This is a true story.
I tutored at an inner city college for seven years. Many of my students were the first in their families to attend college. Some were the first to finish high school. Or not to sell drugs. A few have become my personal heroes.
My last student, a 19 year old pop culture drone, had just asked why she should “do punctuation.”
She shrugged and left.
My co-worker Trina, an African American grandma with a passion for cookies and Dostoyevsky, said, “Good point. My dog still can’t use a semi-colon.”
“If I get one more I’m-only-here-because-my-teacher-made-me knucklehead,” I curmudged, “I’m going to become a custodian.”
“This is community college, sweetie. You’re already in the recycling biz. Have a lemon cookie.” Before Trina could dispense the proffered analgesic, her 11:30 came in.
Then my 11:30.
Roland was in his late 20s, with tattoos on his tattoos. Not the artsy kind, the scary kind. The gang kind. Yet there was something in his eyes that said, These aren’t who I am.
“So I wrote this essay,” he dove in, “and I just need to know if I messed up, or if it’s OK.”
I skimmed the first page. “Redemption Essay?”
“Yeah, we supposed to talk about how everybody can redeem somebody else.”
“So you wrote about…?”
“My cousin Mikey. And I just wanna know if I did it right.”
“Depends. What did you want to say?”
“Well, Mikey, he’s—what you call it?—slow, real slow. So everybody in our family, they just kind of give up on him, you know? Didn’t even try and show him stuff any more cuz they said he’s ‘unteachable.’”
“Well, he’s my cousin. So one day I start trying to teach him to catch a ball. He didn’t get it, and everybody say, ‘See, we told you.’ But the next day when I come home from school, Mikey he’s waiting with the ball. So I try to teach him some more.”
“Nah.” Roland smiled. “But the next day and the day after that he keeps coming back. And then, after about a month and a half, he—”
“Finally caught it?”
Roland grinned again. “Well, he ain’t gonna play for the Yankees…but, yeah. So, anyway, from then on, Mikey he goes wherever I go and does whatever I do, you know? Or at least he tries to.”
“Which gets a little old, I imagine?”
“He’s my cousin,” Roland repeated, as though I were the slow one. “But, yeah, I was in high school and a lotta my friends, they didn’t… Anyhow, by then I’m showing Mikey how to draw a circle cuz he never could draw nothing that looked like anything.” The sun rose in Roland’s eyes. “But he finally gets it! And then he gets how a circle can be like a face and other things, you know?”
“You are a teacher!” I said, adding this new hero to my list.
“Yeah, maybe,” Roland replied, storing it away like chocolate for later. “And then, cuz he always seeing me write my name, he wants to know how he can do that too. It took him two years, but he finally got it.”
“That’s amazing, Roland! So this is the story of how you redeemed Mikey!” I looked down at the essay. “Let’s just review your mechanics.”
Ignoring me, Roland went on, “Before Mikey…well, me and my friends was starting to get into some bad shit, you know? Selling drugs and guns, and always having to prove we was bad so everybody be ‘respecting’ us, and all that kinda protecting your turf junk that never ends. Anyway, half of ‘em is in lock-up now and the other half got ankle bracelets. Three of ‘em are dead, including my best friend.”
“But you…?” I asked.
“Well, see, that’s just it. I…I couldn’t be doing that no more cuz Mikey, well, he was watching me all the time.”
“And he wanted to do—”
“Everything I did, yeah.”
Suddenly realizing I had been the slow one, I said, “So this isn’t the story of how you saved Mikey?”
After a minute, I struggled to say, “You really are a teacher.”
“Yeah, that’s what I want to be, anyway. Hey, can I go use the…”
Roland left for the restroom as I red-penned his essay.
Trina’s student exited. Trina came over and sat down next to me.
“I think I actually learned something for a change,” I said.
Trina put a cookie in front of me. “Well, that’s why we teach, right? And what did you learn today, young man?”
“That sometimes teaching is a chore. But sometimes it’s an incredible privilege.”
“And that we all have the ability to redeem others. All of us.”
“So I guess that means you won’t be going into sanitation?”
“Not this week.”
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Drama groups: This true story is available as a short performable drama!