Almost his entire class resents me right now. My lovelies, eleventh grade English students, claim I’ve ruined “The House on Mango Street,” the book we’ve been reading the last month. For their midterm, I’ve assigned them to write 3,000 words worth of vignettes, modeled after Sandra Cisneros’ style. Rather than explicitly instruct them how to do this, I rely on the literature to teach them.
“See how Cisneros does it. Pay attention to her word choice. How does she create that mood? How can you create the mood that’s right for your piece?”
He would have grumbled no matter how many words I requested, or lessons I taught. He’s too stoic to flinch, but all year, I’ve imagined he does every time I give the next assignment.
This time, I’ve also aggravated a lot of my lovelies — even those, who, unlike him, want to be in this class. Honors. They complain daily about these vignettes.
“I love you,” I respond cheerfully every time. “And! This is just one of those times when I don’t care how you feel.”
One day at the start of school, he stopped at my desk after class. Everyone else had hurried — to the door, to freedom. He stood in front of me. Shoulders square. Quiet, until I looked him in the eye.
“I don’t think I should be in this class.”
I held his gaze. Waited.
“I’ve never been in an honors class before. I just don’t care about school that much. Sports are way more important to me.”
“First thing: I respect your honesty. Thank you for that,” I said. “But you’re in this class because your teacher last year recommended you. That means you can do it.”
He shook his head. “I really don’t think I can. This class is last period, so I’ll be missing it a lot for sports. It’s just gonna be too much work to keep a good grade in here.”
“Yeah, you’re right. It’s definitely going to be a lot of work.” I smiled, shrugged. “Good thing you can handle it — even if you don’t want to.”
For the rest of the semester, unless he has sports, he never misses class. He arrives on time, sits up straight. Every day, he is watchful.
He also keeps his hand still — never raised, rarely taking notes. He doesn’t lead group assignments, resubmit work, smile. I offer help he doesn’t ask for, or accept.
One week, just minutes after the last bell, a man walked into my room. It was his brother. Unscheduled, but welcome. I gasped, grateful at his timing. The end of the semester is too close.
He didn’t say, and I didn’t ask, why he chose to come in now. Instead, I was eager to answer the one question he had for me: “How’s he doing in here?”
“Did he show you his progress report? He’s failing. I hate that.” I watched his brother’s body language, wondering if it would say what his voice kept silent.
“We’ve been working on their midterm assignments. The drafts are due soon. Doing well on this will really help him.” I gave practical steps to help make things better. It’s what we all want.
“Please let me know what you want me to try. I know he’s been training to compete in college.” I waited for his brother to show he knows what this means. He wouldn’t have come here if he didn’t care; I know he knows what’s at stake. I decided to just say it.
“But first he needs to get a decent grade in this class.”
By the next Monday, I still can’t tell if his brother talked to him. Nothing seems to have changed. I worry he’s teetering at the top of a downward spiral I’ve seen too many times.
When I remind the lovelies about their next due date — two days from now, the first 1,000 words of their rough draft — I speak gently.
“These aren’t gonna be pretty,” I say. “And that’s okay. That’s the point.” I pause to look around the room, make sure they hear this, too — not just the number of words and when I want them. “I promise you that you got this. Right now, I’m just checking to see that you’re figuring out which stories you want to tell.”
My eyes scan theirs. When I meet his, I wish one more time that I knew what he was thinking.
Later, after I’m home, fed, relaxed — when school feels far away — I see I have a new email. It’s from him. Seven vignettes, sent two days early.
I only read a few sentences before I know: what he’s written isn’t what I expect, or even encourage, in a rough draft. Half-formed, unfocused ideas. Redundancy and also unfilled gaps. Uncertainty. Potential. Typos.
Instead, he has delicately arranged his words into metaphors: “I was the nightmare that wasn’t just at night.” He has stacked story after story into a larger narrative about sports, the thing that matters most to him. His run-on sentences read like a series of choices he’s making, not a set of missing commas and periods.
I marvel at this talent that, until now, he hasn’t let me see. I re-read the subject of his email, and can tell how much he means it.