Sunday, February 10, 2013

T's Story

There aren’t many students I’d write about, but I told this kid we were going to write his story some day, and he became part mine when he was a teenager. I’m going to call him T. I first met T when he was a kid. I was picking up his older sister to take her to the symphony. Our high school was founded by wealthy philanthropists. A, T’s sister, was a young teenaged mother in foster care. A always seemed to have a level head on her shoulders, as well as a team of angels on her side. Last I saw her, she was working in the healthcare industry. That night I took A to the symphony, she approached my car with a large, silent kid I had never seen before. A said, “This is my little brother, T. Can he come?”

I did a double take. T was big for a little brother. I said sure as my job was to get as many kids as possible to the symphony, with tickets donated by our founders, and A was my only taker. I didn’t blame the kids who didn't show; I didn’t want to go either. When we got to the symphony hall, one of the school founders spotted us and gestured for me to bring the kids over to him and his friends. He asked me where the rest of the kids were as we had been given a dozen tickets. I told him the other kids didn’t come; he turned to his symphony friends and joked about what losers and flakes my students were. In a new job, I stood frozen and blinking.

The kids and I found our way in and took our seats. I don’t think T said two words to me the entire night. His eyes were like a panicked deer’s in headlights. People stared at us – two black kids with a white woman in her 20s wearing tatty jeans and a t-shirt, surrounded mostly by older white people in sportcoats and cocktail dresses.

Years later, I didn’t recognize T at first as a new student to the high school. When I realized who he was, I reminded him of the symphony night. T clammed up when I mentioned it at the time, and for the first year or so, I knew nothing about his past. I did learn he had big gaps in his education after missing a couple years of elementary school.

T's mother had issues. T had stayed home with his mother to help with her business, watching hours of TV and learning to cook for himself. I was struck by both his innocence and wisdom as a young man. There were people who were scared when they first met T, which anyone could tell you was ridiculous after knowing him for 5 minutes.

T was sensi about fairness. During spring semester, the last class meetings of the week were reserved for Review Basketball in my classes. It was a game played in teams involving an indoor hoop. Over time, the kids and I had developed a system of rules for the game. One Friday, a few minutes before class dismissal, I made a call that violated one of our rules. T cussed before he walked out and stopped talking to me for days.

I had no idea what happened until I learned from other people that T was mad about the game. When we finally talked, he was still mad that I had been so wrong. I got in his face and quietly told him that some day, I hope he remembers how mad he was at me for being unfair . . . when you’re the adult, you have to make a lot of calls, and sometimes you mess up. I acknowledged where T was coming from and recommended that next time he had an issue, he approach me directly about it.

Shortly before T graduated, he turned in his life story as a class assignment. He didn’t put his name on it, and his writing was a little rough. I didn’t know who it belonged to for a while. When the connection was finally made, I was stunned. You know I had a series of questions, otherwise known as the cross examination of T. Here is how I’d tell the story, although I'm sure there are details to be confirmed or denied.

T's mother got in some kind of trouble, and T was left on his own and living on the streets in Georgia. A lady who owned a nearby business passed T panhandling on the street a few times before she stopped and talked to him one day to find out his story. She ended up taking him in before buying him a Greyhound ticket to California, where his older half sister was in foster care. The lady gave T cash for the trip and her phone number for him to confirm his safe arrival to his destination.

The lady had advised T to get off the streets as the police would pick him up and his fate would be foster care in Georgia, which, at the time, was known to be a deadend for throwaway children. Maybe T already knew this; regardless, the lady saved him.

T made it to California and found his sister. Eventually, he would have his own foster family. Unfortunately, he lost the generous lady’s phone number on the bus ride here, never speaking to her again. I think he also lost most of the money she gave him on the way. 

Years later, I learned that within days of his arrival to California, I took T and his sister to the symphony.

Actually, there are a couple more stories.


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