During his 7th grade year I knew Abel Cazares only by name.
The following year as he walked into my 8th grade Reading class he could have been any student in khaki shorts and blue Polo uniform, the scent of Old Spice beginning to fade, but when he introduced himself, his boyish face and his delicately combed hair came into focus, his 7th grade rap sheet on replay in my mind as I put my hand out to shake.
“I’m Abel,” he said.
Despite his clean clothes and high dollar shoes, his backpack lay flat on his back, the thought of carrying pencils, paper and notebooks not within this boy’s definition of school.
“What do you do in here?” he asked, looking around at the words on the walls, a Hemingway quote on the chalkboard in the back of the room, one by Louis L’Amour under the first, my interpretive version of the definition of intelligence on the chalkboard next to the other two.
Intelligence: The ability to acquire, consider and apply new information.
“We read,” I said.
He looked around some more and then back at me. “Ah, Ms.,” he said. “No offense, but I don’t read.”
“Don’t worry,” I said as I waved my hand toward the rows behind him. “They didn’t either.”
That’s when he noticed the other students, their heads down, books flat on the desks. The only sound in the room was Abel’s side shuffle.
“I can read,” he clarified. “I just don’t.”
“You’ll fit right in,” I said, but he was already exhausting me.
Abel Cazares arrived part way through school, part way through the week and even part way through 2nd period and I didn’t even know why he had changed schedules or who had initiated or approved the change. All I knew is I didn’t have the time or inclination to argue with him so I told him he could pick something from my shelf or he could go to the library.
“I’ll go to the library,” he said, so I let him go.
I didn’t ask him what book he checked out nor did I bother to find out if he could read it. All I knew is I had spent every day since looking at him lying sideways on his desk, a juvenile-sized fantasy book listless next to his head. A hibernating bear had more energy than this boy.
I look around the room and note everyone else. A month ago this particular class was more like the first hour of Black Friday at WalMart, and now, fifteen minutes into class everyone is back at home, absorbed in their Black Friday gangas.
I call Abel over and motion he needs to bring his book. As he slides onto the stool next to my desk he reassumes his state of lethargy, upper body heavy and loose, resting on one elbow, his head in the palm of his hand.
“You’ve been here a week,” I say, “what’s that book you’re reading?”
“This,” he says as he taps the book toward me with his free hand.
“The Summer of the Unicorn,” I say. “Looks fascinating.”
“Yep,” he says.
I ask him if it’s the book he still wants to read. He says it is. I ask him if he likes it, he says he does. I ask him why he picked it.
“It has pretty purple unicorn,” he says.
“And purple is your favorite?” I say.
From our first encounter it was obvious Abel was no real bad boy, his computer history was void of anything beyond the typical public school misdemeanor. But the reality at Mission Heights Middle School is that switchblades and Southside tattoos in Old School English are a rare sighting.
Where I work the epidemic is written in invisible ink.
I print his grades and tell him to pick the paper up off the printer.
When he brings it back I take a marker from my desk and write in bold, clear letters, “My name is Abel Cazares and I have done everything I can to never graduate from high school. Please help me make my dreams come true.” I write his name in bold print too, draw a line above the letter and slide it back over to him.
He smiles as he looks down like I’ve just given him a free pass to roam the hallways or leave campus for lunch or a hundred dollar bill to be spent on anything having nothing to do with school.
Then I see him read the words, see the words pass his eyelids and sink into his psyche. He turns to look at me. I hold out a pen.
“Seriously, you’re never going to make it so just sign,” I say.
He shakes his head.
“Oh, come on,” I say. “I’m trying to help. This is your plan, right? You have straight F’s, you’re doing nothing in class just like last year, so just sign the paper. Make a statement. Be brave—I’m here to help.” I hold the pen closer to him, I want to make it easy for him to give up, give in, let the wave of apathy carry his lifeless body out to sea, let the sharks turn his body into tasteless chum.
He shakes his head again.
In this moment I don’t know Abel any better than I know the girl who bags my groceries or the man who delivers my mail, but the second he entered my room he made me an accomplice to crimes he was destined to commit against the 18 year old Abel, the one filling out minimum wage applications, picking up his Food Stamp card or sporting an orange one-piece suit and living life in a 8x10 foot cell.
I print his grades in 6 classes, each one a testament in favor of Abel’s retention in 8th grade, each one a piece of evidence stating Abel will never wear a cap or a gown.
