J's a great kid. A sixth grader with an impish grin, so full of the joy and mischief that dwells inside all 12-year-old boys.
He is also calm, quiet and soft-spoken when he does speak, not one of those boys who climb the walls every split second of the day, unable to contain their overflowing boy energy.
I met J earlier on in the school year when I was asked to become a mentor to a struggling student.
The students in this novel program were hand selected by their teachers. They are all bright kids
with great potential who are bordering on the edge of pass or fail.
But, it's so much more than those two finite concepts of polar opposites.
It is for some of them, a struggle so vast and formidable that it goes far beyond the price of a grade.
J is one of those kids.
My job in the mentorship was not really about tutoring. My job was to be there, to listen and support, to cheer and understand.
I thought I knew what was expected of me.
Turns out, I didn't know anything.
We began the year with high hopes and goals.
We worked on homework and projects together. At first, with me, he was somber and shy. But, I'm not a solemn girl. There is too much light in the world, for the heaviness that comes with austerity. So, it wasn't too long before I teased out that wily grin made up of snips and snails and dirt and the talk of cars and the first 12-year-old boy realizations of girls in the world.
Our work was often a struggle. J did not have access to a computer at home. He had no newspapers for his current events homework. He had no construction paper for projects. He had no crayons or markers. He had trouble staying organized because his folders were old, manila file folders, crinkled and torn. His backpack was one meant for a small child and it had seen better days with its broken strap and holes in the bottom that were growing ever larger with the heavy load of 6th grade work not meant for such a small backpack.
But, even worse, J had trouble keeping up with his reading homework because there was no quiet place in his home. A home "filled with too much drama," in J's quiet words.
Along the way, we replaced his supplies and I encouraged him to find a quiet place.
He came in one day, full of excitement. He had talked to his mom and explained to her how important his reading goals were to him. She'd allowed him to sit in the family car, the only place peaceful enough to concentrate. A respite from the drama and the duties and obligations put upon this boy, obligations meant more for a man of the house than a 6th grade boy.
And along the way, a papery thin ribbon of trust developed between the two of us.
I could see him settling in to our roles. His smile came easier. I no longer had to dig the talk from
him. There was still a guard up, but with every passing day, he let me see more and more of the real
We were making progress. The teachers were so excited. So many of them would tell me how sweet he was, what potential he had, how there was an uncontainable light in his eyes that spoke of hope and real possibilities of accomplishment.
And then the light went out.
Just like that.
We had Spring Break. I went up to the mountains of Colorado with my children and my husband, a family whose love and support and care I have always taken for granted.
J didn't really talk about what he did on Spring Break. But, something happened. Something changed in him. The mark was as distinct as if he had tattooed the inky words on his body. "I give up."
He showed up on our mentoring day with no backpack. The new backpack the school had supplied for him. The new backpack he was over the moon to receive, taking great pride in putting all his new folders and pens in certain order. It was gone.
He mumbled something about his uncle, a high school student who lives with him, had mistaken it for his backpack and taken it to school and lost it.
His explanation was weak at best. He didn't even try to make the story believable.
He hadn't completed any work for the week. He'd gotten zeroes on everything. And there was no promise in his eyes, only a dismissive shrug of the shoulder. When I tried to help him on his current events homework, he only glanced around the room, looking as if he wanted to be anywhere else but in the library with me.
It was frustrating because that J I knew, was not there anymore.
The mentor teacher had J as one of her students and she'd noticed the difference, too. You couldn't help it. It was as if an eclipse had covered the sun.
She encouraged me to put down the pencil and paper and just talk to him during our next mentoring session.
And so, I did.
And at first, he only listened his eyes still darting around the room, so disinterested in what I had to say.
So, I just talked and talked about everything and anything. About my world and my life. And perhaps, he just wanted to stop the flow of blabbering coming from my mouth, but suddenly he began to talk and the words just came and came and came as if it was all to heavy for him to carry anymore. As if perhaps, for the first time in his life, someone cared what he had to say.
He spoke of his mother who dropped out of school when she had J at 15 years old. He spoke of
her brushes with the law and jail times. He spoke of his younger brothers and sisters who lived
with his stepfather, away from him, so that his mother could concentrate on her tech school degree. When I teased him, asking him if it was a relief to be the only one with his mom without all those
pesky little kids around, he only shook his head and said he missed them very much. He spoke of
the never-ending flow of relatives who lived with them. And he spoke of the gangs, a constant blight of a presence in the impoverished Latino communities of our area. He vowed to me he would never get caught up in all of that even though most of the men in his family were or had been in gangs.
