Before He Was Incarcerated, He Was My Student
Notes on teaching at a school for high-risk students
Photo: Stephen Ramsey/Getty Images
In another life, the windowless structure was a drug store. But in 2005, it reopened as a charter school for high-risk students. It still looked like a drug store, though, with its surveillance cameras and metal detectors. There was no cafeteria, only a microwave and two vending machines — one for sodas, one for snacks. The front parking lot was newly painted with crisp yellow lines but not the gravel lot in the back where the staff parked. The students smoked menthols at the city bus stop, just off school property. No buses stopped here. The nearest functional stop was over a mile away in either direction.
I hadn’t planned on being an English teacher. As embarrassing as it is to admit, I wanted to be a writer. I pursued writing as a career because my teachers believed I had an aptitude for it. They encouraged me to send short stories about my Vietnamese heritage to graduate schools and prestigious literary magazines.
Rejections are humbling. The best one was a handwritten response from The Paris Review: “Enjoyed your story but can’t publish it. Best of luck.” They mailed the handwritten message on a napkin. In many ways, that was the pinnacle of my writing career.
I applied to copywriting jobs and journalism jobs but was turned down for lack of experience. With few other options, I applied to be a substitute teacher. In the interview, the school’s vice principal asked, “How do you feel about being a full-time teacher?” So I became a teacher in inner-city Cleveland.
The school was called The Life Skills Center for Learning but someone had spray-painted over the first “S.” The moniker was unfortunately apt. At one point, the transit department had to reroute busses to bypass this part of Cleveland because of two shootings: one, a block away in which a man took his own life after gunning down two police officers; the other, a drive-by shooting that killed one of our students. Even though there was a candlelight vigil for the boy, his passing didn’t garner a lot of press.
Each classroom had 30 students, three teachers, and two teaching assistants, both of whom spoke Spanish because a third of the students were ESL learners. The student body was made up of predominantly black and Latino students from underprivileged neighborhoods who had been kicked out of previous schools for fighting, drugs, or truancy. For many of them, attendance was a court-mandated last chance.
While all of the teaching assistants and some of the school administration were black or Latino, all of the nine full-time teachers were white, except me, a Vietnamese man in his twenties from a small town and new to teaching. The students could smell the blood in the water. They cursed at me. They used racial slurs. They wanted to find my breaking point. It was no secret to why our teacher turnover rate was so high, or why the students didn’t care — they had seen plenty of us come and go. To them, I was just another piece of meat.
I couldn’t give you a clear answer as to why I stuck it out in those days. Stubbornness? Optimism? In my twenties, I was too naive to understand the difference between student mentorship and over involvement. Now I can say, with certainty, that I stayed for them. Students of color need to see non-white faces leading their classrooms. Representation, in any form, is important.
The school opened at 7:30 a.m. and closed at 7:00 p.m. Each class ran for four hours; 8:00 a.m. to noon, even on Saturdays.
All of the students had to be accompanied by a staff member when using the restroom so every 30 minutes, a male and female adult made bathroom runs. I stood guard inside while the guys pissed.
“Mr. Tran?” one student said. “You a faggot?” He was a 6-foot-3-inch Puerto Rican student with braids, and he easily weighed over 300 pounds.
The other boys laughed.
“Just finish up,” I said, looking at my reflection. I stood as a spectator in the background, small and far away. The boys jockeyed at the water faucet, pushing and laughing during this treasured moment away from the classroom. They wore white, black, or grey school-issued polos. It was the school’s policy to use non-gang-affiliated colors.
“You are a faggot,” he said.
“Why does it matter to you?”
“I don’t want no faggot looking at my cock.”
The boys stared at me more than they ever had in my classroom.
“With that big belly, when was the last time anyone got a good look at your cock?”
The boys erupted in laughter.
“Chinatown,” the student said, walking towards me. “You’re good people.”
I had been called worse by worse people. This didn’t feel derogatory; It felt like a truce. He extended his hand to me. “Wash your hand,” I told him. “It’s covered in dick.”
