We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.
Hate the Sin, Love the Pencil
The first thing my students do when given a new, sharp pencil is to tear off the eraser and either chew it or throw it at someone else. They are quick to assure me, state issued uniform ignored, they don't make mistakes and won't need it.
The second thing they do is genuinely complain that none of the day-old pencils have erasers. In protest, they break off the tips, either by treating the pencil as a percussive instrument or stabbing it into the radiator (they also are keen to complain the temperature is unsteady in the classrooms, but they don't see the connection between their actions and the shivering/sweating that occurs the next day as maintenance has to open it up and root around again). They then hand the pencil to an adult, daring us to sharpen it again so they can break it once more. They want to see how many times they can sucker us into letting them avoid the consequences of their actions, how many times they snap the new pencils in two so that they can monitor the reactions of people paid to improve their lives.
Yes, this is where your tax dollars go: replacement pencils for Hillary Clinton's "super-predators."
Whenever I read about a juvenile crime that breaks the water of media attention, I wonder if this will be the next boy to come into my classroom and reenact primordial dramas with writing utensils. I wonder if I will meet these notorious youth and, if so, how I will deal with him. But I know the answer: by just seeing him as a student deficient of English credits. I cannot see him with harsh clarity and continue to do my job.
I am a competent enough professional that I can defuse rival gang members and get them talking about Oedipus Rex without much difficulty ("Hey, kids, do you realize what Oedipus did with his mom?"). The struggle is internal, when I allow myself to acknowledge the severity of their crimes. For my own mental composure, I pretend they are all nonviolent drug offenders or, at worst, gullible petty thieves. I can overlook those crimes without much effort. Yes, they did wrong, but we need only make the most of it now so that I never need to again meet them.
But they aren't all potheads and pickpockets. I have faced rapists, violent offenders. I have met children who left my facility to become murderers. Some of them have abused small children. I understand that many of them act out of their own trauma, doing onto others as has been done unto them. That doesn't excuse the perpetuation of abuse. It can't.
It is easy to say you love the sinner when you don't have to grade their English papers, when an unspoken part of your weekday isn't working in hope that this sinner can rise above the stain of their immorality. It is easy to mouth hollow words of clemency when you do not have to look the sinner in the eye and care about their success.
More than once, my favorite kid in the facility had committed a crime for which a punitive part of me wants to see them locked away from society forever. I separate them from their prior actions if only as a survival mechanism, because I will hate this job if I allow myself to only see these boys as the sum total of their evils against the world. I won't be able to do anything but stew if I relent to superimposing the face of my loved ones on my students' victims. How can I work to love the sinner if I can see the sin so sharply?
I was the victim of a mugging as a teenager. Eight boys played at being a Hispanic gang harassed my then girlfriend. My best friend at the time just kept walking, leaving us there to be surrounded by the presumptive gang. The tiniest, weakest of the gang ordered one of his bruisers to punch me in the head until my girlfriend handed over the three dollars she had in her wallet. This traumatized me enough that I shivered for days, unable to find my inner fire. I pressed changes because Tiny had been one of my mother's students when he was in elementary school and I knew him on sight, but I do not think anything came of it beyond the judicial system pestering me for the next year.
Every day at my job, I see their spiritual sons. Every day, I treat them with patience and compassion (albeit in a wry way because that is the only way I can be authentic with them). I have given them Christmas presents, run races against them, planned out field days so they can have a glimmer of a normal childhood.
When I did my student teaching, I pointed out that I didn't think my former high school deserved its reputation as a factory for future convicts-even if its dropouts had once mugged me. My old English teacher informed me that the faculty did all they could to protect me from the reality of my alma mater. I doubt she would be pleased to know that I have ended up teaching the students she thought should be kept from my benighted presence.
I cannot say in full honesty that I got into the teaching field to save children, though that is the sort of line I trot out for interviews. I entered the teaching field because it seemed like the likeliest profession to keep me afloat and ego-gratified while I pursued my career as a novelist. However, I want to save kids. I want to have good days and those are precious few at me job. More likely, I hear that a child I liked (maybe despite himself) is now in the Department of Corrections years early for a serious of violent crimes. In the four years I have worked this job, I have yet to have taught a murder victim, but I still expect that news to come.
Some in this position give up, falling into objectification, classism, racism on the state's dime. Some burn up under a savior complex. I don't get to have good days, not the way I imagined them when getting my Master's. I am not inspiring scholars to the heights of their potential. On my best days, I am demonstrating that a man can be intelligent and peaceful and still be successful and happy.
They are still children. Stupid, stumbling, and damaged boys who were not taught how to behave outside of bars. I am not the person who has to decide they have paid for their crimes, if indeed the debt for brutally raping someone can be forgiven.
They may think they have no erasers left, no second chances (no matter how many times they are released and reoffend). They may only see a tool of creation-one that could sketch a masterpiece or be worn down on their epic life story-as a potential shiv. My job, so long as I can do it, is to hand them another opportunity to prove they've learned a lesson, no matter how they think they are putting one over on me.
Soon in Xenology: Art.