I was in my first full year teaching at one of the rougher junior high schools in the city. It was the year Tupac and Biggie both got popped, and the ominous feeling that violence was right around the corner lay on the campus and community like a thick fog. I lost a handful of students that year. Some were killed, and many times death was communicated to me with a great nonchalance. Others did the killing and disappeared into the justice system. The students had seen so much violence and many expected that to be the way they went, sooner rather than later.
There was one girl I have told stories about over the years. I will refer to her as Dee. She was roughhewn, aggressive and funny in her own way. I didn't realize it at the time, but she quoted the movie Friday almost every time she opened her mouth. She rarely came to school, when she did she was obviously high. I know she was searched on more than one occasion, with no contraband in her possession. But her drug use was written on her heavy eyelids, and many times on the reek of smoke that permeated her. I never knew her story, why she was missing school or any details of her life. Dee was just that girl that showed up roughly a third of the time, and when she did she was stoned.
But I did have that story about Dee.
One day when Dee showed up for school, she was more stoned than usual. Shuffling down the hall, eyes half closed, she almost walked into me. I spoke, told her to move on to class. She grunted back and kept moving. Then she skipped my class an hour later. When she was disciplined for this, she remarked that she didn't think I had seen her that day. I have told this story on a few occasions to have an example of how out of it some kids are at school. This story usually gets knowing nods and bemused chuckles of familiarity.
I haven't seen Dee for almost 20 years, and then last fall I go to a new fast food restaurant in town. I don't do fast food for myself often, but my boys wanted it. As I am standing in line, I look back into the kitchen and see Dee.
It is obviously her, but to confirm I wait to see the nametag and sure enough it is her unique first name. I stood there doing the math in my head. She would have to be in her mid 30s, and I am ten years older than her. But looking across the counter she looked a decade older than I do.
What sort of life has she had the past two decades? Has it been a motley collection of dead end minimum wage jobs and scrambling to get by?
When we tell amusing stories about our students, many times it distances us from them. This was a student I failed to reach and help. Granted, I wasn't the only one and there is probably a list of institutions and people who did not help this woman pull herself up. But she isn't a semi-humorous cautionary tale.
She is a woman who is struggling. Behind our anecdotes about our students are real human lives. Sometimes we distance ourselves from our students in a variety of ways. We must not lose touch with the fact that their stories don't end with us. Our students are first and foremost people, and we must not let things distance us from their humanity.