He knew the rules of the gangs implicitly, schooling me on initiations and the only way to get out of
a gang. It's called getting beaten out and trust me, you don't want to know the details. I will tell you
it involves lead pipes.
The details shocked me, not so much because of their violence and ungodliness, but because a 12-
year-old boy knew all these things. 12-year-old boys are supposed to know about video games and baseball and crappy music and muscle cars. Not murder and drugs and arrest records and the best
places to illegally drag race.
And as our time together unwound, J told me that if he is successful, he will be the first one in his
entire family to graduate from high school.
I pinpointed that as the place to begin a dream.
He returned the next week, a shade of the old J back in place, a shadow of light back in his eyes.
Yesterday, our mentor teacher emailed me ahead of time to ask me to bring in my digital camera. I was going to help J with his geometry project. It entailed taking pictures of J next to certain shapes we found.
No problem, I thought. We snap a few pictures of some circles and a few Isosceles triangles and we've got this thing in the bag.
Sometimes, I'm wrong on the thing in the bag. Oftentimes, I don't even have the right bag.
The circle and the triangle were the first objects on our list.
After that, Geometry kicked my ass.
We had to find parallel lines with a non-perpendicular transversal. We had to find a license plate that was a palindrome. We had to find bilateral and rotational symmetry. We had to find a tetrahedron and an octahedron.
I almost cried.
Now if you, Internet, know of these things that I speak of, Hippy, Hip, Hap, Hooray for you.
But, see, when I took Geometry, the boy I was madly in love with, who didn't yet love me back, sat right next to me. He passed me notes. He played footsies with me under the desk. He would take my hand and draw silly faces all over it. And I could not concentrate on concentric circles and Pi. I could only focus on the warmth of his hand holding mine. His soft brown eyes always teasing me. The silent plea in my brain that thundered out all other thoughts, whispering, "Please walk me to my next class. Please."
That boy didn't love me back that year. He only teased me and broke my heart as he swept through legions of girlfriends.
I kept my love for that boy steady in my heart throughout all my high school years, even though both of us found vast and varied romances along the way.
That boy took me to prom and it wasn't until after the drama of high school that he discovered he loved me back. And he loved me with all his heart, until I took that heart and soundly broke it, which is a story for another day.
For today, I will only say that the only awful grade in all of my academic years belonged to Geometry because true love always wins over parallelograms and right angles.
And so, I was of no use to J in our geometry hunt. And of course, J just shrugged his shoulders when I asked him what this strange language meant.
Luckily, I found a mom walking around with an Iphone. Thank God for technology.
And J and I laughed as we ran through the school, snapping pictures. Me teasing him not to look so mean and as his 12-year-old boy smile erupted, I would snap away. Pictures of J and Geometry.
It was a good day.
As I was leaving, the mentor teacher took me aside to tell me that J will not be going on into the 7th grade. His failing grades could not merit a promotion.
I am defeated. I don't know what this will mean for J. I don't know if he will have the resolve to pick himself up, dust off the cloud of failure and begin again.
There is so much adversity in his young world, I don't know if this is the one thing that will shove him backwards into a life of no promise.
It is not only J that failed. I have failed him. And that, I feel, is far worse.
My job in these final days with him now changes. I will be the cheerleader, the tough talker, the one who dusts him off, the one who hopes and prays for a resurrection of sorts, a second chance.
And if he decides he'll take it, I vow here in this space and time, to be by his side, bad Geometry skills and all.
Today's Dooo Itttt Download: I haven't spoken of American Idol at all this season because truthfully, American Idol has been lame.
There have been very few bright spots and for me, the bright spots have belonged to Crystal, the dreds girl who has a gritty, powerhouse voice and a grace like no other contestant. And Lee, who from the get-go, I pointed out and said, "That boy, I like."
Lee has grown from this meek, unconfident singer into a rock n roll dude with a righteous swagger.
There have been very few shining moments this year.
Until last night.
With three left, the judges choose a song that they think will fit a contestant.
Simon chose Leonard Cohen's, "Hallelujah" for Lee.
And anyone who knows me, knows that is in my top 10 of favorite songs. In fact, I'm too lazy busy studying up on Geometry to look it up, but I think I've already suggested this song in my downloads earlier on in my blog.
Lee stood out there with his guitar and filled himself with the heavenly words of that beautiful song. He let Hallelujah carry him away as a choir of gospel singers marched in, joining him and his guitar on that stage. He isn't a singer with a huge voice or an amazing range, but he took that song and filled it with such a passion, the crowd was on its feet and for the first time this year, I got a little goose pimply. I do believe, he won the crown with that song.