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I Can Still Save You, Robert

“Have a good day, Charish,” RJ* says every time he leaves my classroom. I wish him well as I wipe down the white board. When the classroom is clear of my college freshmen, I sit down and stare into space. In the empty room, my thoughts feel loud and echo against the walls. There’s something about RJ that bothers me. There’s a nagging thought that is burrowed in the back of my mind. This young man with his goofy grin and enthusiasm for classroom discussion reminds me of someone in my past. When RJ speaks up, it always comes from the gut, visceral and emotional. He, like most of my students, have learned that they can slip curse words into their vernacular and I won’t judge them for “keepin’ it real.”

“So like, I didn’t know how to be black when I was in high school,” he began with an nervous laugh. “I wasn’t white enough for the white kids and I wasn’t black enough for the black kids. Like, shit, cut me some slack. You know?”

I did know. We were reading a short excerpt from a memoir that echoed RJ’s sentiments. It was a lighthearted piece, but there were definitely undercurrents of pain and a desperate desire to belong. I think RJ picked up on what the author put down in a major way. He is a biracial boy, who might have a white mother and black father. I began to pick up on these clues when students talk about themselves in regards to our readings (I’ve hit the sweet spot in classroom discussion where students feel comfortable having a dialogue among themselves while I stand on the sidelines).

When it dawns on me, who RJ reminds of, it hurts my heart. When I was ten-years-old, living in Indiana, the only other black kid in my elementary school was Robert.* Well, I was the black kid and Robert was the “mixed” kid. We were the one and a half black kids at North Elementary. We rode the same bus and took the same 5th grade class. While I was the poor student who couldn’t do homework, I was also a nice kid. I was sociable and polite; keeping my rude comments, hands, and feet to myself. Robert was none of those things. He was loud, combative, and angry. So very angry.

At what, I wasn’t sure. I remember him playing basketball with the white boys and always ending up in fights with them. He was put into the corner by our teacher, Mrs. Hoffarth* and if it got bad enough, she sent him to the hallway for a spell. Mrs. Hoffarth was a very old woman who enjoyed children who were seen and not heard. I’m not entirely sure what she got out of teaching elementary-age students, but she seemed especially intolerant of Robert’s Nonsense.

My relationship with Robert was complicated. At a time when we started to notice boys, got our periods, and worried about our breast sizes, the girls of my class were a mess. Suddenly, it was decided that we should all make moves to obtain boyfriends. And naturally, the girls decided that Robert would be perfect for me because even then, Indiana kids knew “likes go with likes.” Never mind that Robert was more like a brother to me. He loved goofing around with my mother and me at our bus stop. She’d ruffle his tight sandy curls and make faces at him when he got on the bus, like he was her son. She once revealed to me: “I feel sorry for that Robert. His white momma doesn’t know what to do with him.” In my child-mind, I wondered if black kids having white mothers was a bad thing. But his family seemed like a sensitive subject, so I decided to leave it alone.

I wondered if family was what made Robert so angry that he fought so much on the playground. Was it his parents that made Robert bust some white kid’s lip (I later learned that the word “oreo” had been thrown around one to many times)? That was the incident that earned him week-long suspension, which was rather extreme at our school. While he was gone, there seemed to be a lightness in our classroom. It was as if the “bad element” was gone and we could finally learn in peace.

In his absence, Mrs. Hoffarth did the unexpected. She took this opportunity to express her grievances about a 10-year-old black boy and invited us to do the same. We had an impromptu meeting about The Robert Problem. I watched as, one by one, all of my white classmates voice their “concerns” about his behavior, while our teacher nodded thoughtfully. She interjected with a few “Mmh-hms,” and some exasperated “I know’s” before turning to me.

“Charish, you can tell us what wrong with Robert? Why does he do the things he does?”

My face grew hot under the sudden scrutiny. Up until then, I had listened quietly to the child mob tattle to their mom. I cringed when my secret crush Eric L. described how he felt when Robert shoved him and called him a “stupid white boy.” I didn’t have anything to add to this discussion, knowing that it was a cowardly way for Mrs. Hoffarth to wield her authority. All head turn to my directions; all eyes were on me. My mouth went dry.

“I don’t know.”

That didn’t satisfy our teacher and back then I didn’t know why. She tilted her head to the side and narrowed her eyes. “You and Robert seem very close. . . Are you sure you don’t know?”

Racism can be hard for a 10-year-old to spot. I couldn’t articulate the discomfort that I felt, I just knew this line of questioning was wrong. What she wanted to ask was: Is Robert’s behavior a cultural issue? Is this a black thing? Can you tell us more about the black experience?

Robert eventually came back to school. And when he did, he was transferred to Mr. Easton’s class. I rarely saw him, but when I did, he was quiet. His eyes were always downcast. When I tried to say hello to him or talk to him on the playground, he evaded me. He avoided all of the students from his former class. It wasn’t until we all got to middle school that Robert became a new boy. He was tougher, slicker, and understood long before I did, what it meant to be a black kid in Indiana.

I moved from Indiana and lost track of everyone from that school. But Robert was in the back of my mind wherever I went. It wasn’t until a year ago, I thought about him and couldn’t shake him. I tried to look him up on all of the social mediums, but his name was too commonplace. Hours of clicking led me to something startling. My chest felt tight when I saw his photo. His eyes were the same haunting green that I remember. As my eyes scanned the webpage, I began to cry.

I was reading what appeared to be a profile for inmate pen pals. My old friend was in prison, seeking female friends who could write him letters. He was sent there the same year I took my first teaching job in Thailand and he wouldn’t be released until 2026. We’re the same age. We came from the same bus stop, same classroom with Mrs. Hoffarth, same middle school with lockers down the hall from one another. We were on the same track: One and a half black kids from Indiana. 

Students from my next class are starting to filter in. As they find their seats, I sigh inwardly. When we were kids, I didn’t know my path would lead me to the front of the classroom just as Robert didn’t know his fate lie behind bars. RJ is not Robert (most of what I think I know about him might be speculation), he’s made it much further than my old classmate. This kid is in college sorting out his major, making friends, and expressing himself in my class. I’m not his mother nor am I the lady at the bus stop who can ruffle his hair and make funny faces at him. I’m not even his friend. He has plenty of those already.

I’m his professor. The best thing I can do is not be the white teachers who give up so easily; the teachers who can’t see past the surface of a “bad attitude.” Had I known how precarious Robert’s future was, I would have tried harder. I still don’t know what that would have looked like but I know that 10-year-old Charish could have been more fierce with her loyalty.

Higher Education wasn’t meant for the underrepresented students like Robert and me. It doesn’t just open it’s gates to the black and brown kids of America. The students I get are diverse in class and race, but I can spot the kids who got to my class by the grace of God. They’re hanging on by a thread, worrying about their grades, money, or family back home. They haven’t shaken loose the past like I did. It’s all so tenuous and I can see it on their tired faces when they show up.

If I can just remember that every time I start class, maybe I can keep them on track for a little while longer. Maybe I teach because I’m still trying to save Robert. Perhaps I’m still trying to stand up for the black boy who was absent that day. I’m still desperate for the opportunity to articulate what Robert and I couldn’t. I suppose in a Trump world, now seems like a perfect time to be fiercely loyal to the Dreamers, the LGBTQ kids, and the black kids who need the loudest voice. I can keep trying to be that loud voice.

*names have been changed
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