Many of the students, who were anywhere from 15 to 22 years old, couldn’t read at grade level, let alone write. Some had been in juvenile detention centers and a few had been to prison. I wasn’t teaching high school content. In many cases, it was elementary-level content. I made it a common practice to read everything out loud, because one of my students read at a fourth grade level. She was married, 19 years old, and pregnant with her third baby. She couldn’t write a complete sentence and studied math by making change from a dollar.
Another student had no home in which to do homework, slept on friends’ couches, and lived out of duffel bags. In the mornings, I would lock the restroom door behind her, so she could clean up before class.
Another student, 16 years old, had no front teeth. He was an expecting father. Once, I had to call his mother because he wasn’t completing classwork. She came and sat by his side for the entire day while he worked. She was younger than I was.
Another student, age 15, thought she was pregnant. “You should talk to your mother,” I said. She broke into tears. Her mother was having sex with her 18-year-old boyfriend, too.
Another student worked as a stripper. We bumped into each other at a bachelor party held at the club where she worked.
Sadly, I believed I could save everyone.
A month into the semester, a Puerto Rican teen in aviators walked into my room and handed me a crumpled yellow note. It was from a doctor’s office and asked that he be excused from class early for an appointment regarding a gunshot wound to the leg.
“I’m Mr. Tran.”
He nodded again.
Before I mentioned the sunglasses, I saw the bruises radiating from behind them. I handed him a student assessment, which consisted of a reading passage, some questions, and a questionnaire about his future.
I pointed him to an open desk.
“I’ll stand,” he said, pointing to his leg.
“This might seem silly to ask,” I whispered as he made his way over, “but how come you came to school? Why not just stay home?”
“Because they know where I live,” he said. His voice was deeper than mine.
So Fred used the olive-green wall as a table and read the questionnaire through his aviator shades. The gel in his hair shone like the chrome finish of a newly waxed 1950s Buick Roadmaster. He was 17. His only contact was his mother. He lived a few blocks from the school. This was his fifth high school. I eyed his thigh, where the wound was. Who shot him?
It was months before I heard anything about Fred again. He lasted only a week in school and, when the school called his house number to check on his attendance, the line had been disconnected. He hadn’t completed any assignments and had finished only part of the student assessment. When asked what he saw himself doing in the future, he had written “pimping.”
A school police officer walked into my classroom. “You’re needed up front, immediately.”
Upon seeing me, the vice principal muted the call. “She wants to talk to you.”
It was Fred’s mother.
The vice principal put her on speaker phone.
“My son told me about you,” she said. “I need you tell me who called us from the school.”
“I’m sorry, but could you provide me with some context?”
“Someone from the school called and asked what time Fred would come in. I told them he was already in school. When I asked for a reason, he didn’t answer. I asked him for a name but he only said a teacher and hung up. Who called me? Where is Fred?”
I conferred with the vice principal.
“It is the school’s policy to check on students if they are absent,” I told her. “But the vice principal, who is in charge of calling parents, has assured me that he has made no such call to you. The number you supplied the school has been disconnected. He stopped calling you two months ago.”
“Where is Fred?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “We don’t know.”
She began to cry, cursing us out, cursing me out specifically, and threatening that if anything happened to Fred, it would be on our heads.
“Ma’am,” I interrupted her. “When did you last see Fred?”
She had last seen him this morning.
“Maybe he’s been skipping school,” I suggested. “Do you have any idea who might have called your house?”
She started crying again. “They’re trying to finish the job.”
The vice principal slumped into his chair.
“Protect him,” she begged us. “Protect my boy, you hear me.”
“I’m going to confer with the administration — ”
“Swear you will.”
“The school will notify the police,” I told her. “You do the same. Call Fred and leave your house. Do you have a place to stay?”
“I swear,” I said.
In that moment, in my mind, I decided to hold myself personally responsible for Fred’s education, along with his safety. At the time, I felt it was my unspoken duty as his teacher to save him. After all these years, I still feel this way about my students, though I’ve learned a lot since Fred about not getting too attached or too involved. There are limits to what any teacher can do.
