This post is not about politics, although it involves an issue of which our politicians are certainly aware, and with which they should be concerned.
This post is not about race, although the young man of whom I am writing is in a situation that is tragically and disproportionately prevalent among young Black men in these United States of America.
This post is not about strange haircuts, clueless governors, idealistic constituents, or any other sometimes interesting things I like to write about.
This post is about life, decisions, and the question each of us should ask at some point in our lives– “Could I have done more?”
Three years and two months ago, a young man walked into my classroom. What became clear to me over the next few days was that very little had ever been expected of him academically, and as would be expected, he had come to accept that sentiment. He was in the 12th grade, not quite 18 years of age, and quite frankly, not really expecting to graduate. He lived with his mother and stepfather, and his biological father (and namesake) was also close by, yet this young Black man had never been able to connect with a male role model in any substantial way until he met me. I don’t profess to having done anything extraordinary except what I’ve always done, which is to not prejudge anyone, especially if they fall under my authority. I also wouldn’t accept lack of effort, especially from young Black men who already faced a shaky future, and this young man was not going to be an exception.
As the year went on, he confided in me more and more. I learned about his family life, the personal struggles he had with other students, his belief that his temper “could not be controlled,” and his rationale for “not dating my own kind.” He often told me that he couldn’t date a Black girl because they didn’t know how to shut up, and given his aforementioned temper, such relationships would never work. I must note that he also admitted that he’d never dated a Black girl, nor had he even asked one out, but he was adamant that his reasoning was sound.
One of our graduation requirements was an extended research and career-interest project, and a major reason that this young man had gravitated to me was that he found out that I was a musician, and he loved to sing. In fact, I heard him one day and realized he was truly talented– no formal training of any kind, but a remarkable ear and passionate style. He had asked the Minister of Music at his church to be his mentor for the project (a requirement), but even after saying “yes,” that Black man refused to make himself available, and ultimately, had my student in danger of not completing the project. So he turned to me, literally in tears (it was not the first time this young Black man had cried on campus, and would not be the last) for help, and although as a teacher I normally would not be a student’s mentor, the proximity to the deadline justified my decision to assist. For the next two weeks we worked diligently, and for what he said was the first time in his academic career, he received an “A” on his final presentation.
We have a baccalaureate service at our school, and the Senior Class President (the first and only Black student to hold that position at our school) asked me to help with the program, as he really wanted it to be more diverse than previous ones. I had two other Black students (both female) whom I knew had beautiful singing voices. Like the young man, they had never sang publicly for the school, and I saw this as an opportunity to show the school that there was other talent around, not just the students in chorus and drama. So I wrote a song, possibly the most beautiful lyrics I’ve ever written, entitled “Because God Said I Can.” I brought the three of them together, and when they performed that song during the baccalaureate service, it was as emotional as I’d imagined it would be. The young man sang the bridge, including a powerful modulation, and I could see the amazement in his classmates’ eyes as they watched him, his eyes closed as he sang in the utmost sincerity.
The next night was graduation, and I was so proud to see him cross the stage. Afterwards, his mother and grandmother came up to me (I’ve never met his stepfather or father) and thanked me again (they had hugged me the night before) for believing in him, working with him, and being there when he needed someone.
And then the school year was over.
I’ve seen him twice since then, both times a chance meeting in a store. He’d had some ups and some downs, but seemed to be finding his way like so many young Black men do. Each time I told him that I would keep up with him, and to call if he ever needed me, but as we tend to do, I moved on to the next group of students, and the next.
Last week, another student told me that the young man had been sentenced. I didn’t even know that he’d been in trouble. He received an 8-year prison sentence (with credit for about 10 months served). I won’t detail what he did, but it was a shock to my system. Yesterday, I decided to do some research, and I quickly found his picture, sentencing information, and crime on the Department of Corrections website. I was devastated to learn that the date of his crime was early May of 2005– when he was still my student. I sat for nearly an hour with his image on my computer screen. I thought about the conversations we’d had, the advice I’d given, my constant admonitions to never give up and to never sell himself short, and how wonderfully proud he, his mother, and grandmother looked on those two nights, as he sang his heart out, and when he stood proudly clutching his diploma. I thought about the two times I had seen him since, and how I’d seen in his eyes the almost desperate look so many young Black men have as they fight that uphill battle to make it in these United States of America.
He lost the battle, maybe and prayerfully not permanently, but for now, he lost the battle. I taught him about literature, I taught him about life. As all teachers know, eventually it was time to move to the next year’s class, and the next young Black man looking desperately for answers. I feel good, I believe justifiably, about the work I do, and the influence I have with my students, and I realize that I could not and realistically would not be expected to hold a grown man’s hand. We teach, we nurture, we console, we listen, and we empathize and sympathize in ways that most people will never know. But eventually, I and the students must move on. I realize that, I understand that, and as much as I care, I must accept that.
But as I sit here typing, I keep asking myself “Could I have done more?”