He was the quintessential new thug on the block; walked in the door on the first day of school with a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas and something to prove. His swagger spoke clearly, “You don’t wanna mess with me.” So, of course, someone had to try. And it wasn’t just one someone, it was multiple someones, on multiple days, in multiple class periods. The first few weeks of school consisted of him defending that arrogance and paying the price for that defense. Fight. Suspension. Fight. Suspension. Fight. Suspension. The rhythm of his actions and the subsequent reactions made him a melody I didn’t get to hear often, not because I wasn’t listening but because he wasn’t there. And when he was there he wasn’t, choosing to ignore me and my class and instead hang on the corner in the hallway…outside my door.
I knew his name because on the one occasion when his boys weren’t around he strolled into class late… and sat down…in the corner…in the last seat…in the last row, by the file cabinet, a place where a kid could be in class and yet still not be present. “DeMarcus Ward.”
His name was last on the roll so knowing who he was, simply a matter of logic.
“DeMarcus Ward.” He wasn’t going to answer so I followed up with, “You gonna answer me?”
He looked, leaned his head on the back wall, closed his eyes, and with that, I was dismissed and one of my students commented “Oooo Ms. Sims! You just got dissed!”
He cracked a smile as he claimed his victory and I cracked a smile because he foolishly thought he’d gotten the best of me. Silly boy…
I didn’t see him for some days, he’d gotten caught up again in the rhythm he’d made but eventually he was back in his space…outside my door. But he was never alone. Those who collaborated with him on his tracks were always there, caught up in their own beats making their own melodies that blended flawlessly with his. And here I came.
“So, let me get this straight. You’re gonna skip my class outside of my class every day?” His boys laughed
“I mean EVERY day?” His boys laughed
“…Outside my door?” His boys laughed
“…Seriously?” I folded my arms and narrowed my eyes
“I don’t care who else’s class you skip but yesterday was the last day you skipped mine”
And there I stood, tall in all of my 5footness.
He laughed…I shrugged…grabbed him by the ear…and dragged him to class
“Now sit down, shut up, and learn something.”
This boy, who had barely said a sentence
Spoke up and said “Don’t call me DeMarcus. My name is Texas.”
And so he was and so he still is…
The reason why I teach…
When I met Texas the last thought on his mind was going to college. His father was in jail and his mother had already relegated the son to a space next to the father, either in jail or in the morgue. He was angry, at everybody, all the time, especially me. Not only had I embarrassed him in front of his crew once, I kept doing it until he figured it was just easier to come to class instead of having me drag him by the ear. And then, I had the audacity to expect him to stay awake, take notes, and do his work.
And it was in his work where I discovered that behind all of the vibrato and posturing that goes along with the life he led, he had a gift for words. No…
This boy was a lyrical assassin, killing everything that came up against him with the rhymes he wrote in his notebook. When he wasn’t battling with his fists, he was battling with his words and he was good. It is rare that you find a student who, in the 9th grade, is so developed as a writer that you question your own ability to do the same but that was Texas.
And it still is. By the end of the 1st semester we’d come up with an agreement: he’d come to class, do my work, turn it in on time and I would provide him with as many writing notebooks as he could handle. I should’ve know then that I was making a fools bet because he took the offer too quickly. After a month, I was out of 5 composition notebooks, one per week. But he kept his end of the bargain, so I kept mine.
That was nearly 3.5 years ago…
This, is Texas now…
There are days when the mantel I choose to wear becomes heavy, when I lament my chosen profession, when I feel like all I do is for naught. And, as if on cue, here he comes sharing his latest creation or seeking advice on which college to attend and I find myself renewed and reminded why I teach.
I teach because a 14 year old drug dealer and gang banger is now an 18 year old soon-to-be high school graduate sitting on four college acceptance letters, two with scholarships attached.
I teach because I’m not putting money on his books or flowers on his grave.
I teach because I found a gentleman and a scholar that even he didn’t see
I teach because you never know what you will find in a student if you’re willing to push harder, challenge more, and believe.
Truth is I didn’t do much. Much like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, what Texas needed was with him all the time; he had simply buried it, protected it, deep in his heart. All he needed was permission to let it breathe and grow.
His graduation day is almost 30 days away and I am preparing myself for the tears that will surely come. But his exit from the school simply means there’s room for another student, with another story, and another treasure to discover, like I did, deep in the heart of Texas.