Every couple of weeks, throughout my first year teaching, I would ask my students to write me a letter. One day they would write me about their holiday plans, for instance, or they’d write about what they wanted to be when they grew up, or what they liked best about school. These letters always take me straight back into those gritty days in the fall of 1993 at Jackson Middle in the heart of Houston, Texas.
What are your hopes for Christmas break?
Jose S. in my 3rd period class was tiny, with an open and trusting face that was quick to break into smile. I imagined that even as his hair thinned and grayed, his face would remain young and cherubic. His broad smile could carry me through a trying morning. Jose had just arrived from El Salvador and wore the very conservative loafers with white socks that his countrymen favored. He wrote:
To all my teacher and all my friend and my family. (Jose had just arrived from el otro lado – the other side. Most of his family and friends were probably not very near.)
I hope you have a meery Christmas and a happy New Year.
I want to Christmas one pistol and one car of control remote.
I imagined a gun taped to the back of a car racing down the long hallways of Jackson firing wildly at the gangster kids who must have scared little Jose half to death.
This kid, Jose, was one of my very best students, not because he could write or read, but because he tried to read and write. Also, he never cursed at me. Thanks to his innate goodness, and the old-fashioned respect that he brought across the river with him, Jose was one of the few kids at Jackson Middle who behaved. When my hooligans would start running around the room, throwing paper airplanes, or raising hell, Jose would just put his head down and get to work. The angriest I got all year was not actually at the thugs and gangsters who cursed and bellowed and ran the school, but at sweet Jose, who later in the year, when he saw how much the other kids were getting away with, started ever so slightly to edge towards the exciting world of anarchy and chaos. I gave him hell. Sorry, Jose. I was trying to protect you. “Okay, Mister.” I’m sure you said, and smiled, and got back to work.
Orbelinda, a Honduran girl with an exquisitely styled quaff, sculpted atop her head into a splendid and sculptural fountain of hair that we called, in awe; “el fuente de pelo” answered my question about her Christmas hopes.
To a very special teacher I met on Jackson Middle School “93, 94”
For Christmas I want what ever
It might sound like Orbelinda didn’t care, but she was really just hedging her bets, knowing that she probably wouldn’t get any Christmas presents from her very poor and constantly working parents, grateful for whatever she might get.
After winter break I asked the kids to write me another letter.
What did you miss about school over the break?
Many of the kids met my question with bafflement or amusement, and even a few whispered oaths under their breath. But Orbelinda, the girl who wanted whatever for Christmas (and got it), wrote back in her painstakingly crafted cursive. Well the best thing about this year was that I got to see all my friends that I hang around with. I get to see them every day having fun together. And I had thought that these kids were in school to learn! Less than ten years out of high school, I had already forgotten what school is about for most kids. Orbelinda reminded me of the distance between their worlds: orbiting around each other, and the one I hoped for them: joyful exploration of this endlessly interesting world with its constant stream of puzzlement, and wonder. It would take a lot of work to share my love of learning when most of my kids could barely speak English, scared out of their wits, and were swimming hard just to tread water.
Then sweet Orbelinda reminded me to remember her too, signing off with this little ditty:
Remember M Remember E put them together and remember ME
These kids would tell me a lot more than I would have told my teachers, and I’m grateful to them for their openness and generosity. And these weren’t even kids I was particularly close to, or had even spoken with very far beyond hello, how was your weekend, where are you from, how many siblings do you have, what are you doing with those white socks and loafers on, and what magic do you use to get your hair to stay up like an ever-cresting wave? These were just kids who happened to find their way into my classroom and who shared a few hours of time in my proximity every week. No matter what question I asked them, like Orbelinda, they very often displayed an aching desire to be remembered.
Throughout the year, as they’d get kicked out of schools that had rules and discipline, more and more rough students kept getting added into my class. These feral kids were taking up more of the class bandwidth to the point that I felt like I wasn’t able to teach my well-behaved kids at all. As my classroom became louder and more boisterous, the letters became my last channel to my sweet students.
What will you remember about Jackson Middle?
Mireya wrote: All the teachers really made my year very fun and interesting and I really learned a lot and I’m really gong to miss them but I hope their still here so I can come visit there. I hope one day they all remember me once their old and they can’t walk any more.
