R. was by any reasonable account a good looking kid, a tall, sandy-haired, sapphire-eyed 7th grader with a winning smile. He could barely read at all, and his writing, on the rare occasions I saw any of it, was a strange cuneiform of reversals and jagged dashes that was almost as painful to read as it obviously was for him to write. It probably wasn’t fair to say he hated school- he seemed to like wandering behind the desks, stealing girls’ pens or “misplacing” their backpacks, so they would scream at him in the mingled rage and adoration that 7th grade girls save for the really good-looking boys. And he liked paper-ball fights with his friend Abraham, another Special Ed inclusion kid, a short, round-faced, big bellied Dominican boy with a giant smile and a chortling laugh who learned almost as little in my class as R. did, apart from the time R. dared Abraham to eat the beef liver we were looking at under the microscope, and then Abraham projectile vomited onto his Special Ed teacher an hour or two later. At any rate Abraham showed up every day, while R. showed up intermittently, from time to time, as if he were attached to school by a tether that was only from time to time pulled in.
I can imagine R. now on the first day, although probably I am combining several different days- outside the class after everyone else has come in, still in the hallway, his huge red cap backwards on his head, baggy jeans too low, reciting Eminem lyrics in an undertone, to himself and me equally.
“Come on in,” I said. “But no hat.” R. removed the huge red baseball cap, held it in his hands in front of him, grinned at me in that loopy way, and sauntered into my class, and immediately lopped it back onto his head before going to find his seat.
I had moved- been semi-fired- from the huge terrible school in the Bronx to this tiny new hippy-dippy middle school in the East Village, not even a school really, just a couple classrooms at the end of one third floor hallway on top of some elementary schools, and I had resolved that I wasn’t going to be an asshole here, was going to be a real teacher instead of some schmuck who spends his life screaming at everybody. I wasn’t sure what that meant, a real teacher, though I’d spent a lot of the summer buying various little critters and setting them up in terraria, giant African millipedes and wolf spiders and land snails and huge horned beetles, and a river tank with a few kinds of fish. We were going to be real scientists, our first unit was going to be observing all these cool weird bugs I’d ordered from Carolina Biological and figuring out experiments on their behavior- did they like light colored construction paper or dark? could you teach the millipedes to climb up a ruler and did it matter if there was food at the other end? would wolf spiders prefer the bigger crickets or the smaller? that kind of thing. The principal was just a few years older than me, a handsome, chill, very Italian-looking guy, apart from his protruding Dumbo ears, and he was fine with me figuring out the curriculum as I went along, as long as the parents didn’t complain. The parents had more-or-less chosen him, a 5th grade teacher in one of the local elementary schools, to start the new middle school, and the local district superintendent would come to adore him, because he understood intuitively that his job was to defer decisions that would be better made by someone else.
So there I was, in this gorgeous classroom on the top floor of this Lower East Side old brick schoolhouse- and in my memory the windows all go from floor to ceiling, practically, the sun streaming in in the morning almost impossibly bright, and R. and his class came in that first sunny September day.
In the Bronx, I’d tried to sound scary and intimidating the first day, and one 8th grade girl- Naima? Natasha? I don’t remember her name- who could have passed for 35 in appearance as well as attitude- drawled “why you tryin to sound like somebody you not?”
So here, in the Lower East side, I wanted to be different. I told them my name and then I gave them my #ifuckinglovescience speech, avant la lettre, circa 2002:
“A Day Without Science is a Day without Sunshine, because science isn’t just the sun, it’s not just the energy that the sun’s nuclear fusion reactions produce, it’s the tree that uses that energy to turn air and water into leaves and bark and wood, it’s the insect that turns that tree back into air and water and energy, or changes it into something new. It’s our job as scientists not just to understand how that works, but to find out how we can show how it works, how we can put it to the test. So let’s get started.”
Some kids learned some stuff that year, and we had fun even when we didn’t; probably somewhere- in some landfill, gradually decaying if nowhere else- exist the comic books they drew based on the Jane Goodall book we read, “a Day in the Life of a wild Chimpanzee,” with comparisons with the gorillas we saw when we went to the zoo, and somewhere is the gigantic painted mural of our bean plants’ growth over time that was strung across the room, and the graphs of their heart rates when they jumped up and down on their chairs and then stuck their faces into bowls of cold water, and the strings we used to measure the circumference and diameter of the oak trees in Tompkins Square Park, and the illustrated anatomy of a goose that Amy and Jack dissected when we were up at Bear Mountain, upstate, on our big trip, and somewhere, sealed unchanging in some Tupperware container, is probably some of the foul-smelling pond water we kept in a closet to grow more paramecia, and somewhere are the pictures they were supposed to draw of the liver cells under the microscope, that R. dared Abraham to eat.
It is a strange and potent gift to get to do the thing you are meant to do when you are still young, and I was no great teacher but I got to do what I was meant to do, for a few short years, in that room, and like Ezra Pound said:
‘Thank you, whatever comes.’ And then she turned
And, as the ray of sun on hanging flowers
Fades when the wind hath lifted them aside,
Went swiftly from me. Nay, whatever comes
One hour was sunlit and the most high gods
May not make boast of any better thing
Than to have watched that hour as it passed.
R. ended up in trouble with the law a few years later, in 10th or 11th grade, I think. He agreed to testify against some people involved in a robbery. He was murdered in broad daylight on a busy street in the Lower East Side. I suspect the police didn’t pursue the investigation because they didn’t want it to be clear that they should have protected him.
At his funeral, his cousin, another former student, a sharp-tongued, smart and funny girl, rushed to me and hugged me.
“Don’t cry,” she said. “He’s in a better place, and at peace.”
As I recall, it was an open casket funeral, the sapphire eyes closed, the smooth and handsome face well prepared by the mortician, a dark grey suit suggesting the man the boy could have grown up to be.
I remember him, before then, though, sitting in my sunny classroom, arriving having been kicked out of math or reading class, during my prep. He is watching the few goldfish that are swimming around the “river”-style tank, the continuous gurgling whooshing sound that the kids tell me makes them need to use the bathroom more than in other classes, and telling me about the pet “Oscars” he has at home, how territorial they were and how if you put any other fish into the tank with it, it would attack. And then R. gets up, takes out that absurdly huge red baseball cap and adjusts it back on his head, and strolls back into the hallway, or somewhere else.