"I'm sure you have some pretty wicked stories."
I was eating brunch at a dim sum restaurant recently with a large group of friends and friends of friends. My wife was telling someone about my career change from banker to teacher, which prompted the quote above. "Pretty wicked stories" - these words really got me thinking about a story I'd been wanting to write, but couldn't because I didn't know if he would be okay with it. "He" being Kareem, a former student of mine, now in college, but whom I've written about on this blog before (see here, here and here). After brunch, I wrote Kareem an e-mail asking if I could write this particular story. He wrote back, "Go ahead, put it all out there lol."
Three years ago, I had the pleasure to teach algebra to then 17-year old Kareem. When I first met him, he immediately struck me as an intelligent, motivated student with a lot of depth and personality. Here was someone you just couldn't help but keep talking to because you know he's going to say something you would've never thought about. I wanted to take him under my wing, so I offered him a position as my teacher aide, where he could grade papers with me after school.
Aside from grading, Kareem and I spent a lot of time discussing education, college, finance and life after school. In my Algebra class, his grades were amazing, so it wasn't surprising that he was part of a group of students whom I invited to my apartment to eat a home-cooked brunch with my wife and me. I remember at some point during the brunch, the apartment got super quiet for ten minutes. My wife and I were cleaning dishes, and when we turned to look at what was going on, Kareem was quietly going through every single book on our bookshelf, flipping through pages and reading the summaries on the back. My wife looked at me and smiled. My thoughts? Hope he doesn't find the book about penis-shaped objects in our everyday lives. Oh well.
One random Sunday afternoon in the fall, my wife and I were strolling around Greenwich Village and happened to bump into Kareem. He was with another boy, and they both looked stunned that somebody knew them. Kareem eventually said hello to the both of us, and then out of nowhere explained that he was in the Village looking to purchase a bong to smoke weed from. "Dude! This is stuff you aren't supposed to tell your teacher," I said. He grinned, and my wife and I walked off.
The next day after school, Kareem was quietly grading some algebra quizzes for me. We were sitting directly across from each other. "Dude, seriously, why the hell were you in the Village buying bongs? I mean, do they not sell that sort of stuff up in the Bronx, where you live?" I asked laughingly.
"Really man, I don't get it," I continued. I was checking his graded papers to make sure he was correcting the quizzes properly. He was making some pretty careless mistakes. "Greenwich Village bongs are probably just as effective as Bronx bongs." I noticed he stopped grading the quizzes altogether. More silence. Then Kareem looked up at me and stared.
My response was fast, but not because I thought he was being serious. "I don't get what that has to do with buying a bong in the Village. Are you trying to change the subject?" I asked.
"Mista, I'm gay. I'm being serious," Kareem said.
"So?" I asked.
"You don't care if I'm gay?"
All of a sudden, it dawned on me what was happening. "Why would I care if you're gay or straight?" I asked.
"Because... I don't know. I was in the Village because that's where kids in the Bronx go if they want to like, you know, be themselves," he admitted.
"You mean, you can't be who you are in your neighborhood?" I asked stupidly. Completely ignorant question, in retrospect.
"No Mista, where you been? They be beatin' up on niggas like me up there. At least downtown nobody judge you. Don't tell nobody Mista, please. Nobody knows, except that boy you met yesterday. I ain't even tell my mother yet."
"Wait, so I'm the first person you've told this to?" Initially, I kept wondering why the hell this kid picked me. What made me so special, that he revealed this information to me? I couldn't come up with an answer.
"Kareem, I'll keep this a secret, but you need to learn to love and accept yourself. And, you need to tell your mother in time. You don't know how she will react, maybe she will support you through this, I mean, you already do a lot for her." When he finished grading, I locked up my classroom and took the familiar walk back to the subway.
It was the longest walk I'd ever taken in my life, as I kept playing the conversation over and over in my head.
I went home and had a few pints to chill out and reflect on what had just happened. It'd only been a couple of months since I'd started teaching, and it was already kicking my ass, but dealing with this type of knowledge was a different type of ass kicking. It broke my heart that this kid had to hide who he was. Simultaneously, I felt something pretty unreal about the fact that he chose to tell me about who he was. I suppose this was what teaching at a transfer school was going to be like, a healthy mix of getting my ass kicked with a side of warm hugs.