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An inner-city teacher high school teacher describes her experiences teaching a class of students whose attitudes toward their education ranged from apathetic to openly hostile.
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LouAnne Johnson, a former Marine, teaches high school in California. Her first book, Making Waves, was about her experiences in the service.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
ONEMy Dog Ate ItI couldn't concentrate. Raul Chacon was standing in the middle of the parking lot outside my classroom, shivering in the freezing rain. It was a bitterly cold, dreary day in mid-January, but Raul, clad in his Parkmont gym shorts and T-shirt, stood with his eyes closed, his face turned up into the downpour. Several students and one teacher had tried to reason with him, but Raul was determined, for some unknown reason, to stand outside. I tried to ignore him, hoping he would grow tired of his game and rejoin the class, but he looked so pathetic with his sopping wet clothes clinging to his skinny arms and legs."Park your seats and zip your lips." I stared down the last few resisters and gave the class a final warning. "If you want to live to be old enough to get a driver's license, start writing and don't stop until I tell you to." They sat and they wrote, but I knew they'd be out of their seats, noses pressed to the windows, the moment I stepped outside."Raul!" I squished across the muddy grass. "What are you doing?" He didn't respond even when I stood directly in front of him. I put my hand on his shoulder."I'm okay, Miss J.," he said, without opening his eyes. "Don't worry. My real clothes are in my gym bag. I'm winning a bet!""I'll bet you that if you aren't in my room in two minutes, you're going to be very sorry. Do you understand?" I said. Raul opened his eyes and looked at me, surprised. Threats and orders weren't my style."Move!" I said, pointing to the door. Raul shrugged, sighed, and obediently sloshed across the yard and into the classroom, where the other students scrambled for their seats. I sent Raul to the restroom to dry off and change his clothes. When he returned, his best friend, Gusmaro Guevarra, handed him a navy blue down-filled jacket that swallowed Raul's wiry ninety-five-pound body as he sank into his chair and began writing along with the class.After a fifteen-minute free writing period, I assigned the students a short story to read from their literature books while I collected their journals. I had intended to keep Raul after class and give him a stern lecture, but I ended up giving him a hundred dollars instead. During the silent reading period, I had read his journal entry:Hi! Miss or Ms. or Mrs. Johnson, 1 know your probally thinking it was pretty stupid what I was doing but I don't care if I got wet because Julio gave me $20 to stand outside in the middle of the parking lot for 20 minutes while it was raining and I did it. He gave me the money as soon as I walked into class all soaked wet and dripping all over the floor--sorry. I stayed out there all those twenny minutes and I wasn't even cold because I knew I would get that money. No matter how fast the wind was blowing or how hard the water wasfalling I stayed out there until my time was done. I was thinking about the $20. And I would do it again. I would do just about anything you can think of for $20 even if everybody thinks I'm a dum ass.After class, Raul explained that he needed money to pay the man who had sold him the blue down jacket. He had already given the man forty dollars, but he didn't have the balance and the man had demanded full payment, or else."Why did you buy a jacket on the street instead of a store?" I asked. Raul sighed and shook his head at my naivete."You don't get no good deals in stores," he said. "You know how much this jacket would of costed in a store?" I looked at the jacket. It was expensive, all right, and it dawned on me that the jacket had probably been stolen and resold at a bargain price. I decided to save the issue of buying stolen goods for a later date and concentrate on the current crisis."How much money do you need?" I asked."A hundred dollars.""I'll lend you the money," I said. Raul shook his head."No way," he said, his face breaking into a lopsided grin. "I can't take your money. You're always telling us teachers are poor.""I'm not that poor," I insisted. "And I want to lend you this money. You can pay me back before you graduate. That will give you two and a half more years. Okay?" Raul hesitated for a few seconds."With interest?""No interest," I said."With interest," Raul insisted. "All loans have interest.""Okay," I agreed. "With interest. I'll get the money at lunchtime and you can stop by my room later and pick it up. And there is one condition that goes with the loan." Raul's face closed immediately."There's always a string, huh?" he said."Yes," I said. "And this is a big string, but I wouldn't attach it if I didn't love you. You can't pay me back until your graduation day."Raul drew in his breath and pursed his lips. He was a seventeen-year-old sophomore, which meant he'd be nineteen if he stayed in school to complete his senior year. He'd also be the first person in all the generations of his family