Some of my favorite lines of poetry come from DH Lawrence’s “Self Pity:”
I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.
My students have stories that I sometimes never hear. We are busy people in the classroom. We don’t have a lot of time to sit around and talk about our feelings and cry.
Sometimes, though, I get a chance to know the true resilience of the rising generation. Their stories evoke the tenacious bird of the poem, its gnarly little feet curled around the bough, giving zero f**** about the weather.
I love that crazy bird.
Not long ago I taught at a public charter school where I led a group of twelve male Advisory students through their senior year. This group was notorious for going through teachers who quit on them. Their last Advisor made the whole group stand in the field in the rain instead of the classroom because they were so bad. He named them the Asshole Advisory.
At the end of their junior year, I asked if they would mind if I took over as their Advisor. The one who had given the group their nickname was quitting. I knew a few of the boys pretty well already, including Issac who was one of my best literature students.
Don’t do it, Issac said. We’re the Asshole Advisory. You don’t want us.
Oh bring it on, I said. I’m not afraid of you.
I should have been afraid. I don’t call kids names (usually if I can help it), and I never made them stand in a field, but they were kind of bad. I found myself saying things like, Please stop turning your friend upside down. Please stop jumping off the table. Please stop farting on your friend’s head. Funny if you’re dealing with first graders. Kind of disconcerting when they are six feet tall.
They teased me ruthlessly, Issac included. We went to a homeless shelter one morning to help mop and clean. Don’t fall and break your hip, they yelled in front of everybody as I walked across the wet floor. They laughed so hard that you would have thought calling me old (I’m in my forties) was pure comedy gold. Another day when they saw me head to lunch with two of my somewhat younger colleagues, they joked that wasn’t it nice that my friends were taking out their grandma.
As for me, I was never not on their cases. I had total access to their grades in all of their classes and gave them so much hell for not turning in assignments that it was less trouble to do their homework than it was to face me.
I was never so happy to see May. Everybody passed their classes and would graduate. Most of the group had been accepted to college. It was awesome.
Senior year culminated in a portfolio presentation where they talked about their high school accomplishments and future plans in front of a panel of four adults, including me.
When it was Issac’s turn to present, I steeled myself. I knew the story he was about to tell the panel. It was a doozy.
When he was in ninth grade, Issac and his friend were walking down the street together when a white car veered onto the sidewalk. Issac pushed his friend out of the way and took the full brunt of the impact on himself. He has no memory of the event beyond a flash of white, then waking up in the hospital. And then pain.
Issac’s injuries left him with a slight hitch in his walk and an inability to play sports. To say he never felt sorry for himself over the crash and the aftermath is understating the case. He hardly ever talked about it. He didn’t even consider himself particularly brave.
Isaac would say, I can’t really feel proud of myself for something I don’t remember I did.
Not only was Issac one of my best literature students before he was my Advisee, I also knew him from my neighborhood. We swam at the same public pool where I brought my daughter and he his five younger brothers and sisters.
The responsibility for the care of his siblings fell to Issac most of the time. When I say responsibility, I mean it was Issac’s job to feed, discipline, entertain, and keep safe his five younger siblings. For reasons of their own, his parents were often incapable of the task. You should have seen them at the pool, though. These kids were happy and relaxed, splashing around in the hot Central Valley summers like life was a sweet thing. With their older brother hanging out them, I guess it was.
Issac got into a good college program a two hour drive away. He also earned a healthy scholarship that would allow him to afford to go. He worked so hard in high school. No student deserved it more, despite his stupid old lady jokes.
It was during Issac’s panel talk that I learned he wasn’t going. He had decided to defer. Leaving town would mean leaving his brothers and sisters to the vagaries of the local foster care system. The family would be broken up. He wouldn’t know if they were safe.
College will always be there, he said. My family comes first.
He would stay in town and take jobs that allowed him to bring money into the household. He would be there for the ones who depended on him. One of the panelists asked Issac what he thought his greatest accomplishment was that year and he said that he was proudest of his family. He knew they were proud of him too, and that meant more than he could say.
I held on to my own bough during Issac’s talk. My knuckles were white as hell, but I held on.
I didn’t lose my shit until I was alone in the room. Then I cried like a damn baby. Of course, I wanted him to go to college right away. He deserved it. Life was hard enough with a college degree. Without one, he would face enormous financial disadvantage. But there had been stories in the news of little kids getting lost in the shuffle of the local foster care system, getting hurt and sometimes killed. This young man had been throwing himself in front of destruction for the sake of others his whole life. I had to respect his decision.
I dried my eyes whenever Issac or any of my Advisory sons told me their struggles. We talked about solutions and next steps. My tears were of no use.
Issac needed me to provide feedback on his writing, tell him to quit wrestling with his friend in the classroom, and bring a box of donuts once in a while. He had no self-pity whatsoever and he sure as hell did not need mine.
Maybe it’s because I assign journals for writing practice, and take on jobs like Advisor and retreat leader that I have the perspective I do on the young people I teach. I guess someone who didn’t know Issac could say that kids these days just hang out at the pool, live at home with their parents, and don’t go to college. The real stories are beyond what you could ever imagine and half the time the details would freeze you dead.
Isaac and I are still in touch, and he gave me permission to tell this story. I think of him and all of his Advisory brothers with so much love and respect and joy. I think of them and I pray every day that I take their lead and just do my job and grip my bough.
Well, I wrote a book inspired by my Advisory sons so I got the last laugh ha ha ha. Check it out here if you want.