At the end of a week in which I struggled with purpose

Cane and I had our usual Friday night date–dinner at a nearby dive bar–even though it was spring break and so we had none of our typical need for end-of-the-week ease and release. We each had our usual drink (a whiskey for me and a beer for him) and ate our usual meal (a shared happy hour burger and fries).

We sat in a booth in front of the big windows, even though the sun was shining and it might have been comfortable, again, to eat outside in the tables put on the street temporarily (or so we thought) in the first year of the pandemic.

“Oh, we forgot quarters,” I said, remembering how the week before he had said we should try to remember quarters so that we could play pool. (We are both fairly terrible pool players, but we like to play it anyway. We get a lot of value for a few quarters because it takes us so long to clear the table.)

“Eh, that’s OK,” he said. “The tables are full.”

We sat in our usual booth in the window and didn’t talk much. The fries were good. One of the pool players approached our table. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” he said, “but aren’t you a teacher at…” He was looking at Cane, but I recognized him, sort of. A friend joined him, and he looked even more familiar to me. He confirmed that I had been his English teacher his junior year. I knew his face, but I couldn’t attach it to a specific student in my memories. I deduced, after learning their graduation year, that I’d had the friend in my class the last year I taught before leaving the classroom to become (I had hoped) a school librarian. It had been a hard year, my first as a single parent. At the end of it I knew I could no longer be both a parent and full-time classroom teacher. Not good ones, anyway.

“You don’t want to remember me,” the friend laughed. “I was a little shit.”

I still didn’t remember exactly who he was. “That’s OK,” I said. “Lots of kids are little shits.” I smiled.

The first young man continued to talk with Cane. He now works in a field related to the one he first learned about with Cane. He was dressed nicely, spoke well, has a good job. It’s nice to see former students doing well. I don’t remember what his friend said he was doing. He was dressed more like the other patrons in the bar and didn’t have his friend’s polish. He mentioned having lived in San Francisco for a time.

They went back to playing pool, and we talked about who they were. Cane remembered both of them; he’d had them both for two years, and I’d only had the one (most likely) for one, my last one.

“I remember that kid,” he said of the friend, naming him. “He was a little shit.” And it clicked: Memory served me an image of a short, skinny, angry boy who sat in the front and scowled at me for all of that last, hard year. He didn’t do a lot of my assignments; instead, he told me how stupid and pointless they were. Often. Our students attended our school only half-time; the other half they attended their regular high schools. We drew them from 4 different schools, and his often sent us angry, conservative, young white men. Even in 2009, when social media for teens consisted mostly of MySpace and before angry, conservative young white men were as prevalent and vocal as they are today.

They were behind us, and I kept glancing at them through a mirror in front of me. They were in a small group, laughing, talking, playing pool. At one point, my former angry student pulled his hair out of a ponytail holder and released a long, glorious corona of wavy hair that fell past his shoulders. He laughed easily and often, bearing only a shadow of resemblance to the young man-boy he once was, with short, severe hair and tidy clothes. His shoes were always white and clean. I hadn’t liked him, and he was part of what made a hard year harder.

They finished their game and moved to an outside table. Cane and I finished our meal and gathered our things and made our way out the door, happy to be heading home to watch an episode of Game of Thrones with our old Daisy between us on the couch.

He stopped at their table to say good-bye, and we all smiled at each other. As Cane started to move away, I leaned down to speak privately to my former student.

“I remember who you are now,” I said, and his face shifted, just a little. I want to say that he looked a bit wary, but I don’t really know if that’s how he felt. (We so often don’t know how each other feels.) “You weren’t a little shit,” I said.

His mouth moved into a little twisty smile. “Oh, I was,” he said.

“No,” I said, and paused. “You weren’t a little shit.” I paused again. “I think you were probably just very unhappy.”

I saw something in his eyes soften. “Yeah,” he said, “I was.”

“You weren’t a shit,” I repeated, holding his eyes with mine.

“Thanks,” he said, and smiled a different way, without the twist. I smiled back at him and followed Cane down the sidewalk to our car, the setting sun at our backs as I reached for his hand.

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20 thoughts on “At the end of a week in which I struggled with purpose

  1. Cynthia says:

    Good on you, Rita! That was a very kind thing for you to do. (And it’s so nice to hear your “voice” in my head again. Welcome back.)

  2. TD says:

    It is interesting to me that when I’m in the thick of things that I’m so limited to seeing. It can take a lot of time passing, a trigger to pull that thick of the moment back to the present, before I’m able to see other perspectives in time of past to discern what may have been going on around me, with others, as well as within myself. Perhaps empathy… perhaps forgiveness… takes place.

    P.S. I am having difficulty seeing the text as it is so light gray that I’m straining my eyes to read your posts. Have you changed your settings to help you with your screens and migraines? Maybe?

    • Rita says:

      Oh, I agree with you about how time can cause us to see things differently! I see so many things differently than I once did. It’s a gift, always.

      I’m sorry the text is hard to read. I haven’t changed settings. It’s the default text color for this blog theme. I’m thinking of changing platforms and themes–one of the things I tinkered with during my time off–but that probably won’t be until school is out, if I do. I’ll see what I can do in the meantime. Thank you for letting me know it’s causing issues for you.

    • Rita says:

      I agree about the power of words. I suspect he felt badly about some things that happened in the past, and it was his way of acknowledging it without being too heavy/serious. Some of his behavior could probably be fairly described as “shitty.” And, to be honest, if he hadn’t said that, I wonder if I would have been able to see him the way I did the other night. If he were still full of anger, would I have been able to see through the facade that his teenage self put out to the world? Or would I have just seen him as another entitled white dude? (Speaking of words that have power…)

  3. Debs Carey says:

    That unexpectedly brought a tear to my eye. I suspect there were times I was a little shit as a student, but it’s because I was unhappy. Hearing you give that young man your understanding of what was behind his negative behaviour got me right in the feels. I’d have loved a teacher to have recognised that in me too.

    Thanks for the vicarious uplift.
    Debs Carey recently posted…Back to normal, or a new normal?My Profile

    • Rita says:

      I wish I’d recognized it when I was in the classroom all those years. I always had a soft spot for those who were the kind of goofball student who struggled, but I had a hard time with the angry ones. It was hard not to take their shit personally. I’m so fortunate that none of my students this year does that. I had one, briefly, who did, but I was able to answer him with kindness rather than defensiveness, and the moment passed. I think the pandemic has shifted how I interpret others’ behavior; I always assume, now, that there are likely troubles I know nothing about. Of course, that was always true; I just didn’t understand that. In your recent post you asked about new normals, and that is part of mine–realizing that “bad” behavior is nearly always rooted in someone’s struggle. (Unless they are sociopaths or narcissists, but that’s a whole ‘nother thing.)

      • Debs Carey says:

        To be honest Rita, I think only a very special and wise individual recognises that “bad behaviour is nearly always rooted in someone’s struggle” before experience has allowed that lesson to be learned. I look back at my behaviour – not only in school but in my earlier decades – and struggle not to shudder. Fortunately, we live and we learn (except for those sociopaths or narcissists & the like).

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