I teach a young man who I will call Papi the Enigma. He is repeating the sixth grade, so I saw him in the hallways last year but did not really interact with him. His former teachers let me know that I would probably have him in my class this year. We see each other every day in my social studies class and every other day for reading lab.
When told he was in my group for the field trip, he said, “Mrs. Johnson, I don’t know about that. I’ll have to talk to my mom. I’m not planning on going.”
“Why? Are you afraid of pumpkins and flowers?”
“No, I just wasn’t interested in going.” This was Thursday, and I figured I would not see him on Friday morning. Imagine my surprise when he shows up, lunch in hand, and ready to go on the field trip.
“Oh, you changed your mind I see.”
He is polite but aloof. There are times when he wants to ask me questions about my personal life, and there are times when he is brooding about the concerns in his young life. Papi the Enigma was in my group for our field trip to the Dallas Arboretum yesterday. As the bus filled, I had him sit in the front seat next to my items. He is larger than my other six graders, so sitting three to a seat would have been a tight fit, and I was reluctant for him to sit in the back.
On the way to the Arboretum, I had to switch seats because one of my other students felt carsick. I distracted her by playing the alphabet game. We looked for words that started with the letters of the alphabet in sequence. Qs and Xs are some of the hardest ones to find. Papi went to sleep, and when I glanced at his face, I saw traces of the baby he once was. He had told me he had shaved his moustache so that he would look younger. Earlier this week, I had told him he needed to shave or else I would do it for him. With tweezers.
He kept track of the kids in our group like a faithful young helper. I laughingly called him Papi but watched as he genuinely tried to help me keep track of my group. When I asked him about what he was doing, he said he was chaperoning the chaperone. I whirled and looked at him like he had lost his mind. I have to admit he did act as if he were the flanker in a group of cowboys herding some cattle.
I kept verbally sparring with him because I know he could take it. We have that type of rapport. I would also ask him questions about his Thanksgiving plans or hobbies like skating or riding bikes in an offhand manner like I wasn’t really interested and was just being polite. My other students probably wondered why Mrs. Johnson talked to him like that? They could see me shoot him a look when he made some smart aleck comment or tried to get me to do some dance move. “C’mon, Mrs. Johnson, just put your hand up like this.” I did not comply. I did; however, jump on the net in the Walk in the Clouds bounce house tree house exhibit with the other kids. They were delighted. I put my stuff down and jumped for a minute, laughing with glee and got out before I hurt myself.
I saw Papi had his back to the jumping crew and was looking towards the Dallas skyline. He was not going to get into that net thing and jump. I did not think he saw me in there because I was stealthy and did not call attention to myself. After I got out of the net, I asked, “Did you see me jumping?”
“Yeah, I saw you in there.” Still too cool for school.
He has known from the first week of this school year that I was angry he was in the sixth grade again. Papi is intelligent but lazy at times. When I looked on my computer screen last week and saw his grades for the second marking period were not all passing marks, I gave him a nasty look, and he said, “I know.”
“You can come into my room any morning and work. I don’t care if it’s my class or someone else’s class, but this (waving my hand at the computer screen) is not acceptable.”
On the way back to school, I was shocked to find him sitting in the same seat on the bus. When another kid tried to sit next to him, he said, “This is Mrs. Johnson’s seat.” Hiding my shock, I thanked him for saving my seat and put my lunch bag, clipboard, and purse down. Before he went to sleep, he showed me some pictures on his phone including a picture of the sunset he had taken. The composition was beautiful. The photograph should be framed and hung up in a living room to be enjoyed for years to come along with the memories. I saw pictures of his family and their vacations. He let me in to his world just a little bit. I told him he had an eye for photography and should consider it as a hobby or career. He did not laugh it off like I expected.
Papi even had the gall to tell me I have softened towards him. I vehemently denied it. “I am just as strict as I was last year.” He could not provide me with concrete evidence of my alleged softening towards him, but I actually do like the young man, and I want him to do well in life. Maybe he is right after all.
I already know I will embarrass him by crying the last day of school when I say goodbye and good luck in seventh grade. And if you ever pull this failing stunt again, I will put my foot into your behind. I mean it. I simply have to dust this office. Something is making my eyes water.