I can still walk and I still remember you Mireya: you had beautiful skin, the color of mahogany, and sharp eyes with the longest lashes, and even your handwriting was elegant, measured and controlled.
Flor was from El Salvador. I called Flor, Piso, which is Spanish for floor. In her choppy and newly learned English, Flor wrote:
My name is Flor. I’m from El Salvador.
She’s a poet, but she doesn’t know it. Like the other kids from Central America, Flor wrote with the grand looping old-fashioned cursive handwriting. We Americans could afford to be sloppy, but these Central Americans could handwrite like nobody’s business.
Remember me, Piso writes; because I always did that my teacher speak Spanish cause I’m an ESL student.
Now Im going to tell you that things I like and maybe the thing that I don’t like of Jackson. Jackson is a good school.
That’s totally not true Flor, but thanks.
Right hear I learn a lot of things that I need to know for the future.
Did you need to know how to be a thug, or how to roll a joint, or maybe how to tag gang signs up and down the bathroom wall? Because that, you could learn at Jackson.
Then Flor (which actually means flower in Spanish) goes on to hit me with that inevitable hope all these sweet young kids have:
I like all my teachers. I’ll remember them and I hope that they’ll remember me too.
I don’t know why these beautiful little kids were so caught up with being remembered. I don’t know if I felt that way when I was in eight-grade – I can’t remember. Maybe being desperate to be remembered is an eight-grade thing. Maybe it’s an immigrant thing – far from home, forgetting all the people they came from, trying to delay the erasure of migration. Maybe it’s a stab at permanency. Maybe it’s just a way of saying thank you. I don’t know. But it worked. I do remember Flor. She was teeny-tiny (even for a kid from Salvador) with lively hands and quick eyes.
Maybe after the whole year unraveled and I felt like I wasn’t giving anything of value to these kids who needed the most, maybe the best thing I gave them was just remembering them.
As illuminating as these kids’ letters are, they aren’t a truly representative sample of all my students. Most of these letters weren’t authored by my illiterate students (who instead of writing, happily colored pictures), or the super-gangster kids who took these assignments and threw them onto the floor (walking over to the trashcan would have been just too much work), or the kids who couldn’t write me letters because they were in jail or home pregnant or living on the streets. Most of the really tough students knew they’d get promoted to the next grade anyway, so they generally never turned in any work at all, but occasionally, my wild students would accidentally write me letters, too.
Please write me a letter about your plans for life after Jackson Middle:
Elizabeth, a hot-tempered girl with a wild black mane of hair assessed the year:
So wuz up. Nothing much on this side just bored. My name is Elizabeth M. and this year sucked. I hated it Im glad I’m going to Austin next year.
Mr. Milner you could be cool sometimes but you could get on my nerves But you be cool. I had a pleasure meeting your brother who came during the eclipse. Was cool but tall.
Wait; is it uncool to be tall? Does that make hobbits really cool?
Elizabeth’s letter reminds me of the long-ago day of the 1993 solar eclipse. The day I got yelled at. A solar eclipse doesn’t happen very often. It’s definitely something worth learning about, even in a social studies class. Before the big event, we made special eclipse-viewing boxes that could throw the image of the eclipsed sun onto a piece of paper on the back of the box, enabling us to view the eclipse without blinding ourselves. My two little brothers (both over six foot six), their wives, and my mother and father (also a strapping six foot six), and my best friend from college and my wife (five foot seven and a half and feisty) all joined my students for eclipse day. I remember taking the students who hadn’t skipped class out into the schoolyard, just inside the perimeter fence, near the moat. (Okay, their really wasn’t a moat, but there were metal detectors and razor wire fences at our school and I’m not sure if they were more to keep people out or in.) We each had our little view-the-eclipse without getting blinded box and there was one adult for every four or five kids. A skipper or two, who had gotten bored roaming the halls, even slinked out into the yard to rejoin class. We were setting up to view the eclipse when the assistant principal, Mr. M., a small man with piggy little fingers, a tragic comb-over, and one rumpled tan suit that he wore every day, threw open his office window on the third floor. I had never ever seen him out of his office and looking up, his head floated extended out from the school, silhouetted by the beginning of the solar eclipse.
