Friday, July 20, 2007

A Ghost from My Past

Five years ago, in an effort to help out a friend who was struggling in the classroom, I took on Pedro Lopez. Pedro was a puffed up 6th grade boy, startlingly attractive, scarred by grief, piercingly intelligent….and willful. And boisterous. And mischievous. In sum, Pedro was more than a first-year teacher could handle. When he would get out of line, his teacher would send him to my 7th grade class, where at first I was forced to break down his tough exterior through stern insistence, and later he blossomed into a participant in the class, a hanger-on at lunch, and a joyful part of my day.

The next year Pedro was part of my 7th grade class. Still head-strong and arrogant, he quietly became a reader, a writer of poems, and finally an actor. Outside of my room, however, Pedro still did not get along. An angry young boy, he was still grieving for his mother’s untimely death from years before. Other family members of his had been victims of street violence, which I believe now he must have actually witnessed. His PE teachers sent him to the dean constantly, he was always threatening to fight some of the older kids, and his bluster just could not be contained. Except when he was in my class.

I loved Pedro fiercely, and it became my daily mission to “save” him. I got him into a gang prevention program. I got him grief counseling. I met with his sister, who was the guardian of all four of her younger brothers; she was only 22. I chose books for him that dealt with grief, anger, violence, and teen angst. By the end of the year, I believed the spell had been broken. Silly, na├»ve, young, young me.

In 8th grade, Pedro had mostly first-year teachers again (a common thing in poor, urban schools). They did not pass his rigorous tests for reliability, trustworthiness, and grit. I saw him in the hallways everyday, and it nearly broke my heart. Once he popped his head in my classroom door after having been kicked out of his class; he had small, round, multi-colored stickers covering his face like a mask. He was dancing and showing off…for me? For my students? My heart sank. I had lost him. Without having him in my daily clutches, I didn’t know how to proceed.

Pedro graduated (well, he advanced to the next grade, but there were no robes involved) and that was that. I gave him my cell phone number, although I never heard from him. A few years later, I was filling in for the library media teacher whose place I have since taken when a younger version of Pedro showed up in the library. Jonathan, his younger brother, was harder and meaner than Pedro had been. He was unimpressed with my affection for his brother, and I suspect my hellos and best wishes were never conveyed. I had given up any hope that Pedro would someday come back into my life.

Until yesterday. A shorter, longer-haired Pedro came up the library stairs, out of uniform, chewing gum, singing a loud and rowdy song. His name is Chris, and he is a marvel. Along with his 6th grade class, Chris listening eagerly as I gave my orientation presentation. He was out of his chair, bouncing around behind it as I described the magazines and comic books we have to offer. He bounded around the library, glowing with the radiant intelligence and humor that I always saw in Pedro. I asked him to say hello to his big brother, but tried not to expect anything. Chris came back today. He said Pedro says hello in return and that he would love to visit me sometime. My heart was in my throat as I looked down at this replica, so happy to have been reminded of how Pedro changed my life.

Although he couldn’t possibly know it, working with Pedro is what made me a decent educator. From him I learned the possibilities and the heartbreaking limitations of my role in each student’s life. More than anyone or anything else, Pedro made me want this job. I haven’t allowed myself to think of him often in the recent past; it makes me worried and anxious to imagine that he might not be happy or safe or at peace. But now there’s Chris. Chris is happy, or at least he seems to be. This is a good sign, and it gives me hope.

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