October 16th 1997, I arrived at Malcolm X Elementary in Hunter’s Point to sub a 4th grade class, I was the 20th substitute they’d had in twenty days. The original teacher quit after being punched by a student. I didn’t have a credential, I hadn’t been in a 4th grade classroom since I was 10.
On my first day I heard them before I opened the door, the shouts, the taunting, the loud fuck yous. When I walked in, they momentarily paused, looked me up and down, then ignored me.
There was Brandy whose mother had just died, sullen. Herman who had already been drunk, had the nickname Bad Boy. Randy, a former crack baby, had impulse control issues, hit other kids, then forgot why. Alonzo, who looked me in my eyes, asked me if I could find his father. Cammie, her biological mother entered the classroom drunk, started touching her cheeks. Ralphie, who entered 4th grade illiterate and left the same way. Donnie, who I implored to stop grabbing the cakes (bottoms) of girls in the hall. June, who’s mother I restrained from whoopin’ Ralphie’s little butt. Jasmine who I let sleep for the first two hours of school, because she stayed awake during the late night drug deals at her apartment. Rachel, who’s dad fought pitbulls and threatened to bitch slap one of my colleagues. Bevaun, who I took hiking on Mount Diablo, he liked to sing doo wop with me. Thuy, who stayed in my class for one week before her parents had the foresight to have her transferred out. Gene, who threatened to kill me, threw chairs, and was eventually transferred to another school. Then there was Ozzie, he was homeless, would fight anyone, was fearless.
There were a total of 23 kids, five barred windows, and one me. I started by being bigger, louder, but they knew that one, that was all they knew. One day I just closed my eyes and sat in the center of the room, quiet. I was amazed that they became quiet too, they just stared at me. I wasn’t meditating, but I figured out that me just sitting still had power.
The mornings got better, math, language arts, multiplication, some writing, except for Ralphie, he sat singing to himself. Before Christmas we practiced our song for the show (Christmas is Coming), I heard love in my voice, in some of their voices too. During the winter rains they sat next to me at lunch, asked me why I ate tomatoes. We had recess inside, everyday. Spring, I took them to Glen Canyon Park in San Francisco and Mount Diablo in the East Bay, we did outdoor silent sits, some fell asleep, curled up by oak trees.
June arrived and they left. Years later I started to google them. Thuy was a teacher, Brandy graduated from SF State. Alonzo was in lock up for drug distribution, Amir for assault and battery. And Bevaun, my Life Could Be A Dream doo wop partner, he was dead, killed in a drive by shooting. Most of them have probably forgotten about me, but I never forgot them, my first class.