This is a true story.
I tutored at an inner city college. Many of my students were the first in their families to finish high school. Or not sell drugs. Some became my personal heroes.
My current tutee, a suburban pop culture drone, had just asked why she should “do punctuation.”
“Because it’s the only thing that separates us from the lower animals!” I replied, sarcasm phaser set on stun.
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.”
My 11:30 arrived.
Roland was in his late 20s, with tattoos on his tattoos–not the artsy kind, the gang-y kind. But there was something in his eyes that said, These aren’t who I am.
“So I wrote this essay,” he announced, “and I 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, didn’t even try and show him stuff no more cuz they say 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, Mikey, he’s waiting with the ball. So I teach him some more.”
“And he caught the ball?”
“Nah.” Roland smiled. “But he keeps tryin’. And 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, anyways, 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. “And he finally gets it! He gets how a circle can be like a face and other things!”
“You are a teacher!”
“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!”
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 bad so everybody be ‘respecting’ us, and all that kinda protecting your turf shit 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.”
“Well, see, that’s just it. I couldn’t be doing that no more cuz Mikey, well, he’s 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?”
“It’s the story of how Mikey saved me.”
My eyes began to leak, too. “You really are a teacher.”
“Yeah, that’s what I want to be, anyway. Hey, can I use the…” Roland left for the restroom as I scanned his essay.
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. 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: For a performable version of this true story, click here.