Once They Were My Students Now They Are
On my first day of teaching, I was in tears before the bell ever rang. I was 23, hired as a freshman English and world geography teacher at Connally in Pflugerville, a school so new they didn't even have a senior class. And in my rush to get to school too early, I had left everything in a pile by the doorway. The syllabus. The reading list. The cheeky get-to-know-me sheet.
"Do you know Murphy's Law?" I asked my first-period class, who responded with blank stares. "Well, it's that everything that goes wrong does." That didn't sound right. "Or anything bad that happens ... Oh, forget it. What I'm trying to say is that I forgot all the handouts at home."
A cheer erupted.
By last period, I had a new opening line. "Look around," I said, gesturing meaningfully to the movie posters that I was hoping to be admired for, "what can you tell about me?"
A girl in the back row raised her hand. "You're short."
The kids I taught were not the high schoolers of the movies. They were strange, and small, and hilarious. When I wasn't looking, the kids would tag the chalkboard with their ZIP code: "53 rulez! 27 pride." More than one boy asked me to call him by his "rap name," which usually involved adding to his given name the prefix "Lil" (or lil' or l'il , but almost never, ever li'l). They asked the most ridiculous questions: "Miss, are there really 50 states in America?" "Miss, do you party?" Everything good was "tight" and "crunk"; everything bad was "ghetto."
We had one thing in common, though: We had no idea what we were doing. It was their first year in high school, it was my first year back. Only months prior, I had been a student myself, slumped in my chair, daydreaming, daring anyone to teach me something I didn't already know. Now I was shipwrecked with 90 kids in room B14, and I was to be their leader. I was to impart wisdom, the joys of Homer, Romeo & Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird. Help them organize their thoughts and opinions into a paper. Tell them to stop talking, settle down, get to work, class. I don't know what, if anything, I taught them. But I left knowing the name of every Backstreet Boy.
I lasted only one semester. Five months. After that, I came to the Chronicle. I used to say "fled," but that's just me being dramatic. I agonized over leaving the position, not because I loved waking up at 6am or eating chicken fingers by myself every day, but because I hated leaving the students. But it's not as though I could have held on to them if I stayed. Teachers are always saying goodbye; it's the way things work.
The following five students were in my class that year. Most of them knew each other long before they knew me. Lizette has a picture of Michael at her birthday party in kindergarten. Michael and Jeni grew up down the street from each other. But to me, their histories begin in 1998, when they walked into my class for the first time. I wanted to find out what they were like now, what terrible and wonderful things had happened during high school, which, unlike me, they couldn't just leave. But actually, they could have left, and many of their classmates did: Out of the 90 students I had, only about 60 are graduating from Connally. The rest have moved, dropped out, gotten their GED, become pregnant. So I should say that unlike me, they chose not to leave.
On a few recent spring afternoons, we met on the benches or in the classrooms of Connally and talked about high school. I hadn't seen most of them in three years, and though they were noticeably older, I was surprised to discover how familiar they seemed. When we got together for the photograph that you see on this page, I watched them together. I watched Edward and Jeni separate themselves and gossip loudly. I watched Michael drift quietly from one group to the next, listening and laughing, his hands stuffed in his pockets. I watched Lizette chat everyone up, completely comfortable talking to a teacher, another student, a stranger. I watched Steve get busted for dawdling in the hall, and I watched him try to charm his way out of it: "Aww, Miss. You look nice today." They've changed. But they seem like the same kids I taught three years ago, weird and twisted and beautiful. Only they're seniors now. Actually, they are high school graduates.