Several worlds ago, but just a few years back, I was lucky enough to learn from a man who knew magic.
We’ll call the man Asklepios, because he could talk to snakes.
When I met him, Asklepios had been working with teenagers on the streets of his city for over thirty years. These kids were on the run and looking for meaning in all of their escapes. They forged a kind of fraught togetherness under bridges and in the central bus station. They insisted on their continued existence through luck and stealth and chatting up strangers. Then they returned to the shells of themselves to hide.
Now, Asklepios was born with bad lungs and a club foot and as an infant he had not been expected to survive. He survived, though. He survived to run through the woods in the forested land in back of his family house in Western Washington and later to discover he could speak in voices unheard to both animals and children.
He listened for signs that most of us can’t hear and the signs told him that the under-the-bridge kids and the bus station-kids and the stoned-out-of-their-minds-skate-park kids of his city wanted to learn.
Asklepios became a school. He had a box with some supplies and he went into the streets and after some time the kids went to him. He was a kind of a touchstone for their days, broken-up afternoons when they dared to scratch themselves into words and patterns on paper and speak about what it is we’re all after.
Thirty years of this and Asklepios had a school that was a room with beds that pulled down from the wall and a kitchen and a front office area and a large bathroom and round tables where groups of kids gathered during the day, because the whole place was theirs to become the smartest versions of themselves they could be.
But not all of the adults at the school saw the kids the way Asklepios did. He knew they were bright and powerful and had experienced tremendous loss. He knew they needed strong and artful structures all around them to remind them they were whole and wanted and filled with potential.
Nevertheless the kids threw chairs through windows and joined gangs, and smoked meth in the alley and changed into short skirts in the bathroom before letting themselves loosely out into the street. They sometimes didn’t come to school for weeks and many of the adults shrugged and smiled or said nothing or took the whole thing personally because I thought we were friends, or kicked them out for rule violations without another word.
I was a watcher and a sometimes-teacher in the school. I had recently been the sole confidante of the young man who threw the chair through the window, which was to be the last day I ever saw him.
I went to Asklepios and asked him what was happening. He said, “Zora, these other adults have not dealt with their losses. We have to deal with our losses before we can help anyone else with theirs.”
He said, “The worst thing we do to these young people is to lower our expectations of them. We dehumanize them when we lower our expectations. And they will never come into themselves from that lowered place. They will never learn from there.”
I’ve carried Asklepios’s words with me through several worlds and years of kids and classrooms and I will say it is not easy. I do not want to be the teacher whose caring clouds her vision. I will see a student itching with anger and distractions that are all out of his power and I might think let’s just bend the rules here for you, just this once.
And then I have to ask myself all about the implications of that bending.
I carried Asklepios’s words with me into a panel of principals yesterday speaking about what they looked for in teachers for their urban schools and one principal of a mostly Latin@ school said, “We’ve had too much of the Pobrecito Syndrome in our schools. Our kids may have tough lives. None of that is taken into account when their work is judged. They need to be pushed. They need to be able to compete.”
Pobrecito, the Spanish word for “poor little thing”; a syndrome of white pity.
And much as I would like students to need to collaborate instead of compete, that I would like our whole dismal economic structure to go away, away, from our classrooms, I heard Asklepios again in the principal’s words.
It is not often clear, you know, in each interaction: late homework, and absences, and points off, and no points off, another chance, another meeting, another reminder, another extension, another how is your mother, sister, grandmother, your health, your head, your totaled car, your busted eye?
The forever questioning: Am I enabling you? Or am I allowing you just exactly what you need to go?