Saturday, October 15, 2016

Love Song to My Students

"When my Dad sees this," C said, holding his first report card, "I'm going to be the new IronMan." 
"How?" I said.
"Imma have a hole punched right through my chest."

I howled. He laughed, too, but it clearly wasn't that funny to him. He was the one, after all, who had to go home to face his Dad with bad grades.

C. is one of my favorites. Last year, when he was a tall, skinny freshman, he performed at City of Asylum with my film students and the music kids. He sang Am I Wrong by Nico & Vinz in a wide-brimmed black felt hat, with a three-foot red pheasant feather hanging out of the back. The kid can sing, beautifully, one thin wrist raised high, imploring-- "AM I WRONG???"-- and he moonwalked all over the stage, bumping the pretty girls, upperclassmen, who were his backup singers. Poor C. Even during his glory moment-- during his actual moment in the spotlight-- he was annoying girls. 

M. joined the Gay-Straight Alliance this year, but not easily. I turned him away. I actually threw him out, several times, thinking he was joking, or being a jerk, or just wanted to chow on the pizza I order every week for the club I sponsor for our school. He kept coming back, asking to join, refusing to touch the pizza. I let him in. He's made some crazy suggestions-- let's raise money for the GSA by having a Powder Puff football game!-- but when somebody talks about being harassed for being LGBT, or different, or weak, or whatever-- M.'s eyes go cold. He is as hurt and angry as the rest of us.

We designed Little Free Libraries last year for the neighborhoods on the North Side, and M.'s was stunning. This big kid, for whom football is vitally important, spent hour after hour painstakingly drawing-- freehand-- the Roberto Clemente and Andy Warhol bridges, and then painting them in exquisite detail, each plate girder and eye-bar in place.

I'm a morning person. Every day, I stand in the hall at Perry with Library passes, greeting kids as they walk in. I am there, inevitably in a dress, wearing a crazy, bright shiny necklace (it's kind of my thing) doing a stand-up routine like a caffeinated Effie Trinket.  I don't know where it comes from, but as kids walk in, I have to bleat like a sheep at them. There's a kid whose name sounds like part of a Hebrew prayer. So I sing the prayer to her. Every day. I tell kids they look good. I tell them it's good to see them. I say Yo a lot. I say Hello, Perrrryyyyyyyy! If they are wearing blue I congratulate them on wearing the school color. I don't know. Having an excess of personality in the morning is definitely a character flaw, and I'm not working on it. It's loud. It's obnoxious. I can't help it at all. 

A. walks in everyday in a Star-Wars hoodie, bleary eyed. She gets her breakfast from the cafeteria, then stands in the doorway where I stand and observes the May-Stein show, perhaps as a way to wake up. It's unclear. But every day, she's there, and she won't share her breakfast with me, which is definitely uncool. 

A. is as stalwart, hardworking, and trustworthy a person I think I've ever met, and she's not even a senior in high school yet. She worked for two weeks straight to make a power point to explain the differences between genderfluid and intersex, asexual and ally, transgender and bisexual: these terms and others the GSA needs to master in order to teach teachers and students at our school. 

Every day she breaks minor rules all other students are made to follow at Perry because she simply can. Why? Because she's the kind of kid who does everything right, who teachers trust implicitly, and who can get away with it because she deserves it. A. captains the sports teams she plays, gets good grades, is a great student leader, and basically is the President of the GSA. Here's what makes me worry: when, oh when, is A. going to cut loose? I worry: am I doing enough to help her know that she doesn't have to be perfect? Does she know that she doesn't have to be perfect for me? That even though I do count on her-- she doesn't have to be the one everybody counts on all the time? That she can figure things out, too? That she's allowed to be wild and crazy? To make mistakes? Be a goofball? 

When school started, I told myself I was going to make a note of every time something beautiful or funny or good or lovely happened-- a time a child revealed their vulnerability, or their goodness, or their gifts, so that I could hold on to how much beauty is part of my daily life and chosen field. But I have given that up. There's too much. I'm inundated with beauty, where I work. My kids shoot me through with it, all the time, just breathing the same air. They fill me up. 

So when I read the article about the folks in Bethel Park who showed their hatred of kids like mine, I felt sad for them, especially since their acts are getting national coverage. Their ignorance and shame stand before the world now as another example of what happens when Americans willingly segregate ourselves from each other. 

When I go to work, I see the enormous privilege I have because I work in an urban inner city school. Suburban school districts may have purchased themselves an illusion of socioeconomic uniformity and privilege, but in doing so, they won't know C.'s ability to draw. His humor. How he sings, and dances, his world-class wit. If they ever see an athletic young Black man like M., they'll never assume he is capable of intense sensitivity, or know his mammoth talent, acting ability, or how multi-faceted he is. They won't know he pushed his way into a club to protect his vulnerable classmates. Bethel residents may not be able to imagine that a student like A. is teaching an inner-city staff and student body about LGBTQIA diversity and needs, but she is. 

A love song to my students. You give me life. I'm so grateful to you, and to each one I didn't name. You know who you are. I love you. You know I mean it. Ms. May.