The second lesson, which is equally as important, is former and current students are everywhere, so turn corners with caution. It's actually shocking how often I bump into former and current students in this city. Growing up in Chicago, I never bumped into my middle or high school teachers outside of school. I can't imagine what that would've been like, maybe awkward, but nothing more. I guess bumping into my teachers out of school wouldn't have been such a bad thing. I was a pretty good student, so maybe I wouldn't have had anything really to be embarrassed or uncomfortable about. Maybe it would've been different if I'd dropped out or was at risk of dropping out. What do you say when you bump into someone who believed in you and you're not exactly living life the way you wanted to? I wasn't sure.
Just Been Workin' Out
On a cold and windy evening in January, I came home from school tired, but not exhausted. Since I got home a bit earlier than usual, I decided I'd be productive and hit the gym for an hour. I threw on my gym clothes, blasted my iPod shuffle, and jogged down to my local gym.
At the time, my gym routine consisted of a two-to-three mile run every other day, followed by a thirty minute lift session. I powered through three miles on the treadmill and after stretching out, I made my way to the drinking fountain to rehydrate before I began lifting. I'd just begun running consistently, so I was pretty tired, but I still felt good. I could begin to see why people got addicted to this "running for fun" thing.
As I bent down to quench my thirst at the drinking fountain, I caught a glimpse of a tall, muscular man squinting at me. My usual response to such a thing is to stare back until the other party realizes they are staring, but I chose to ignore this particular person. Most likely because this guy was about a foot-and-a-half taller than me and looked like he could throw me out of the window. He probably just thinks he's seen me before, I thought. I looked up again after I finished drinking water and the guy was still staring. I've definitely seen this guy before. He had plenty of tattoos, was either Dominican or Puerto Rican, and a lot younger than I initially pegged him in my mind. As I tried to place his face, he walked over to me. I fumbled my iPod to pause AC/DC.
"Sorry, what?" I asked.
"Yo Mista! Remember me? It's Sal."
I stared. Sal... Sal... Who is Sal..? Have I taught this kid before? He does look sort of familiar...
I guess I was staring for a while. "Ay yo, don't you remember? I was in your Algebra class, like what, three years ago. You was my teacher yo! Remember? I was mad nice at Jeopardy, but I never wrote anything down. You be wantin' me to show work and shit," Sal laughed.
Sal. Of course I recognized him. Shit, this kid had grown. The Sal I knew in school was scrawny with messy hair, usually hunched over and sleeping on a desk. He usually wore super loose clothes and a Yankees baseball cap. The Sal in front of me was much taller, with an added thirty pounds of muscle. He'd shaved his head, which made him look meaner. His stubble made him look older. "Oh shit, of course I remember you now, Sal! You've grown man! I didn't even recognize you. How have you been? And where have you been?"
"Yeah dawg, it's a long story." Sal replied. All of a sudden, it felt like he felt he'd made a mistake approaching me. "My boy lives around here and so we just decided come work out," he answered.
"Oh, alright man, well it's nice to see you're okay and taking care of yourself."
Sal nodded and then seemed to get comfortable again. "See, I got this case on me. I was locked up for a while, you know? Attempted murder and all that. I been out for a couple weeks, but gotta show up for court next Wednesday. Can't do anything till after that, cuz I might be goin' back in."
At this point, I really hoped my poker face was on because I was having a really hard time comprehending attempted murder. "Shit man, I'm sorry to hear." It's all I could say. In retrospect, I still can't think of anything else to have added on to that.
"It be like that sometimes Mista. So I've just been workin' out, you know? All you can do in there really." We exchanged a few more words, and then parted ways. As I stretched out to knock out some pull-ups, I couldn't help but think, Man, I hope I wasn't an asshole to this kid when I was his teacher.
