This is the time of year that alumni come back home from college, work, or the military to visit their old high school teachers. It triggers lots of memories. Last week, a strapping young man walked through my door blinding me with his mega-watt smile.
It took me a second, but through the cadence of his voice, that punky little freshman boy quickly emerged from seven years ago.
"It looks the same in here," he smiled.
"You sure don't!" I laughed as I gave him a big hug.
Joe was an angry little 14 year old from Pixley, our neighboring town to the South. Riddled with poverty and gang violence, strong families still emerge from this dusty neighborhood..but it isn't easy.
Joe didn't crack a smile for the first month of freshmen English: It was as if he was daring me to try and make him do it. It was a little game we played. I greeted him everyday at the door, complimenting him on the artwork on his t-shirt: a scantily clad girl straddling a rocket or Marilyn Monroe sporting a rotting skull face. He looked up at me stone faced, and walked on to his seat, never carrying a book or a backpack or a pencil...just Joe.
One day, Joe proudly donned a new t-shirt with a very familiar face: Tupac Shakur.
"Did you wear one of my favorite poets to class just for me, Joe?" I smiled as I patted him on the shoulder.
"No, it's Tupac," he rolled his eyes, "He's a rapper."
"I know...he's one of my favorites-what a genius."
Needless to say, my poetry unit slated for the following month jumped into class that day. I grabbed The Rose that Grew from Concrete from my shelf and tossed it under the Elmo projector.
We conducted an impromptu Socratic Seminar and deconstructed three of Tupac's poems with Joe leading the way. He knew everything about him and gladly became the expert in "cool." He compared Tupac to his father, imprisoned near by at the Corcoran prison: at night Joe explained he can see the security flood lights faintly in the distance. He said he it made him feel close to him.
Then we copied.
Everyone modeled their own poem using one of Tupac's for inspiration. Joe’s was beautiful. So beautiful that I grabbed it and told him I was going to submit it to the Fresno State Young Writers' Conference contest.
I explained to Joe that it was a writing competition that we were going to try for the first time. “If your piece gets chosen, you and six others will ride up with me to Fresno State and spend the day with me. Does that sound fun to you?”
“I don’t care.” That was my yes.
Joe did win a spot that year to Fresno state, and although his poem did not win and get published, he spent the day in breakout writing sessions with graduate students, got to eat in the university food court (yay, orange chicken!) and enjoyed the “hot college chicks” (his words, not mine).
He is happy now, living an honest life in a simple town, and he came back to visit me.
He came back to visit me.