never has a teacher told me otherwise, no matter the school or setting. Moments in teaching may feel easy, natural. Natural moments that are even . . . prolonged. The emotional reach of a school year, however, demands all that the teacher can offer.
As the year progresses, I come to understand that her boyfriend, the father of her newborn, had been murdered while sitting in the middle of the backseat. To his side, her brother had been paralyzed from the waist down. It was a drive-by-then-stop-and-get-out-and-use-a-submachine-gun killing. And paralysis.
Today, a local headline symbolizes a monstrous challenge to our society’s educational mandate, “Weekend of Violence Claims 10 Shooting Victims across Chicago,” where ten were killed and at least forty-nine wounded in one Chicago weekend. To our young, the scourge of societal violence is becoming a sanctioned sport, to the death. So, they participate in starring and supporting roles, sometimes shooters, more often victims. In cities, and increasingly so in suburbs and rural areas. Into hospitals they go, into morgues, prisons, probation, detention centers, drug treatment programs, counseling programs . . .
Tomorrow, teachers in Chicago and across the nation will stand in front of daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, boyfriends, girlfriends, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and friends of those ravaged by the violence. And, try to teach them.
While standing there, empathic as possible, teachers will teach discrete skills, the leaves, to young people who are listening less and less. Living on the set of society’s inability to address the causes of its violence and chaos, today’s young people increasingly are making their own demands: “What does our society’s addiction to numbers, regarding stuff like how we test on grammatical adverbials, have to do with our lives?”
Educators know that discrete skills have plenty to do with the young person’s future, but not without the forest of real world context. Our young people demand that educators, agents of society’s future, listen to their personal narratives — their hunger in conflict with the literal and figurative violence of our society. Society demands numbers from leaf-based testing; young people demand meaning from the forest. Therein lies our society’s greatest hunger game, where teachers are required to monitor the leaves, watching then to see how many young people, especially in urban areas, will survive to graduate from high school.
Toward the end of our conversation, as she gets up to leave, I notice that she wears no mascara; the grime of life just makes it seem so. Like Katniss during battle . . .