A quick side note: I am not these kids’ teacher, I am their para (a gentle and dignified way to say, hall monitor). I took this job as a way to avoid hitting my debt ceiling. I am a 22-year-old recent grad with bills demanding more money than I have ever seen in my life. Boo hoo, right?
With my index finger, I scroll down the list of students that have yet to set up parent-teacher conferences. Most of the time mom and dad aren’t reachable so we rely on the kids to get it done. Sipping on my Columbian coffee, and rolling my shoulders to get the cricks out, I start scratching down names. With each one that write, I fleet in and out of their story. At least what I think they are. In any case, they all scare me.
I sit at a small desk in a corner of two hallways jutting out like an L. If this were geometry, I would be the box of the right angle. It gives me an infinite view of the entire complex. This is my crows nest.
My job is strange because I am not so much of an enforcer as I am an encourager. 99% of what the kids do at this school would be totally unacceptable in others, but here, it’s cool. Just the other day I turned a corner and caught a girl smoking an E-Cigarette INside.
As I pointed my bony finger directly at her, a teacher stepped right in between us. Hands raised like this was a hold up and she “was a friend”.
“She’s two years behind. Please. She needs to be here.”
Rules are rules, but they are bit irrelevant at this place. Especially, if they’re the difference between a drop out and a diploma.
Some call our school Assholes Last Chance, but it’s actually the Area Learning Center.
…The former may be more fitting though.
Or, “the Island of Misfit toys” would do.
We have burnouts and felons. Parole Officers pay us visits weekly. We have kids with test scores just a hair to high to be considered challenged. We have kids in treatment and those that get stoned in the car ride to school. Quite often with a parent at the wheel.
And we have teen moms and dads, and lots and lots of pregnant girls. About a third of the girls here have children of their own. The day care center is just down the hall from their Math class. We have been informed that a couple of them are carrying child number two, but hallway whispers suggest there’s more than that.
I flip through the pages, going line by line, and with each one I see their story. A parent-teacher conference is likely the most time these kids have spent with their folks in awhile. They despise them. They feel cheated by them. And yet, many end up just like them. Monkey see monkey do.
I frequently ask the school Principal if there is anything I can do to make things better for them. It’s heartbreaking to watch. I won’t ever forget what she said to me,
“You are in a unique position here. Understand that. There are some places you can go that the rest of us can’t.”
And she was right. My box in the corner of the right angle is something of a watering hole. These teens know that I am not going to scold them or rub their noses in the ground like grown ups do. Uncensored conversations about what’s most pressing require a safe zone—a place free from expectations and consequences. A place where they can cuss, be crude, and bleed out right before me.
They really don’t have anywhere else to go. And they really don’t have much to lose with me.
As the day begins and students start filing in the door; I drop the forms and take them to breakfast. Scanning the room, my eyes find her. It is one of the young moms I know best. She’s sixteen and I’ve been worried about her lately.
She lets me in further than any of the staff, but I’m still held at arms length. Her walls come with spikes. I’ve noticed, as of late, her figure has been getting bigger and not in a normal way. It felt too organized. Too much rhythm. Too much glow in her skin. Too much hair on her head. Too long of nails.
Her and her boyfriend are a couple of the greatest kids around. While the relationship is anchored more to obligation than to love, they make it work somehow. They are just sixteen years old. Knowing about the first baby was hard enough, and sitting across from her, afraid for her, my mind again started rolling tape on their next ten years…
She’s in the kitchen boiling cabbage cause they can’t afford to eat much. He’s on the couch watching the game smoking a bowl. I hear her screaming at him to just “shut the fucking thing off!” as the little ones play with plastic bags on the floor. They are hoarders and thieves and a shadow of their sixteen-year-old selves. Standing side by side brushing their teeth in the bathroom mirror, they start to see the faces of their parents emerge. Shoulders shrug.. Whatever.
“We had a fight the other night.”
I wake from my nightmare thinking, Oh no… its already started.
“What happened?” I ask.
“Same shit,” she said, cereal littered on her teeth. “I don’t really want to talk about it.”
So we don’t, and we just sit and talk about other things. She fills me in on the Kardashians and on a job she just applied to and how her friends are being bitches. I have an autopilot switch for times like these.
Back in my box a few hours later- I see her storm out of class. Growling like a pit bull, she pulls up a chair, folds her arms on the desk and slams her face into them. This isn’t really unusual. The teacher comes out to ask her to come back in, and with a nod and a smile I wave her off. This girl had some steam coming from her ears, there was no sense in trying to study. Looking up at me, eyes of anger not tears, she started telling me about the fight with her boyfriend. It was over completely shallow things that only teens would fight about. I’m starting to suspect changing hormones.
As she groans on about it, I hear the annoying creak of the door down the left hallway. And then I laugh. You can’t make this crap up.
There he was, like a knight in the nick of time, cradling their little bundled one up in his arms.
“What are you doing here!” she screams and laughs and runs to him. “I thought you were too mad to come today. And why is our little booger here!? Heeeyy baby!”
They kiss and make up and my nightmare starts clashing with the now.
I felt happy about the family reunion, but for some reason I felt like I shouldn’t be. Somehow I was doing something wrong. Not enforcing or encouraging but enabling. This is very bad, I thought, they are sixteen and they still aren’t safe because she may be having another one. And the tape rolls on and I feel uncomfortable now.
But then, they bring their little one over to me. I hold him up to my face as he blows bubbles of spit, the only time spit is ever cute. I watch the three play peek-a-boo and kiss his belly. A glowing exchange of love takes place. Something is happening. She takes him and rocks him like a pendulum. Kind of like knowing the sound of someone’s steps, she always knows when her baby is going to get fussy. Dad beams and laughs at how it looks like she’s dancing, and does a little impression of his own. She teases him back, and then the baby starts crying and they jump into protocol. He brought the pacifier and she had his blankey in her backpack.
And I get it.
The same way that the rules don’t really apply to them, they don’t have to apply to me either. Especially if they are the difference between grace and indifference. In moments like these, they are useless. Trying to control how I feel is like trying to catch leaves in the wind. They move too fast and fly too high. I could catch a few and dwell on imaginary images that may come true, but all I’m left with is a spirit much darker than before. One that can’t love, can only condemn.
Unlike the box in my corner, the rules of the school or the norms of this life, grace cannot be bounded. You can’t fence it in. Like energy, it is only be passed along. I am just a link in a long chain of good people that have given it to me. I have evolved more through laughter and empathy than lectures and correction. I am tone deaf to judgment and when I hear it, I run the other way. But when someone comes in close and tells me they’re happy I made it. Happy I’m here. Happy to be with me, warts and all. Those few words are transformative.
So I sit and smile awkwardly at a cute little family of misfits. The words of the Principal come rushing back like a gust of wind. And suddenly, I am thankful for the places that only I can go.