A minute after the bell rings, W. saunters into my classroom with one hand tugging on his huge belt buckle to hold up a pair of jeans that are in serious danger of slouching right down to the ground. A huge gold dollar sign swings from one of several heavy chains around his neck, and his shirt is inside out again, which means there's something ornery on the other side that already got caught. Everyone in the room can hear the music blaring from the huge headphones that encircle the back of his head. This is one of those days
, I think, where I might cross to the other side if I met him on the street without knowing better
But I do know better. I know that school starts less than an hour after he finishes working the third shift at Walmart to help his mom and sister pay their bills. I know they've had a hard couple of years since his dad passed away from cancer, shortly after they arrived in the U.S. from the Congo. I know that he loves learning English, his fifth language
, and he delights in its quirky irregularities. I know that I have to be sure to stand on one side when I talk to him, so he can listen through his partially-deaf ear instead of his completely deaf one. I know that he wants to graduate so badly that he spends entire school days working on the graduation tests when they are offered for re-takes in the fall, spring, and summer. Most of all, I know that below his twisted-spiral mini-mohawk, his eyes are dancing as a sprawling smile lights up his dark face. I know he's going to slide off the headphones, put his phone in his pocket, and declare "Good afternoon, Mrs. M!" with such enthusiasm that I just have to smile and think, I love that kid
This Sunday, while walking through a tranquil neighborhood in the town where I teach, I couldn't help but think of him. Our town is famous throughout Central Ohio for being one of the most affluent, most privileged suburbs of Columbus. And on the side of the river where I grew up, it is. When we went to dinner that evening at a small restaurant near my old neighborhood, Husband and I walked by a Lamborghini, an Aston-Martin Vantage, and a Mercedes-Benz SL-class Roadster.
After dinner, we decided to drive to a nearby neighborhood so we could feed the turtles in a certain pond. (Husband LOVES turtles, and we discovered this pond a few years ago on a bike ride with my parents. If you start throwing food, you'll soon be met by at least 10-15 turtles who swim to you from all over the pond!) But this story is not really about the turtles. It's about the neighborhoods.
Since we don't live around there, we parked at a local church and walked through the neighborhood to the park with the turtle pond. On the way to and from the park, we passed other adults and children out for walks, and they smiled and nodded at us. That's when I thought about W. and my other students... because every single one of the people we passed was white. Even though Husband and I don't live in that neighborhood, those friendly people didn't question if we belonged there, because we looked like them. We are two dorky young white people from the suburbs who look like we just got out of college. We are definitely not Trayvon Martin
. But my students could be.
The school where I currently teach is on the other side of the river. Many of my students receive free and reduced lunch
and live in modest apartments with Columbus addresses that fall within our school district's boundaries. Nestled between strip malls that burst with halal markets and taquerías, those precious apartments allow them to attend one of the highest-achieving districts in the state, and their families work extremely hard to pay the rent so they can stay there. On that side of the river, nobody looks twice at W. Loud chattering in Spanish from my Mexican students doesn't turn heads. Hijabs are just a normal part of the vibrant scene.
But what happens when my students go to the other side of the river? How would people react if they decided to eat at the restaurant where Husband and I enjoyed a delicious dinner on Sunday? What if they parked at that church and walked through that neighborhood to feed the turtles? Somehow, I don't think the neighbors would smile and say hello. But they'd be missing out, because my students are some of the sweetest, friendliest, most hardworking young people you could ever meet... and they have some amazing stories