Broken Pencils, Broken Dreams

One teacher’s report from the front lines of Santa Ana’s startling public school reality

Teaching in Santa Ana since 1984 has given me an intuitive edge. When I find broken pencils in corners and under desks, I recognize them as signs of stress, like the yellow light that indicates I must yield the right of way. When these jagged remnants show up, my job is less about classroom management and more a game of chess dictated by intuition and heart.

I’m the outsider as I watch my students enter the classroom at 7:58 a.m. Some linger at the door, a few slither between desks with practiced stealth, others trip over their own feet as they find their seats. In this moment before the tardy bell rings, there’s no uniformity in our artificial environment. As I enter the room with its four graying walls, I remind myself that love disarms and opens up even the toughest kids. Patience helps. Today will require patience. It’s Friday.

Santa Ana Unified, the seventh largest school district in the state, is challenged by a large number of disenfranchised youth. Nearly 96 percent of its students are Hispanic. Sixty percent are just learning to speak and read English, and approximately 91 percent qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch program. But at the school where I now teach, 98 percent of the students qualify.

Many people in Orange County remain unaware of the stories that inspire me to work overtime and keep me up at night holding vigil. Recently a colleague described how he felt at the end of a day’s work: “My heart is full and fractured.” And I replied, “Turmoil and triumph walk hand in hand down our corridors.” Underneath the veneer that has been commonly looked upon as education, there lie the stories that capture me.

___________

When I taught eighth grade, a petite, light-skinned, brown-haired girl with a mousy voice and dark circles under her eyes caught my attention. I asked her if she slept well. She shook her head. I asked what was going on. I braced myself to hear an all-too-common story of abuse. Instead she said, “I stay awake all night waiting for my mom to come home. She works late and doesn’t get home ’til after 1.”

I asked who was home with her. She told me her grandfather, who was nearly deaf. She then shared what really kept her up at night.

“I stay out on the couch ’cause someone tries to break in every night. I hear them come up the stairs and play with our locks.”
“Do you go get your grandpa or call the police?”

“No, I close my eyes, really tight. I shake all night.”

“Do you tell your mom?”

“She doesn’t believe me. She thinks I’m imagining things.”

That afternoon, I met with the counselor. We agreed that our only solution was to schedule a Student Support Team. In the weeks that followed, her mother met with us, but soon thereafter they moved. To this day, I don’t know what happened to her. I often wonder if her experience was real or imagined.

Not all students leave without a trace. Another girl from the same year recently resurfaced on my Facebook page—a stellar student whose father, an undocumented immigrant, rode a bicycle to work in a factory and whose mother died when she was 2 months old. She ended her eighth-grade year with honors and high hopes. Today she attends UC Santa Cruz on a full scholarship and is protected by the Dream Act to follow her goal of becoming a doctor. Her story is the exception. I hold on to it as the possibility for each student who walks into my classroom.

___________

I graduated from UC Irvine with a degree in literary criticism, only to find a job teaching students who were illiterate in their native languages and unable to speak English. In those first years, I met a boy who had worked in a sweater factory since age 5, and at 14 he was receiving his first formal education. Polite, quiet, and gentle, he would come in and sit in the back. I taught him how to hold a pencil, spell his name, and eventually read and write basic Spanish while learning verbal English. He taught me about courage and survival.

One day, I asked him about his life in Mexico. He told me his parents abandoned him when he was 3. At 5, his uncles put him to work. He looked down, touching his face; a scar traversed his left cheek.

“Maestra, I would run away,” he said, then silence before he told me the punishment. “They would burn my feet and hang me upside down. I came with ‘el Coyote’ and stayed with a friend.”

He remained in my literacy classroom until he was 20. A year later, Santa Ana dismantled the high school literacy program.

__________

I went on to teach continuation high school. Lately the emergence of broken pencils has escalated. Several adorn the trash, their golden yellow hue contrasting with the white of crumpled papers. I find two jagged pieces left on the side of my desk, decorating the area near the sharpener. Their brokenness pushes my alert buttons.

