I assigned Bryant books to read, projects to create, topics on which to reflect. He endured all of this with indifference. For a month he sat in a chair just staring the fake wood of the table. He didn’t even have a cell phone to play with.
I decided he needed to have motivating conversations with me. We talked once a day. Our conversations were generally one-sided: I told Bryant about the importance of doing his work, while Bryant nodded in agreement, or shook his head with regret. When our conversations ended Bryant continued to sit and stare, while I went off to attend to someone else.
After a couple weeks of this Bryant must have gotten tired of our routine. I don’t like school, he said candidly, not confrontationally. I’m not going to be here much longer. I dropped out last year but they made me come back.
I’m going to start working at my uncle’s auto shop, he said. When I start that I won’t have to come anymore.
By late September he was gone. They made me mark him absent for a while, but then in October his name disappeared from my roster too, and I gradually forgot about him.
Some would say school failed Bryant. They’d say that with better teachers or a stronger disciplinary approach, this boy would not have been able to flounder in school. He might have grown up to be a strong reader, a competent essay writer in English and Spanish, a deep, critically thinking, academically inspired student. He might have flourished and gotten a scholarship to a four-year state college.
But Bryant told me he was excited about cars, and he showed me that school work rendered him comatose. Recently his mother had told him he should graduate, and he knew she was right, but these were just words. Teachers had always suggested this sort of thing offhandedly, with no heart behind it. Mostly, the behavior of the people in school just confirmed what the world had been telling him implicitly for as long as he could remember. He gleaned from his environment that he should accept a certain place in society, based on the country his family had emigrated from, based on the hue of his skin and the language he spoke at home. By the time Bryant was fully aware of these messages that had informed his self-concept since birth, he was only prepared to acquiesce. He may or may not have been contented by what he had become–I didn’t know him well enough to really know. But there were too many other factors, too many experiences he’d had that had fallen in line with a particular narrative, and had cemented his identity. If anybody in school were to advise him to rethink his path, Bryant just brushed it off.
That year I had a hundred students like Bryant. They all lived in the same part of northwest Aurora, Colorado, the same couple of blocks. Many of their parents were in fact from the same region in Mexico. They were all squeaking by with C and D averages, doing an assignment every once in a while. I was supposed to fail them to send them yet another message; simultaneously, I was supposed to convince them to do their schoolwork so they could stop getting Cs and Ds. I was to be corrective hard-ass and trusted moral support. Realistically I was not qualified to be either.
How had it fallen on me, a white boy from a fourth-generation American family, a New Yorker who’d attended a small liberal arts college, a person with a full-time job, a savings account and a bourgeois lifestyle–how had it fallen on me to upend an entire social paradigm, ingrained in my students’ minds, with mere lesson plans and relentless pep talks?
The more I’d gotten to know Bryant and his classmates, the more I respected them. The more I was proud of them. The more I understood them, the more I understood myself, and the more I realized how little I had to offer as their guide.