I wrote the following on the last day of class. For some reason I never published it. So here it is, three weeks or so late!
Reading final papers is always interesting. It’s the moment when I get a sense of whether or not what I’ve done over the quarter has been worthwhile. In my 70 class, which is two classes below collegel level, I tried a different approach, and wasn’t so happy. I don’t think the final papers were as good as I’d have liked them to be, but a couple of students wrote well, and as always I learned something. One student, working on his draft, wrote the following sentence about a fire that had almost destroyed his home:
“Then the police officer took me to the back of my house. There he found a graffiti that read F*** You Scrap 187 with a seventeen being crossed out. Scrap is a word used to insult the set we claimed. By crossing out the 17 is how the rivals disrespect your numbers.”
He was a former gang member. (OK, for some inexplicable reason WordPress has changed my font, and I don’t know how to change it back!) The fire, set by rivals, which came close to killing family members, had been targeted at him personally (17 was his gang number). At the moment he saw the words on the back of his gutted house, he realized how destructive his life style was. Now he is back in school, sitting quietly in the back of the class, taking notes, smiling shyly when I call on him to read. He tells me he read Monster by Walter Dean Myers, and that it changed his life. (It’s now on my list to read. I love to learn more about my students.)
Given where I live, his story is not uncommon. In the developmental classes, where I ask for more personal writing, I hear stories of gang membership, drive by shootings, initiation rituals. I’ve seen scars from bullet wounds, met the babies of young girls who left the gangs when they found out they were pregnant, read one paper that began, “Most people have firefighters or police officers as their heroes, and if that’s what their dads are, they’re proud. I was proud of my dad too, but he wasn’t a fire fighter. He was the leader of one of the biggest gangs in L.A., and I wanted to be just like him.”
Sometimes I see these students for one quarter, and then they disappear into other English classes, or they drop out, or they transfer. Sometimes I follow them as they pass through some or all of my classes, and watch them mature and change, and eventually graduate. When I read their stories, I feel privileged to know that I’ve been a small part of what gave them the courage and confidence to continue in the face of the odds that would have stopped many less determined people.