By Liz Posner
Every day after school, the squeak of rubber on linoleum told me Tevin had arrived. I’d been a Title I classroom teacher for one week, and already Tevin Walker latched on to me like a duckling. He rolled his bicycle into my classroom for tutoring, whether he needed help with an assignment or not. I was a naive twenty-two year old who thought she could inspire poor children to fall in love with learning. I was desperate to connect with my students, so I allowed him to blast music from my cheap computer speakers while I cleaned my room.
“Ch-check out this lit playlist, Profe,” Tevin would stutter. Small, awkward Tevin in his glasses and stained sweatshirt. He played some uncensored Mississippi trap music, years before it would make the Top 40 radio, dancing so earnestly it made me laugh. He was in the eleventh grade but his speech impediment and diminutive height gave him the appearance of a middle schooler.
“Tevin, what are they saying?” I’d ask, bewildered. “I listen to plenty of hip-hop, but I can barely understand the words to this.”
Tevin laughed, growing comfortable in my presence. “That’s mumble rap, Profe. Mang, you old.” And he would ramble on about the music, help me pick up empty chip bags from the floor and erase the whiteboard, happy to teach his Spanish teacher his own language. He rolled his bicycle out the door an hour later, usually tripping over its worn tires.
Tevin and I were friends, but it wouldn’t last. As the year went on, the stress of teaching got to me. I drank, smoked and partied too much. I was selfish and self-pitying. I got comfortable lecturing and issuing consequences to students for poor behavior, but I stopped believing I could make them love school the way I had.
Tevin was both a beneficiary and a victim of my failure. He got away with playing around in the classroom. He talked when he was supposed to be working. I sat at my desk, texting under the table, trying my best to ignore the children I was failing, wondering if I’d make it through my two-year teaching commitment. Every day, every hour, I tried my best. But every day, I came up short.
At the end of the year, I turned things around. I got serious. I got stricter. I stopped letting students talk over me. I stopped letting them play when they were supposed to be working. I wrote up thirty students in my first week of Being A Good Teacher. Including Tevin.
He was blasting music in class one day. I asked him to turn it off. Unused to seeing this side of me — this strict, no nonsense side — his face hardened and he became angry. “You always let me play this music in your room after school. You know it helps me concentrate. Why can’t I listen?”
I didn’t answer. Instead, I sent him to sit in an isolation chair at the back of the classroom. It continued this way for weeks, this painful standoff between us, until school let out for the summer.
Year two of teaching began, and I already knew it would be my last. Tevin seemed even more downcast than I was. When he entered my classroom on the first day back, his body sank low into his chair. He stopped raising his hand. He checked out.
I learned from some other students that he’d had a rough summer. On his way home on his bicycle one night in June, he was jumped by some neighborhood boys. They took his wallet — though there wasn’t much in it — and gave him a concussion.
Tevin seemed to grow up after that. His voice was lower, his stutter diminished. He wore tougher, trendier clothes. He had an earring now. Tevin wasn’t interested in my attention anymore — at least, not in that duckling way he once had. He’d still come into my classroom after school for tutoring, but he wouldn’t talk to me at all. He rolled his bike inside, goofed around with friends while they completed my assignments and ignored me when I asked him to please leave.
All parents and teachers know that a child can morph into an entirely new person in just two years. It happens all the time, always without warning. Was Tevin just a normal teenager, going through a difficult phase? I saw Tevin every day for two years, and it didn’t feel that way to me. He was growing up faster than he should have. He got in trouble now. He got suspended. I knew that violence and poverty crushed the childhood out of millions of Black boys like him. I’d read all the books and all the articles in progressive magazines that explained how and why. They made me angry. But watching this happen to Tevin up close tore me up.
I missed the trap music Tevin used to blast in my classroom after school. Tutoring hours were much quieter now without him. They were a little less joyous, a little more serious — just like the sadness of growing up and leaving childhood behind.
By the end of my second year, I was fed up with teaching. I was not the natural I thought I’d be. From the intense focus on discipline, to witnessing the school-to-prison pipeline firsthand, it was all too much. Teachers were made of stronger stuff, and I just didn’t have it.
Yet I was filled with a renewed passion for justice. I had discovered what I felt was my true purpose in the classroom: to document, to write, to record the experiences of children in poverty and help the rest of the world understand their daily struggles.
When my vice principal suggested I take my Spanish II students to a cultural fair in May, I wasn’t interested. Sure, before becoming a teacher I’d dreamed of taking my students to Mexican restaurants and the art museum, to show them the world up close. But long ago, field trips had fallen to the bottom of my ever-growing to do list. I was worn out and it seemed like too much work. But the fair was just down the road from the school at the YMCA, and it seemed like a fun end-of-year activity to close out my less-than-rewarding teaching career. I said yes, more for myself than for the students.
The fair was cheesy but earnest — a genuine effort by a local educational nonprofit to bring the outside world to this low income neighborhood. When we arrived, the students were given fake paper passports by friendly volunteers. We boarded a “plane” (we shuffled into an empty room and sat on folding chairs while a projector played a silly mock flight safety video — the kids were hysterical over it). Exiting, we arrived in the gymnasium, which had been compartmentalized into a dozen fifty square foot “countries” of the world.
The cultural fair was both joyous and sad. We moved as a group from Mexico, where my girls bounced maracas off their hips and someone rapped over a recording of a mariachi band. In Egypt, two boys wrapped themselves in white gauze and posed like mummies for their selfies. My students loved it, and I was surprised — I’d expected them to roll their eyes, as the rich kids I’d grown up always did on field trips.
Instead they were curious. They asked questions, they learned the steps to cultural dances and eagerly handed their fake passports to the volunteers for a stamp as we arrived at each new booth. I wondered if any of them would ever travel to the countries mimicked in this stuffy gymnasium. Probably not, I thought, although I hated myself for thinking this.
“They really dance like this in Germany?” Diamond asked as a volunteer in lederhosen showed her how to dance a traditional polka. Her face was full of wonder, and my heart broke.
The last “country,” Japan, was represented by a karaoke machine hooked up to a speaker beside the bleachers. The students lounged around the steps while taking turns at the microphone. We all laughed at Paul, who grabbed a fake moustache and beret from “France” and jiggled his hips to a pop song. Maddie took an impressive turn belting her heart out to Beyonce.
Then Tevin took the microphone. I recognized his song immediately. It was the one from his playlist, the same song he “translated” for me back when we were friends. Back when I wanted to be a good teacher, and he wanted to be my favorite student — before we’d given up on ourselves and each other.
I watched him rap, clapped along with the others who cheered him on. He was surprisingly good. His voice was deeper now, his speech impediment gone, and he sang confidently in front of his classmates. He was a man now, no longer a boy, and I’d played a small role in that. Outside of my classroom, it didn’t matter that I’d written him up or that he’d talked back to me. He would graduate in a few weeks, I would quit my teaching job and move back home. We were both growing up and away from those after-school tutoring sessions. I would never speak with Tevin after that spring, and I lost track of him as time passed on. I don’t know what his life became. But even years later, that song — as it whispers past me through the open windows of a passing car, or is resurrected in a throwback Spotify playlist — brings Tevin back to me, and I smile. Maybe it reminds him of me, too. Maybe it makes him smile.