Once They Were My Students Now They Are
On the first day of school, I asked students to write their response to this old standard: "If you could have dinner with three people, living or dead, who would it be?" All day I read the same names: Cindy Crawford and Mariah Carey; Leonardo DiCaprio, God, and Gandhi.
Michael's read: T. Leary, B. Hansen, A. Burgess.
"I know Timothy Leary and Anthony Burgess," I said, "but who's B. Hansen?"
"Beck," he said.
We got along fine.
Michael was a skater, whose head was shaved except for a thin, bleached streak that ran like a spine down his scalp. "A wannabe mohawk," he calls it now. In the summer, away from the vigilant gaze of the faculty, he dyed it -- "blue, yellow, hot pink, and a slew of other colors." Sophomore year, his hair prompted an assistant principal to quip, "Look, it's the last of the Mohicans."
Michael proved a gifted creative writer, whose first paper was a fun, plot-heavy story about a trio of reckless kids hanging around suburban warehouses and convenience stores. He preferred the skate park to school and books like Irvine Welsh's The Acid House to required freshman reading, keeping high school and all its pep at arm's length ("I think I get that from my mom," he says). He was a respectful kid, who rarely indulged in the dramatic fuss of fellow students -- the whine, the heavy sighs, the under-the-breath sarcasm. Still, when I asked the class to write down their opinions of The Odyssey, he scrawled on a piece of notebook paper, "This is the boring-est stuff ever!!!""
"I used to be a little punk," he says now. "Like especially in middle school. In ninth grade, I was still bad, but I wasn't as bad."
His sophomore year, he worked 25 hours a week administering surveys over the phone. "Sad to say, I had to give up skating," he says. But with the money he earned, he bought a cell phone and new tires and rims for his car. In his junior year, he began dating Stephyne, who is two years older. "To me, school isn't that bad," he says. "If I skipped school, I'd just be at home watching TV all day." Which isn't to say his opinions of required reading have changed. When I ask him about Silas Marner, the last thing he read in senior English, he says, "I hate that book so much!" (In his junior English class, the teacher allowed students to choose from a list of banned books. He chose One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and liked it. "If I have a choice about what I read, the possibilities are so much greater that I'll enjoy it," he says.)
Like most kids, he can't really articulate how he's changed, or why he changed. He just knows that he has. "I've learned to accept myself for who I am," he says. "Like in middle school, I was so confused. I didn't know what the hell I was gonna do or who I was or anything." Next year, Michael will attend ACC, where he plans to study child psychology. "I was never a big talker," he says. "I was always more of a listener, taking in what was around me. Plus," he says, "I like little kids. They make me smile." These days, his hair is back to its natural brown. His appearance is utterly unobjectionable -- except for one small thing. On the day we meet, he has just gotten his tongue pierced.