“Hi,” I said, waving up into the darkness.
“Get inside right now, Mr. Miller.”
“Hello,” I said, not quite hearing (or wanting to hear). Waving again. “We’re doing an experiment.”
“Get inside immediately, Mr. Miller.”
“It’s okay,” I said, “they know not to look at the sun.”
“The sun? I don’t care about the son. Get back inside right this instant.”
This broken lesson contains multitudes: no learning, lots of yelling, a shadow hanging over the day, and a yard-full of dashed hopes.
Here’s my student, Karina’s thoughts on the last day of school: May 31, 1994:
Well what I think of Jackson is that is kind of fun sometimes but sometimes it can be boring.
Now I’ll just translate a little bit here. Boring doesn’t mean to a poor 13 year-old what it means to me or to you. First of all, growing up I was taught that only boring people find things boring. And the boring people I grew up with, basically used the word boring as an antonym for exciting. But Jackson students lived in a perpetual state of boredom and in the Jacksonian vernacular, boring meant something closer to bad or loathsome. And it wasn’t just an event or a thing that could be boring, it could be our whole school, or a time of day, the past progressive tense, the field of sociology, grapefruit, the Khyber-Pass, Freudian analysis, fingernails, or even an entire time-zone.
Then Karina lets up on the boring and lowers the boom on the school administration.
I hate the principal Mrs. C. that big fatass bitch She really gets on my nerves and bosses too too much.
I couldn’t have said it better, Karina! I totally agree. And Mr. M, the man with the fat fingers, he was awful too. Please don’t forget him!
The teachers are cool. But, the only one that is too old and boring is Mr. H. but he can be nice and cool sometimes too.
Well, which is it, young lady?
But, I wouldn’t want my little brother to come to Jackson because theres too much violence and the securitys cover up. The food in the cafeteria really sucks it tastes nasty.
The thing I’m left with after reading Karina’s letter isn’t the bad grammar or punctuation, or the image of my horrible principal’s titanic posterior, it’s that this thirteen or fourteen year old girl is very aware that she goes to a dangerous school, and the thing she’s most worried about is her little brother. Despite the fact that she helped make my first year teaching a living hell, my heart really does go out to Karina, and twenty years after she wrote her letter, I wonder if Karina’s made it. And by made it, I don’t mean whether she is a college graduate, or has a good job, or has mellowed into not thinking everything is boring, but whether she’s still alive. It was a tough neighborhood. People died all the time. A number of my kids killed or were killed during my years in Houston. And she was totally right about Mrs. C’s fat ass.
All these kids had hard lives. They sat in my class everyday with their little notebooks, and pencils, and worn-out shoes. They could hide their poverty behind their starched white shirts (the same one every day) and creased slacks, but you could see how poor they were when you looked at their shoes and coats, and always in their worried faces. I looked out across that circuslike classroom and saw them slouched in their seats, deserving so much, expecting so little.
I didn’t always know what my students were thinking or where they were coming from. These letters helped unlock just a bit of their stories. Like Jilnell, student # 33 in 6th period, she just showed up one day in the middle of February. It was only much later that I found out why she was there, when she wrote, in May:
Well I have been from school to school. The first school I was at was called Attucks, the second school was Reynolds. But on January 24, 1994 at 6:00 o’clock ever thing in my life changed. My mom passed and I had to change school’s so I had to come here.
Now I’m at Jackson Middle School with cool great caring and loving friends. But best of all is some of the best teachers and staff.
I should be thanking you, Jilnell after all you’ve been through: A little girl losing her mom during the part of her life when she needs her the most, and she’s thanking me and all I’ve done is give her a desk to sit at while the clock ticked slowly onward away from January 24.
I am so grateful to my students for sharing these luminous apertures into their lives. No one wants to be invisible. I want to be remembered. Remembering someone is to carry their hopes and dreams across space and time so that their life is not eclipsed.
21 years ago, a young teenager, just arrived from Mexico wrote me this note:
Hi my name is Sandra, I’m 15 years old. I was your favorite student in this class. I always did my work because I always copy from Silvia my friend. Well I just hope you remember me! Bye. Sincerely Sandra.