to graduate. I knew that every day he was tempted to drop out and find a job to help support his large family. I also knew that he wanted an education."I'm counting on you to graduate, Raul," I said. "You know you can do it. Deal?" I held out my hand and held my breath. If Raul shook my hand, he'd kill himself to keep his word of honor. He shook my hand, then crooked his fingers and slid his hand down until it caught the ends of my fingers. With his left hand, he curled my fingers around his and placed our thumbs against each other."Deal."When Raul came to pick up the money, he asked me if I wanted a signature receipt. I told him his handshake was enough for me. Solemnly, he shook my hand again, bumped thumbs with me, and accepted the money. The next morning, he was waiting for me outside my classroom when I arrived. He pulled a sheet of folded notebook paper from his back pocket, handed me the paper, and walked away without a word. I was afraid he'd changed his mind about our deal."Dear Miss or Ms. or Mrs. Johnson, I know you aren't married, but you used to be married, so you might not be a Miss anymore, and Ms. Polk says we should call all the ladies Ms. but that don't sound too good," Raul had written.Last week, you told us to write in our journals about the nicest thing anybody ever did for us and I had to make something up because nobody never did nothing nice for me that I can remember before now. So I wrote you a lie because I know you like it when we write a hole bunch of stuff in our journals. I didn't want to lie, but I didn't want you to get mad at me for not writing in my journal. Anyway, what you did yesterday was the nicest thing and I think you did it because you think I am wonderful, honest, smart, and special! (That's what you always tell us anyway and I think you really believe it.) Anyway, I am going to work harder in school so I won't let you down because if you think I can make it then I can make it. I never did my own homework or tests before. Me and my posse always copy off whoever did it because we don't like to do homework and we can't be seen carrying books home. Besides, I don't got no time to do it anyway because I have to work almost every day after school. But I'm gonna try to do my own homework only don't be surprised if I flunk everything because I never did it before. Before, whenever my teachers asked me for my homework, I always told them that my dog ate it, but I don't got no dog so I won't tell you that lie because you trust me. And I don't know nobody else who would give $100 to a Mexican kid on a handshake.It had taken months to convince Raul that he was intelligent, that he could learn as well as the next person if only he would try. He was the jokester of his posse, a group of four Hispanic boys who lived on the East Side and banded together for protection and courage during the daily bus trip to the alien Caucasian planet of Parkmont. Although they were fiercely loyal, the posse's loyalty didn't extend to academic transcripts. The other three boys worked hard to create a juvenile delinquent image to offset their B grade averages, but Raul often failed his courses because his friends counted on him for entertainment during class and encouraged him to act the fool. In spite of his low grades and lack of confidence in his intellectual abilities, Raul's intelligence was obvious in his quick grasp of abstract concepts and his verbal agility. Although his essays sometimes drowned in grammatical errors, they were invariably original and demonstrated his astute perception. The other Academy teachers shared my assessment of Raul's potential; Raul remained the only person to be convinced.For a few weeks after our deal and Raul's vow to start doing his own work, his grades slid downhill, especially in math. Instead of copying his homework during the few minutes prior to class, he actually tried to do it at home. His math teacher, aware of Raul's "new leaf," encouraged him to continue in spite of the many errors in his work. The other teachers and I also bit our tongues and accepted the mangled papers Raul painstakingly prepared for us.Our patience paid off. Just two months after he started doing his own work, Raul got the highest grade in the class on a math test. He was ecstatic. The staff was delighted. Raul's posse was indignant. Since grade school, he had been their pet clown, their scapegoat,their primary source of amusement. Now, by accepting our encouragement and succeeding on his own, without their support, he had become a stranger. They taunted him and tried to distract him during class, but he refused to let go of his newfound freedom. He was a fierce fighter, even though he was one of the smallest boys in class at an even five feet.When the other boys--Gusmaro, Julio, and Victor--realized that Raul was not going to be intimidated, they gave up and halfheartedly joined him, complaining that the posse had lost its power because Raul had changed the group's focus. Instead of creating the "ruthless" (their highest compliment) street fighter image they had previously strived for, he had moved their group into the academic arena. Gusmaro followed directly in Raul's footsteps, with Julio and Victor trailing reluctantly behind, but determined to hang with the group. By the end of