In the winter, the school began sending me and a TA to Fred’s house twice a week for an hour, to homeschool him. I dressed in a long parka and tie, and I wore sunglasses. The aide wore a wool coat, a button-up shirt, and dress slacks. We looked like a pair of detectives instead of teachers. I kept my wallet and cell phone inside my breast pocket where I imagined a badge and a holster would be. I banged on the bullet hole-riddled door.
I grew up in a house in the suburbs. Fred’s house, on the other hand, was dark, because his mother insisted that no one be able to see inside.
This was not the Cleveland I knew.
In the Cleveland I knew, my only experience with firearms was limited to water pistols and plastic guns connected to my Nintendo. Yellowjackets, footballs, and boys running with their pants down were the only things that whizzed by me.
I grew up in a house in the suburbs. Fred’s house, on the other hand, was dark, because his mother insisted that no one be able to see inside. In my neighborhood, fathers wore John Deer hats and mothers called me “oriental.” In Fred’s house, his mother had skin that wrinkled like a crumpled paper bag, and an ever-present cigarette protruding from her mouth like a snapped tusk.
My family had lived on a cul-de-sac, where I played basketball on an adjustable hoop, swam in an above-ground pool with girls in one-piece swimming suits, peddled my friends on the back pegs of my BMX bike, and had sleepovers where we feasted on pizza while playing Dungeons & Dragons. At Fred’s house, the carpet smelled like dog, even though there was no sign of one, and the couches and carpet were cluttered with Sunday coupons.
Fred, the aide, and I worked on the sticky kitchen table. Strangely, his girlfriend, who was around his age, was present for these sessions and not in class at the private school she attended. I don’t know why, and I didn’t ask.
Each day, I would hand Fred a large yellow envelope with worksheets, readings, questions, and writing prompts. I photocopied the works of Junot Diaz, Stephen Dunn, and Richard Hugo. Stories about young Dominican boys and poems about fatherhood and retired veterans sounded like a good foundation for inspiring a good Latino man.
It was during one of these sessions that Fred told me he was going to be a dad.
“Congratulations,” I managed to say. Internally I felt a sigh, for him and for his unborn child. “Now you have someone who depends on you.”
“Yeah? Yeah, I do,” he said, lowering his face closer to the reading packet as if his eyes could slurp up the words.
“We need to keep Fred on track,” his girlfriend told me, massaging Fred’s shoulders. She was blonde with black-framed glasses and wore a hiked-up Catholic school dress with tall navy blue socks. Their sonogram hung on the wall next to a crooked picture of Jesus.
“Do you have children, Mr. Tran?” she asked, touching her flat stomach.
At the time, I had two online dating profiles, drank profusely, and lived with my cat.
“No,” I said.
I always hated reading student essays. They read like bullshit but still, I marked them. And still, the students never read my comments. It was like writing for no one; all they cared about was the grade. Fred was different. I admired him. Don’t get me wrong, when I assigned him an academic paper, he wouldn’t do shit. But when given a creative writing prompt about his life, he’d write and write and write. I wanted to help him, not just to graduate but to discover his voice, like my teachers had once helped me. It was important that he know his words were just as important as any other author. I was no father figure to him, nor did he see me that way. I was more like a young uncle; someone he could talk shit with but who he trusted wouldn’t rat him out to his mother. We were both young men of color trying to make something out of ourselves in America; I felt like I owed it to him.
Teaching is a life of service and often meant sacrificing many of my personal goals for the welfare of my students but, in teaching Fred, I started to feel myself becoming a writer again.
I gave him writing prompts about being a father, the story surrounding his mother, what it felt like to be shot, if he had regretted anything in his young life, his favorite childhood memory, and so on. After each response, he’d ask me a question as well, and I’d write a response of my own. I was so invested in my conversations with Fred, which was a mistake on my part, but it did lead to less time spent at the bars and clubs and more time writing. What would begin as a few sentences often turned into pages and pages of writing. I only shared small passages of what I wrote with Fred; most of what I wrote ended up being for me, and me alone.
