THE BLOG

Buying and Selling Hope, One Student at a Time

05/25/2015 06:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2016
pol sifter/Flickr

Ironically-named teenagers often fill the tables in the night class at my high school. Dulce, says the girl repeatedly suspended for fighting. Christian is the name of the boy who draws anarchy symbols on his forearms. And Angel, the stereotypical "student from hell," is the one who glares at me. Who rolls his eyes at me. It's Angel who tempts me to make it personal between me and him.

Angel would die if he knew this, but I consider him one of my greatest successes as a teacher.

It's the kind of success that teachers sometimes don't credit themselves for -- and the ones that keep us coming back to this job that burns you up like tissue paper, especially at the end of the year.

Angel was court-ordered to attend my class. He glared at me when I registered him. Many teachers know that look. However, what I've learned from kids like Angel is that "the mean mug," as they call it, is a front.

Growing up in Texas, I've seen my share of bullsnakes. They look just like rattlesnakes, but they're not dangerous. When you scare them, they puff up to make themselves look as big as possible, hissing like crazy while simultaneously striking and moving backward. Angel was behaving just like a bullsnake.

For years, I've fallen for this act. Gradually, with the help and model of the excellent teachers with whom I work, I've learned to calm down and lean on a standby: food.

The fastest way around an attitude is also one of the oldest: offer food, particularly something sweet. For Angel, like many children in poverty, celebrations are rare, and those that involve big, colored confections even more so.

On this night, one of my colleagues brought in a sheet cake from a previous party. Angel eyed the waves of piped white frosting, the beads of colored sugar sprinkled among plump mounds of fondant flowers, a tiny spark of longing flashing across his face so quickly that if you blinked, you'd miss it.

I asked him if he wanted a piece. He stared, irritation simmering inside his brown eyes. "Well, it's there if you want it," I said, walking away. When I came back, he'd gotten himself a corner piece and eaten it.

"Oh, good," I said. "I'm glad you got some. But now you owe me. One page of writing for one piece of cake."

"I ain't writing nothing," he said, smirking.

Moments like these are a crossroads. And for many years, I chose the wrong way. The writer Sandra Cisneros taught me that the smirking is actually a way of hiding a frightened little person. She wrote that we are all the ages we've ever been, like rings in a tree or Russian nesting dolls. So what I was seeing was a kind of 3-year-old tantrum in front of me.

To maintain my temper and teach myself to see and connect to the invisible child inside the big, often rude bodies of my teenagers, I use another kind of sugar: verbal honey. I call these irritated students "sweet baby." Using this endearment softens me and helps me remember that learning something from someone you don't really know is a vulnerable experience.

"Sweet baby, don't write, then. Tell me why the judge ordered you here."

He puffed up, telling me what a "bad kid" he was. As he talked, I noticed that the frosting had stained his teeth blue.

"Angel, if you can tell me all that, why don't you write it? I want to show it to a guy in my class who says everything I give him to read is stupid and not real. He'd love your story. Would you like a laptop, or paper and a pencil?"

The question startled him. "A laptop, I guess," he said, his face registering a kind of shock at his own answer. As the computer booted up, I drew a few boxes on a piece of paper to give him a structure to begin writing from and walked away.

To see a struggling student actually begin to take up the work is like watching a butterfly land. You have to see it sideways so you won't frighten it away.

When I came back around toward the end of class, I saw that he had written nearly an entire page.

"You are a writer, Angel, I knew it." I could see the beginnings of a smile on his face.

"It was pretty easy," he said, tilting the screen toward me.

What I read was rife with misspellings and barely intelligible sentences. But what I've learned about teaching is that you have to meet each student where they are, celebrate what they can do and show them a small success.

"You have all kinds of stories inside you," I told him. He smiled.

That smile meant that for a small moment, he believed that he could. That smile meant that he felt actual pride in himself. That he believed he mattered. That his words have meaning and he has value.

As I left the school that night, I rolled down the windows in my car, cranked up my music and felt the euphoria that comes from closing a difficult sale. My job is about selling hope.

And thank God, I'm not the only one. There are millions of teachers who sell the same kind of hope, who give students the same vision of success.

So when you see students walk the stage at graduation this year, know that behind them is an invisible line of men and women who helped each one to buy hope for themselves and to bet on a future that needs their talent.