“Okay, go pick up all of the papers off that printer.” I point again to the far wall.
He walks over, looks down and pauses. I suppose this makes sense, the last time he walked over to the printer it didn’t go so well, but he grabs the stack and comes back to the stool next to my desk.
I look at his face.
It’s not that I didn’t see him before, his black hair, his dark brown eyes or his long eyelashes. It’s not that I didn’t notice his lanky, not-quite-man, not-quite-boy body.
It’s not that I couldn’t pick him out of a line up.
It’s that I don’t want him picked out of a line up that I look past the slouched shoulders and slumber-walk, past the I-don’t-care affect.
“Do you know you are five time more likely to drop out of school than any of your friends with passing grades?”
“I am?” he says.
“But I have a plan,” I say. “It starts with these teachers—do you want to hear or am I wasting my time?”
He nods his head this time, fully aware now there will be no free pass to roam the hallways coming his way, no windfall of cash falling from the ceiling.
I tell him how to talk to each of his teachers, the one who will cuss at him, the one who will be mad, the one who is waiting for Abel to man-up and the one who will be sweet and let him hand in make-up work.
“If you don’t decide what you’re going to do with your life,” I say, “someone is going to decide for you.”
“No,” I assure him, someone with far more villainous ideas than I will be happy to open the door for him back into Mission Heights for 8th grade Round Two.
“Here,” I say as I put a book in his hand. “I usually don’t let the boys read this until they’ve read a few others for me, but I need you to read as soon as possible.”
He looks down at the cover, a picture of the back of a boy’s head covered in cornrows, the title, Tyrell, across the top. This is the book the boys can’t put down. Tyrell is the first person they ever cared about they’ve never met.
“But what about my unicorn,” he says.
I tell him I’ll have someone return it to the library as I tap the cover of Tyrell. “You’ll like it, I promise. I’m also not kidding—we have a deal.”
“—I had a unicorn,” Abel says as he picks himself up off his elbow and stands. “Alright. I’ll read it.”
“You will read it or I’m not going to help you move onto 9th grade,” I said, “I’m going to—.”
“I know, I know—help me drop out—drive the hearse to my funeral—I got you.”
This makes me laugh. “‘—hearse to my funeral?’ clever,” I say. “But seriously, ask some of the guys in here. They’ll tell you how great this book is.”
Abel looks at me. I know what I just said doesn’t make any sense, but I know he’ll read it. The first year I changed my teaching style from whole class book sets to individualized reading I gave Tyrell to one of my boys. The day after he returned to class with a grin from here to Mexico. “Ms.,” Hector whispered. “There’s a blow job on page three.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Sorry?”
And I was sorry. I immediately pictured his mom storming into the school screaming, “What did you give my son!”
I heard myself explaining, “But he’s reading—.”
I heard her rapid fire rant in Spanish.
I saw myself updating my resume.
“You want me to take it back?” I said.
“Oh, no,” he said. “I just didn’t know there were things like that in books.”
Oh, yes, my boy, I wanted to say. There are hand-jobs and blowjobs and so much more, but I didn’t say that.
“You don’t have to read it—,” I said. “We can find something more G-rated.”
He held Tyrell to his chest like a little boy holds his bankie. “Nah, I’m good,” he said and he walked back to his seat.
This class, these books, they aren’t about what the students will find.
Every book I give, every lesson I teach is about who they will find.
What Abel doesn’t know is this is my last year as a classroom teacher, twenty-nine years in a classroom coming to an end and I’m going out books a-blazin’. If Abel isn’t careful I may just snatch Tyrell out of his hands. I’ll wait of course, until Tyrell is alone with his girlfriend. Then we’ll see if Abel says, “’No offense, Ms., I don’t read.’”
I laugh. I would do that.
The kids in my classes have never read an entire book, and they can’t relate to Harry Potter and his magic wand. Abel is 28 days behind everyone else and I need to get enough books inside him to get his lungs to work again, mend his shattered heart and kick the shit out of apathy.
I look forward to the day I see yellow caution tape stretched around my students’ neighborhoods, the chalk outline of apathy on the ground, crushed by the weight of a thousand books.
No educator, no real educator, likes the kid who escapes his consequences and the 8th grade team is going to make sure Abel pays for his apathy unless he can turn it around, change his grades, change his attitude, and change his relationships with his teachers but I don’t have 180 days anymore.
He’s only given me 152.