In responding to Fred’s questions, I wrote about exploring my Vietnamese lineage; reminisced about the first girl I tongue-kissed; and thought back on the Berea waterfalls, which was the closest I’d ever been to heaven. I wrote about the people and things I had loved, lost, and regretted. There was no plot or theme or characterization or world building or mystery or manuscript, just a bunch of choppy words from a sad guy trying to make sense of a string of shitty days. Teaching is a life of service and it often meant sacrificing many of my personal goals for the welfare of my students. But, in teaching Fred, I started to feel myself becoming a writer again.
Sometimes Fred’s work came in and sometimes it didn’t. When it stopped altogether, I called his mother. It hurt not to read any of his responses to my prompts (and, perhaps selfishly, I missed having his prompts to respond to myself). Maybe I should have told him what our back-and-forth meant to me. A week later, his work began coming in as scheduled but in a different handwriting. When I asked about the discrepancy, his work came in typed, the stories stilted. And then, one day, they stopped. His mother and girlfriend stopped answering the door or the phone.
It would be spring when I saw him again.
There were only two months until graduation and the atmosphere across the school had relaxed. The weather was warmer and graduation was drawing closer. In the meantime, I had helped a student publish a memoir, which inspired me to submit my stories to publications and graduate schools again. The staff threw baby showers for two teachers. I was dating a bank teller. Still, I found myself smothering fistfights in the classroom.
It was close to the end of the day when Fred strolled back into the building, stopping to hug and shake hands with the other teachers and students like he was a politician running for office. He was 18 and had been living with his girlfriend, now fiancé, raising their daughter, Madison. He had been working full-time.
“I’m ready to knock out this work, Mr. Tran,” he said, bobbing his head as if psyching himself up for a prize fight.
Though I was glad to see he was well, selfishly I couldn’t help but feel bitter that he had quit on me — and our writing project — for so long.
“You’re no longer on my attendance roster,” I said, still reading the essays. “I called and left a number of messages with your mother. You were removed over a month ago. You must re-enroll. Talk to the principal.”
“I had to get my head on right, you know?”
I continued annotating.
“I live with my girl now,” he said. “She’s good for me.”
“The one doing your work?”
He looked tired, as if he hadn’t slept in weeks. “How’s the baby?”
“Good, good.” He showed me pictures.
“Talk to the principal, Fred.”
“You’re 18,” I said, with nothing left in my voice. Seeing him again, I was reliving our entire teacher-student relationship to date: the gunshot wound, the promise I made to his mother, our writing project, and him quitting on me without a word, rejecting the help I so badly wanted to give him. He had taken all of my wind. Looking back, my fondness for him caused me to be swept up into his turbulent life, perhaps more than I should have allowed.
“You’re legally a man,” I told him. “Go take care of business. See what he says.”
“I will,” he said. The bass in his voice had disappeared. He stood like a boy now. “But can you come with me? Please?”
In the months leading up to graduation, Fred was a young man possessed, determined to finish his degree. He came to school early, groggy with bags under his eyes and drinking coffee, looking no different than the teachers with newborns at home. He stayed late, writing pages and pages in his sloppy handwriting. When he started to lose momentum, I let him slip into the teacher’s lounge for a coffee. I probably shouldn’t have been making allowances for him, but I wanted so badly to see him succeed. There was always a dictionary by his side. He began wearing prescription glasses. Once, he forgot his homework because he mistakenly took the baby’s changing bag. He participated in group discussions. He gave oral presentations. I even tutored him after school.
Fred had no time for self-exploratory writing when he had past-due assignments, a newborn daughter to care for, and finals to study for. Graduation was closing in and Fred was a model student. I feel it is important for me to say this because Fred was — is — rarely spoken of in this manner. I was so proud of him.
And then, one day, he stopped showing up again.
The rumor was that Madison was not his. Truth be told, I wanted to drop by his place and split a bottle of whiskey with him. “This won’t break you,” I’d say. “It hurts but in time, you’ll grow stronger for it. Fuck her. Do you.”
But teachers are limited in what we can say.