A few days ago, one of my students showed up at my door with a bandaged arm. I asked if he had gotten a new tattoo.
“I got stabbed five times last night,” he said.

Not the answer I expected. A second boy overheard the comment and chuckled. In less than three minutes, they were confronting each other in my classroom. Security arrived. I spoke to the second boy, who was clearly shaken.

“I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said between labored breaths. “Only reason I’m not going to fight him is my kids. I can’t go back to jail. I could mess him up.”

“I know you could, but it would prove nothing,” I said. “You’re doing the right thing, thinking of your boys.”

Confrontations require neutrality. I must be like Switzerland. The security guard and counselor ushered both boys to the office. I returned to the lesson on symbolism in “The Raven.” A girl in the back raised her hand and asked if I was scared. Confused, I didn’t realize what she meant. The class had lost interest in Edgar Allan Poe; they wanted to know how many fights had broken out in my classroom. I shook my head. Too many to keep track of during the past 30 years.

___________

Today, while the class identifies repetition to support meaning in the poem, I glance over at the boy with the bandaged arm. His head is down. I call his name. He doesn’t respond. The girl next to him motions me over. In a low voice, she says, “He’s crying. His friend got killed last night.”

I return to my desk and text the security guard, who comes and takes the boy to the office again. Our security guard is my “go-to” guy. I’ve known him since my first years of teaching. He grew up in Santa Ana, a generational gang member. His grandfather founded one of the Santa Ana gangs, a true pachuco, a Zoot Suiter. His father continued the legacy. My friend was a cholo, a true homeboy. He is my bridge to this young man.

I walk around the classroom. A girl stares, a blank look outlined by smeared black shadow. Tangled, unbrushed strands of hair frame her face. I ask if she needs help with her work. She shakes her head. I’m moving away when I notice a photo of a young man on a bike smiling. Yesterday’s date and the letters RIP are on the side of the photo. I ask her about it.

“That was our friend,” she says. “He got shot.”

“Was he a good friend?” I ask.

“I know his whole family. Since third grade.”

“What happened?”

“Shooting sprees. It’s crazy. They shot at my house last week. And two weeks ago my little brother got shot at. I’m afraid to leave my house with my baby.”

“I’m sorry,” I tell her.

“It’s OK,” she says.

“No, it’s not OK. It’s a travesty. I just don’t have a way to make it right.”

She nods. We’re both at a loss today. She doesn’t complete the assignment. Several others are staring at their iPhones. Most of them knew the dead young man. Before the last period of the day begins, another fight breaks out down the hallway.

The last bell rings at 2:30 p.m. An hour later, piles of ungraded papers sit to my left. I shut down my laptop and lock it up. My thoughts float on a thin wire above me. Two years ago, one of my students was shot and left to die at the gas station on Raitt and Edinger. She had graduated the previous quarter. She was 17. She was her mother’s oldest child, her father’s unknown child, and now my deceased child. She wasn’t my first, or last.

As teachers, we’re alone in how we deal with the realities that show up in our classrooms every day. We’re not trained for these moments. I rely on my heart and a prayer. There are no six-hour days. It’s a full-time commitment by those of us who witness daily atrocities in Orange County.

Earlier today, one of my high-achieving students revealed the reason behind her recent dark demeanor. The man who rents a room in her house assaulted her three weeks ago. This is the third such incident I’ve heard about this month. I spend a few minutes with her, my mind seeking some place where she can be safe. She tells me the police are investigating, and that she has seen the school psychologist. Later, I check with the principal to make sure it has been reported.

But in that moment, all I can do is ask her, “Are you OK?” and trust her response, “Now I am.”

I know better. My emotions reel, only to be balanced by my conversation with our college-readiness tutor, a young man educated in the Santa Ana Unified School District, who shared his dream with me: “I want to start a gym for kids. Boxing saved me. It gave me an outlet. If it hadn’t been for it, I don’t know where I’d be. I just need funds to make it happen.”

I carry her and think of him as I pick up the last of the jagged pencil pieces. It has been a long day. I glance around and take a moment to breathe. I understand. I can’t save them. I only have my heart to rely on. Teaching is the excuse for me to share in their humanity.

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