I remember junior high school. Pranks and silliness. Sitting still for a visitor posed too great a challenge. No visit could pass without a smartass remark from my mouth. Even if I had to save it until the end. Like the time in 9th grade some dentistry students stopped in to check our teeth. As they departed that March day, I cheerily wished them "Merry Christmas!" The door clicked behind them when the teacher whirled red-faced at me. "Those people are from Loma Linda, they’re Seventh Day Adventists!" he shouted.
I’ve visited the school before. The teachers follow up with a touching collection of handwritten notes from the students. I remember pointing out one girl, sitting off to the side. I told her I knew why she was isolated–she was a misbehaver. Then I told her about my many, many time-outs, isolations, and punishments for being an asshole disrupter. Her note to me said something like, "Remember me? I was the misbehaver. Some days are so bad. Thank you for telling me you were bad too. I know I can make it."
I think of Yeats’ Among Schoolchildren. Here I am, an almost-60-year-old smiling private industry man, being guided to the classroom by a junior high kid doing community service. I’ll tell them a the dumb brothers joke, "the sign read ‘Bear Left’ so they turned around and went home", and maybe the story about my friend the drunken giraffe, "you’re not gonna leave that lying there, are you? That’s no lion, that’s a giraffe!" then segue into language arts. That’s my career field. I want these kids to read, talk, and write.
The school suggests I prepare to talk about questions like, "1. The importance of learning basic academic skills, getting along with others, and following directions." Plus, they want to know what kind of money I make. Should I tell them about Willy Loman and commissions? Or maybe direct them to read about the poet Silver, and his picaresque adventures in Gary Soto’s novels, Nickel and Dime, The Poetry Lover? Do we want kids to read about failure?
Fourteen- and fifteen-year old kids. In four or five years, will they see military service as the only way out of southeast LA’s working class desperation? Maybe I should tell them about a couple of Vietnam novels, Patricia Santana’s Motorcycle Ride on the Sea of Tranquility, or Stella Pope Duarte’s Let Their Spirits Dance, or Charley Trujillo’s blood-curdling novel, Dogs from Illusion? Alfredo Vea’s Gods Go Begging?