Imagine a white woman from Iowa teaching Spanish in a town that was one fourth Latino. Imagine coming into the classroom mid-year after a string of substitutes.
On my first day, a student said, “You’re our 12th sub. How long are you going to last?”
It was a brand new middle school in Ramona in San Diego County. The windows to the gym were all broken. Many of the outside doors wouldn’t lock, including the one to my classroom.
I was pregnant and had five classes in a row. That meant I had to leave my unlocked classroom and run to the bathroom at least once a day.
When I returned, kids would be all over the room but not seated. The first week, I started writing their names on the board until the kids figured it out and sat down.
“My name’s on the board, “ one boy said. “So what?”
“So your name with two checks after it means detention,” I said.
Most kids sat down. A few challenged me and made sure they got the two checks.
The next day the board was clean.
“Where’s my name?”
“Gone,” I said. “Every day we start over.”
Detention was a joke. I assigned it but no one came. I called the parents but no one answered, or the student answered, horrified (or not) that it was me.
One day, on the way up the mountain road to reach Ramona, I got caught behind an accident. I had to detour around the highway on side roads and got to school late. The principal told me someone had died in the crash.
I walked into the classroom. My students demanded, “Where were you?”
“There was an accident,” I said. “Someone died.”
“I wish it would’ve been you,” a white kid said.
This was my 10th year of teaching. No one had ever said anything like that to me, ever.
I wrote Jason’s name on the board.
“I’m not doing detention,” he said, “I‘ll miss my bus.”
“Sit down, Jason,” I said.
The week before I had touched his shoulder and he had threatened me with a lawsuit.
You’re not in Kansas anymore, Ms. Elya, I thought to myself.
Jason wouldn’t sit down.
“Go to the office,” I said.
At my old Midwestern school, that would’ve meant a visit with the vice principal.
Five minutes later, Jason was delivering messages from the office secretary to the various classrooms.
The principal called me in after school.
“The students tell me you aren’t being their friend,” he said.
“I thought I was supposed to be their teacher,” I said. “Where I come from, there are rules, and the kids need to follow them.”
I was beginning to understand why the gym windows were all broken out.
I stayed a year and a half, with maternity leave somewhere in the middle. My best class was 7th/8th grade ESL, where I taught the Latino kids English. It was tough. I got called lots of names, and two girls dropped out to clean motel rooms.
One of the other teachers had “borrowed” the class computer. I tracked it down and let two kids each day sit down and mess around with it. Eventually the computer lab teacher invited my ESL class to come in once a week for lessons.
Alejandro, Luis, Noe, Aida, Armando, Xiomara, Xavier, Roberto, Elizabeth, Robin, Jose – I can’t remember all their names, but I do remember those kids, my favorite class ever.
And Jason. I’ll always remember him, the one who wished I’d died on the way to school.