It's late at night and I'm riding home on my bike, going fast up my street, almost there, a little out of breath, having had a little too much to drink. I pride myself in not drinking and driving. "If I crash while riding my bike, I'm the one who will get hurt," I like to say.
About two blocks from home I notice a group of gangbangers hanging out on the next street corner. I think they notice me, and they slowly walk towards the street. I start peddling harder, faster, I'll just blow past them, let 'em try to knock me off my bike.
As I approach, one steps into the street. We make eye contact. The moment of truth. "Hey, Mr. P!" he exclaims. "What's up?!"
"How's it going?" I yell back and keep going, wondering who the heck that was. Probably someone in one of my classes, past or present. I arrive home, safe again, realizing yet again that this is the kind of thing that happens when you live a mile away from the school you work at.
I often feel that I'm one of the lucky people in the world because I get to walk to work. I walk just about every day, never worrying about the early morning fight for a parking spot. On snowy days, like last Friday, walking is actually faster than driving.
When students find out that I walk, their first reaction is to laugh. "Can't afford a car?" they ask.
"Let me tell you about luxury," I reply. I've said it many times, and by now I sound like a recording. "I have a car, a brand new car. But I don't have to drive. In life, that's luxury."
To which someone will usually reply: "Since you're not using your car, can I borrow it?"
The second reaction to me walking is: "Hey, wait a second, where do you live?"
I just point in a random direction and say, "About a mile that way." You'd think that living that close would mean I'd see students all the time. But it's not so bad. I think most of them live about a mile the other way.
But I do run into students at stores. The first time was at Jewel. In addition to groceries, I had a 12-pack of beer and a box of condoms. I placed my stuff down before realizing the cashier was in one of my classes. It was too late. She was pretty professional about it, considering, but there was a hint of mischief in her voice when she said, "Have a nice weekend." Ever since then, I make sure I check who the cashier is before getting in line.
So far, knowing the local teens has gotten me out of potential trouble at least twice. There was the cycling incident, and then more recently, a group of five scary-looking guys turned the corner right into my path. It's weird. At school, none of the kids scare me. Maybe because I've figured out that underneath every hard shell is a child that really does want to succeed and wants to be appreciated. On the streets, though, it's a different matter.
"Hey!" one of the guys called out to me. "You remember me?"
"Um ... no, should I?"
"Yeah, you probably don't recognize me because I cut the braids off."
"Oh yeah, hey, how's it going?" Forgot the name, but couldn't forget the kid. I had him two, three years back. He was probably one of the biggest pains of my teaching life. He was smart. One of the sharpest minds I've run across. Despite that, or because of it, he was bored and never, ever did his work. The only contribution he'd make is in class discussions. He's always take the opposing viewpoint, didn't matter if he was arguing against me or the whole class, he loved it and was good at it. He always defended George Bush, which really pissed off his classmates and made me wonder--was he doing it because he believed it or was he just having some fun?
A teacher friend and I used to argue about this kid. "I'm giving him a C because of all his contributions to class discussions," my friend, a history guy, would said. "He could single-handedly defend George Bush's foreign policy against the entire class."
"Are you kidding me?" I'd say. "He doesn't turn in any work. I don't care how smart he is, he's not passing my class."
I eventually gave him a D. Maybe because he turned in a couple of essays late in the year. No drafts, no notes, but still good. Whatever. It would be a bigger waste to have him not graduate just because of me.
"So, what are you doing these days?" I asked.
"Going to Chicago State," he said, proud. "Working on eventually going to law school. Gonna be a lawyer."
"Well, you certainly know how to argue," I said. "You still support Bush?"
"Of course," he said, sly grin on his face. "Anyway, thanks for everything."
And he was gone. And I was safe again, this time to wonder: thanks for what? I certainly didn't teach him anything. He came in smart. He left knowing he could pass without doing much. Oh well, maybe one day he'll defend me after I crash my bike.