the first quarter, Raul had raised his grade point average from 1.5 to a respectable 2.8. For the first time in his life, his report card listed all passing grades, which inspired another burst of effort. By the time semester finals rolled around, Raul sat at the head of the class academically. He was the first one in class for the English final and the last one to leave. As I waited for him to complete his exam essay, I heard his stomach growl. I recognized the sound as one that I had heard several times during the exam, but at the time, I couldn't pinpoint its source."Raul, how many times have I told you that you need to eat something?" I asked. "Your brain needs fuel."He looked up from his paper and nodded at me but didn't say anything, which was unusual for him. It occurred to me that maybe there was no breakfast at his house. I knew his family didn't have much money. In his autobiography, Raul had written that his fatherhad completed only the third grade, his mother the second; neither of them could read or write more than a legal signature in any language. The oldest of nine children, Raul would be the first Chacon to graduate from high school--if he could hold out for two more years. There was pressure from his father to get a full-time job so that he could contribute to the family's meager income. His father was a landscape gardener, and often Raul had to work for him after school, in addition to handling his own job as a restaurant busboy."What did you have for breakfast today?" I asked. "Anything?""Beans," Raul said in a very tired voice. "That's what we have every day. Beans for breakfast. Beans for lunch. Beans for supper. I'm sick of beans so I didn't eat no breakfast today. That's why my stomach was making so much noise during the test. I'm sorry, Miss J. I tried to make it be quiet, but it didn't work. It just keeped on rumbling and squeaking and I hate that because some of the kids think that I'm farting--" I held up my hand to stop Raul's explanation."I'm not criticizing you," I said. "I just wanted you to know that it's important to eat breakfast so your brain will have some fuel for your morning classes.""Yeah," Raul agreed. "I was feeling pretty stupid today, but I didn't know it was because I was hungry. I thought it was just my old stupid brain coming back.""You aren't stupid," I argued. "But it's stupid not to eat anything at all. Can't you get a roll or an apple or something on the way to school?""I don't have time to get something because I usually just make the bus," Raul explained. "But don't worry, Miss J., I ain't gonna quit on you. You trusted me and I won't let you down." He glanced at the clock. "Igotta go or I'll be late!" Jamming his baseball cap onto his head, backward as usual, he grabbed his books. "And you don't have to worry about your hundred dollars, neither," he said as he headed for the door.
At the end of the semester, we gave "Academy awards" for academic performance, good behavior, perfect attendance, and overall improvement. The awards were simple paper certificates created on one of the computers in our school lab, but the kids accepted them as though they had been sent directly from the White House. For many of them, it was the first time in their lives that they had ever received positive recognition from school. Raul received the overall improvement award. I shot two rolls of film and sent a few photos, along with a short article, to the local newspapers. Two days later, Raul's grinning face appeared on the front page of the East Bay Reporter, a paper targeted at the minority readership in Raul's section of the city. That morning, Raul bounced into the classroom and graciously accepted the compliments and catcalls from his classmates. That afternoon, Raul walked into the boys' locker room and was stabbed in the stomach by a boy with a homemade knife.It made no sense. Raul had done nothing. He didn't even know the boy. But when I found out the boy's name--Alberto Mendoza--I felt as though I had been stabbed myself. Alberto had wanted to come into the Academy program, but we didn't accept him the first year because of his severely limited ability to read, write, or understand English. We had planned to invite him to join us at the start of the second year if his English had improved. Unfortunately, we didn't tell Alberto of our plan. Consumed by jealousy, he hadvented his frustration on Raul after he saw the photo in the paper.
Raul recovered quickly and was back in school in time for a special luncheon hosted by the elegant Hotel Le Bonne. As an incentive for academic progress, as well as to give them an opportunity to experience dining at a fine restaurant, the hotel management had "adopted" our Academy students and generously arranged to treat four students each month to a gourmet meal in the main dining salon, at tables set with fine linen, silver, and crystal.Raul was among the first to be chosen for the luncheon. When his name was announced, he jumped out of his chair, shot his right fist into the air, and yelled, "Yes!" He didn't want to see the sample menu the hotel provided for the students to preview. He had only one question: Did they have chicken? Chicken was his favorite dish and a rare treat at...
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