Part I: What it takes to pave a path
Jose Montoya* is the kind of kid that can walk into a room, and you just know. You know he’s going to give you some kind of hell just by the way he struts—sly and cool, no hint of effort on his part. He makes a plain uniform look cool with his clean red Vans, his white shell necklace, and his hair spiked into a faux-hawk that looks like he woke up that way. Jose Montoya is the leader of my first class of the day—a class dominated by fearless boys, who will do anything to entertain each other. Jose Montoya is the leader because he is the most fearless of all. And he is the most intelligent. He understands the world around him—he understands injustice and he has learned a method of adapting that makes him seem invincible to all of it. When we discuss social issues in class—which we do just about every day (the perks of teaching English)—Jose Montoya raises his hand to answer every question and to comment on everything said. And what he says is provocative and real. The things he says are the things the silenced voices of his people are saying. But he is fearless as he says them. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t back down. And most of the time, what he says is dead on. He’s the fuel to every conversation. He is an integral part of the class, and he is there—without fail—every single day. But he is there—without fail—every single day. On the good days and the bad days, which tend to be many. He leads the male-dominant class into defiance with the comments he makes at me, and the way he gets out of his chair on a regular basis to strike up a conversation with his pal across the room in the middle of my instruction. He leads them into defiance by the way he chuckles at me like I’m helpless against him and the rest of them. And yet I don’t back down—even when I do feel helpless. I chuckle with him. And I call on him every single time he raises his hand. And I listen to him every single time he talks out of turn before I tell him, “Can you raise your hand and say that?” And I let him know he’s the fuel to the conversation—that he does have brilliant things to say. From day one, we have exchanged looks—challenging one another to cave. But then, there’s a kind of camaraderie in the way we look at each other, and there are days when I can see him soften, his head cowering a bit—not in a show of fear but in a show of respect. Jose and I speak in a secret code of body language and facial expressions so that he can protect his dignity and his reputation as Alpha. But I have sensed from the beginning that Jose Montoya likes me. He respects me. And he gets that I respect him. He’s just been testing me to see if he can trust his instinct with me. Today was terrible. His defiance was so strongly directed at me that he influenced the entire rest of the boys in the class to blatantly defy me. There was a point during the hour and a half that I stood there, filing through the rolodex of things-to-do-in-a-classroom-crisis, staring blankly at their faces and hoping that doing nothing would do the trick. By the end of the hour, they were somewhat on track, but it was so miserable that it set a bad tone for the rest of the day. As Jose walked out of my class, I told him, “Jose, I want to talk to you.” “When?” he said as he made his way down the hall. “Just whenever you have the time.” He laughed. “Never,” he said over his shoulder and strutted away. I folded my arms over my chest and thought: Typical. At 12:50, I take my next group of students to lunch and, alone, make my way back to my room to enjoy my own. Usually, I have a horde of students trailing into my room to eat lunch with me. But today I just can't. Five minutes don’t go by before Jose’s head pops into my room. I wave at him and then realize what he has just done: This is his way of telling me he has time. “Come here, let’s talk.” He doesn’t hesitate. Just comes in, right up to my desk. And the words come out of me like I’ve been preparing for this moment—like I’ve been waiting for him to finally soften enough to just hear me out. “Why is it that some days you are my shining star student, raising your hand to answer every single question brilliantly, and other days you act like you hate me and don’t want to do anything I say—?” “I don’t hate you,” he interjects. “Oh, I know you don’t hate me. You love me. I’m your favorite teacher, am I right?” “Yes,” he says, again without the usual sarcasm or hesitation. “And you are one of my favorite students—even though you give me hell sometimes. We have a connection, you know what I mean? I can feel it. You know?” “Yeah,” he nods. He’s looking at me, fully engaged in what I’m saying. “It hurts me when you come in here and make the choice to refuse to do your work or go against me because you are so brilliant, Jose. You have so much potential to be so great. You are a leader. You’re the alpha wolf of this class—and I know you know that, right?” He knows. “But you have to make the choice to lead your pack to greatness or to lead them in the opposite direction. Sometimes you are great, and other times not so much. You have so much power--so much. Think of all the things you can do if you use that power for good. “When you come to this classroom, I am trying to equip you with the tools you need to make a difference in the world. Because I know you CAN make a difference, and I know you want to. I know how much you care about the Hispanic community and the injustices you face. Here’s the deal: I care so much too. I know the other day you told me, even though I really want to be, I’m not Mexican because it doesn’t count to have Mexican step-family—” We laugh at the memory-- “But, Jose, just like those are your people, those are my people too because they are my family. I love my step-dad and my grandma. My little sisters are half Mexican. Those are my people. I want to do everything I can to help the Hispanic community, too, just like you. You and I can be a team—but you have to let me be on your team. You’re the alpha of the pack, so if you don’t let me in, then we can’t work together and achieve these great things. You need me, and I need you. But you gotta let me in.” He’s nodding, watching me intently as he listens and hangs on every word I’m saying. There’s no hard front in his demeanor. This is Jose Montoya—real and true—that I finally have the privilege of talking to. “Can you do that?” I ask. “Yes,” he says with finality. “Yes, I can.” “So we’re a team. We’re working together. And you’re going to put in the effort, and so am I. Because we need each other. You are too smart not to put in the work when you’re here. You deserve so much, and you can--Jose, you can—make a difference. You have that power. I expect great things from you. So when you come in this classroom tomorrow and every day after, we’re a team.” He nods his head, looking at me directly in the eyes, promising me with that look. I nod my head to gesture that I’m stepping off the soapbox. The bond has formed between us solidly now. He turns to leave. “You know I love you, Jose,” I call to him, smiling. He turns as he’s walking out. “I know,” he says. “You too.”
Written October 15, 2013
*Name has been changed.