"Mr. P., can I ask you a question?"
It's after seventh period, my last class of the day, so I've got time. "You just did," I say. He doesn't think it's funny, so I say, "What's up?"
"Do you think I'm an OK student?"
I look at my student (I'll call him Gerald) and think, he's more than an OK student. He's a hard worker. A decent writer. Someone who volunteers to answer questions. Who asks questions. Who works amazingly well in groups, pushing everyone to see his point of view.
"Yeah," I say, "I think you're an OK student. Lots of potential. At least when you're on. I mean, sometimes you tune out or you're tired or whatever, but for the most part, you're excellent."
"Then can I ask you for a favor? Can you write me a letter? Sort of a recommendation?"
Oh boy, I was hoping he wouldn't ask that, but I say, "Sure, what's it for?"
"Well, actually, it's for a judge. I have a court date coming up. And the judge said if I'm doing OK in school, he won't lock me up. But if I'm not doing good, he's going to put me in jail."
And this is when I take a closer look. Come to think of it, Gerald can easily pass for a thug. Short, but very tough. Tattoos on his arms. A certain walk, the kind you don't mess with. But he's been a solid student all year long--this isn't a recent show he's put on to get me to write him a letter that might keep him out of jail. And I can see he's actually shy about asking for this. Very sincere, eyes almost on the verge of tears.
I ask him what he got busted for. Not that it's any of my business. Not that it has anything to do with his performance in my class. But I'm curious. And he doesn't mind answering. Heroin possession. He's from a tough neighborhood. Now under house arrest.
I ask him how he's doing in his other classes. Mostly OK. Definitely failing first period, though, because he never makes it on time.
"If you were passing everything," I tell him, "you probably wouldn't even need letters from your teachers. You could just show the judge your report card." He agrees, but says it's hard to get to school from his home on the West Side.
And there's no way I want this kid in jail. He does have potential. He can succeed. So I'll write him that letter.
But I also want to write something else. Something about statistics. About perception. About the portrayal of the Chicago Public Schools in the news lately.
Today's Sun-Times, for instance, has this striking page-one headline: 'ANOTHER PROMISING YOUNG SOUL IS GONE' with the subhead: VIOLENCE AGAINST CHICAGO PUBLIC SCHOOL STUDENTS.
The local media have been playing up their statistics: More than 20 CPS students have been killed this school year. And every headline, every newscast, somehow links the killings to the schools. And every reader and viewer sees that connection and probably assumes that the schools are unsafe.
But here's the thing: Even though every once in a while a killing does happen outside a school or maybe on a bus after school, they're not happening IN the schools. So why does the press insist on connecting the killings to the schools? Why not say it's a city problem? Or, if you want to be more precise, a poor inner-city problem? What do the schools have to do with it?
Following the logic of the headlines, it seems the schools need to do something to fix the problem. Which gets the rest of the city off the hook. The killing of young people is not a societal problem, it's something to do with the schools. Am I wrong?
And by constantly playing up some connection between the killings and the schools, what are parents supposed to think when their kids reach school age? Oh, the city's fine, just keep away from those public schools.
And all the negativity rubs off on the students, too. Just last Friday, the Sun-Times actually had a positive story about the schools on its front page, something about gains being made in writing scores. There was a picture of an elementary school on page one. I asked one of my classes if anyone had attended that school. I held up the paper and showed them the picture.
"Why's it on the front page?" one student asked.
"Yeah, did someone get shot or something?" someone else asked.
And they weren't kidding. That's what they've come to expect from the newspaper.
But I'll tell you what: If Gerald ever gets gunned down in his neighborhood, it's got nothing to do with his school. In addition to me, at least two other teachers are writing him a letter. We care about him. We want to help. But he lives miles away. And he might be caught up in things that might eventually lead to violence. But they are things society needs to deal with, not just the schools.