Milk and Bread
"Shit, no more fucking milk," I said to myself at 5 AM. It was the beginning of the school year, and I was getting ready for work, extremely disappointed that I couldn't make coffee for myself. Well, I could've made coffee, but it'd have been without milk, and who does that, really? I was also out of bread, which was even more frustrating because that meant I couldn't make myself a sandwich for lunch either. I was even more angry that I hadn't noticed this the night before, and could've therefore gotten over this a lot sooner. I made a mental note to make a pit stop at Trader Joe's after work to pick up some essentials.
Grocery shopping in New York City can be a bit stressful, especially if you shop at the Trader Joe's in Union Square, which is built for about one hundred customers but tries to accommodate one thousand. Don't get me wrong, I like what Trader Joe's has to offer (including their prices), but the physical space offered by this particular store is ridiculous. There are times when I haven't walked three feet into the store and I'm already greeted by the check-out line, wrapped around the perimeter of the store. That's what happened this time, which meant I'd have to keep my shopping cart in line as I ran up and down aisles picking things up and running them back to my cart. Of course, everyone is doing what I'm doing, which means there are empty shopping carts ahead of you that you need to keep pushing forward, as well as pesky senior citizens claiming ignorance about cutting you in line.
As expected, by the time I got to check-out I had bought a lot more than just milk and bread. In fact, I'd ended up buying four large Trader Joe's paper bags worth of food; quite a lot of shit if you're carrying this all on your own. This also meant my commute home wouldn't be as leisurely, since I'd have to catch a bus and then eventually carry those bags up a five floor walk-up. I don't have an elevator. This is also how I maintain my incredibly muscular legs, by the way.
As I waited for the bus, I saw someone unmistakably familiar walking down 3rd Avenue towards my bus stop. The long and thick curly hair dyed blond was a dead giveaway: this was Lindsay, a former student of mine from my first year of teaching. She was one of my favorites. She smiled and waved at me.
"Oh my God Mista, what's uppppp?!"
"Lindsay! Dude, so nice to see you! What are you doing in my neck of the woods?" I asked.
"Mista, I live in Alphabet City... you're in my hood!" Lindsay laughed.
"Ha! Wow, I didn't know that. So, what are you up to? It's been like, a year now since I've seen you..." I casually asked. I remembered how bubbly Lindsay was in class. I actually missed teaching her. She was one of those students who made you feel good about what you were doing, in terms of teaching as a profession. She was super bright, and had unlimited potential. Unfortunately, she'd dropped off the face of the planet after my first year of teaching. She claimed she couldn't take going to high school anymore, and that she was too far behind to consider taking classes seriously. Since she was eighteen, she signed herself out. In that moment, I'd forgotten that part.
Lindsay looked embarrassed, which I didn't expect. When she had signed out of school, her counselors given her the contact information to a GED program. I guess that didn't happen. "I know... I haven't even taken a GED class yet, Mista. Life is mad busy right now. There's been mad work and the money is good, you know?"
I'd heard this before, but I didn't think I'd hear it from her. "Yeah, but come on Lindsay. Think. How long before you stop getting a pay raise? You can't expect to make a solid living easy without a diploma or specialized training. We've talked about this." I was getting irritated, which I hoped she couldn't tell, but I am horrible at hiding irritation once I feel it. Keyword: feel.
"I know Mista, don't worry. I'll take the class at some point."
My bus pulled into the stop and the conversation was cut short. We said our goodbyes and as I made my way home, I couldn't help but wonder what the fuck I could do for someone like her. How do I just keep teaching math and ignore the larger issue? I thought about students growing up in this country without anyone to teach them what to value, or how to limit instant gratification. I thought about how this country's most marginalized kids are being distracted and disillusioned by the promise of a minimum wage gig. I thought about my wife's nephew, who at the time was learning how to make animated PowerPoint presentations in elementary school while my students who were about to hit twenty-years old were asking me to teach them how to use Google Documents. Yet simultaneously, they're damn good at uploading pictures of themselves holding a stash of hundred dollar bills on Instagram. #WTF
Needless to say, that bus ride home sucked.