Young Whan Choi is a humanities teacher at MetWest High School in Oakland. (He also has a blog about teaching.) He started his career in Providence, RI, and recently heard from one of his former students. – Katy
The voice message began with “Wow, stranger!” One of my students, Aurelio, had called; it had been ten years since his graduation, since we had last smiled at one another.
Listening to the message, I immediately worried that something might be wrong. During my four years as his teacher, I was accustomed to bad news from Aurelio. One of my first conversations with him before he even started ninth grade in my classroom was about his cousin who was in jail awaiting his trial for accessory to murder. This older cousin was the one whom Aurelio had looked up to and who had eventually brought him into the gang life. A year later he confided in me that he had spent several night sleepless, worried that he might have shot someone while he had been in a drunken state. And throughout his time in high school, I experienced regular disappointments as he struggled to develop homework habits.
So what could this call be about? Slightly apprehensive, I dialed him back. To an outsider, this conversation may have sounded more like good friends at a high school reunion rather than a teacher and his now adult student. But my relationship with Aurelio and his peers was atypical. I knew his whole family. I had shared meals at his house, and we had even traveled together to a conference in Washington, D.C. During that trip he had shared dinner with my grandfather in my parents’ home.
I was not Jaime Escalante, and this was not Stand and Deliver. I was not some superhero teacher, saving my 130 students from the ills of society. In fact, in this public high school started by the Big Picture Company (a national school network), it was part of my job description to make home visits and to develop close, personal relationships with my students. This intimacy was simply part of their formula for making school work for all students. Having the same fourteen students all day everyday for four years is an example of the type of institutional change and commitment of resources that allows for meaningful teacher-student relationships. Aurelio often confided in me that he felt pulled in two directions – the streets and school. I witnessed his tearful regrets about the past and fears of an uncertain future.
As Aurelio and I reconnected over this phone call, I learned that he had spent much of the last ten years working on roofs with his father. Then he had injured himself. Unable to work, he thought about what he really wanted to do with his life. His work options were limited. His status in this country as an undocumented person had prohibited him from attending college and had demoralized him as he watched his peers make their post-high school plans. However, his heart told him there was more for himself in this world. He wanted to do something he loved – to cook.
As a tenth grade student, he had interned at a local Italian restaurant. Exploring your interests through internships was a key component of the Big Picture model, which had as one of its mottos “Pursue your Passions.” While his time at this restaurant ended ignominiously, a seed had been planted. Injured and reassessing his life, Aurelio turned to cooking food from his home culture of Venezuela and started a catering business with his family. Despite the economic downturn, Aurelio had been successful over the past couple of years and was contemplating opening his own restaurant. More striking than this news was the excitement in his voice. His life seemed full of possibility where once he had only seen limitations. While he had spent much of high school engaged in self-destructive behaviors, Aurelio as an adult was taking positive steps to live a meaningful life.
And then, he told me the most uplifting news of the call. He had obtained legal status in this country. While driving without a license, Aurelio had been arrested and was waiting for his moment in court. He was told that he should sign some papers if he wanted to get out of his predicament. Unwittingly, he signed agreement to his own deportation. In that moment of great despair, he was without friends or family. He looked around and miraculously found a familiar face. It was the face of an immigration lawyer whom we had sought counsel from during his senior year of high school. This lawyer happened to be in the courtroom and recognized Aurelio; he assisted Aurelio in not only avoiding deportation but also in putting in motion his application for residency.
I was overwhelmed by all this news. It made me question my growing skepticism and rekindled the light of hope, which had grown dim over the past twelve years in public education. I felt enormous gratitude for having been a part of this young man’s journey and for the many players who had contributed to Aurelio’s redemption. He had found a public school with the resources to provide him with caring adults in the form of teachers, social workers, and principals. His various high school mentors had given him an opportunity to experience the adult world of work and not to fear it. One mentor in particular did street outreach to gang members had significantly influenced Aurelio’s decision to stay out of gang life. His peers kept pushing him to stay in school. A chance encounter with an immigration lawyer allowed him to stay rooted here in the United States. His family loved and supported him. And through all his mistakes, Aurelio made the decision over and over again to choose to run his life rather than to let the streets run him.
In remembering how many hands reached out to Aurelio over the years, I see clearly that the redemption of our young people lies not only in their own efforts, but also in the commitment of our society at large. Will we be the dedicated mentors and teachers of our young people? Will we love our children even when they seem to be going astray? Will we fight to keep money in our public schools? When our young people are desperately looking to find their way, will we hold up a candle to cast light on their path or will we blow smoke in their faces?