Friday, May 4, 2007

Antoine

I'm often inspired by what I read over at Oh, The Joys. The blog is irreverent and unfailingly humorous, but from time to time, it's an absolute tearjerker. Today's post was one of those that had me drawn in from the beginning, and it drove me to do something I've been meaning to do for a long time: find out whatever happened to one of my all-time favorite students, Antoine.

In any teaching career, there are students who are unforgettable. For me, Antoine was the first of those students, one who has influenced my career in many ways. There are two memories from the year he was a student in my U. S. History class that stand out, the first being the very moment I met him. Standing at the door and greeting my students was an important task for me each day, and it was especially important on the first day of school. I wanted students to know that I was happy to see them, and that I was looking forward to a great year. As I waited by the door in August of 1992, a 24-year-old, second-year teacher at a Houston high school I'll call Multicultural High, I spotted a nice-looking, black kid, wearing a white undershirt with the sleeves rolled up and perfectly styled jeans, hovering outside the room. He'd given himself away by glancing first at his schedule, then at the room number, and then at me. More than once. So, I asked, "Are you looking for U. S. History? Come on in." He hesitated before saying, "I don't want to go in there. I'm not going to like that class."

So many things rushed through my head at that point, and this instance illustrates what makes teaching both an art and a science. Nowhere in my teacher education classes did anyone instruct me in how to respond when a student informs you, without previously having met you, that he is not going to like your class. I managed to respond neutrally, "Oh, really, why not?" "Because it's not MY history," he responded. I could feel the challenge in his words, and I knew that my response would be key for our relationship and my ability to reach him throughout the year. And I had only a few seconds to craft an answer. Instinct kicked in, and I responded in a way that was both truthful and, for this student, right. "Well," I said, "Come on in anyway. I think you'll be surprised. In this class we learn about how all kinds of people have contributed to making our country great. I don't leave anyone out or just focus on groups once a year during Black History or Women's History months." In he went, and I could make out the first glimmers of the bond that we would form over the year.

I quickly learned that Antoine was smart and that he was gifted athletically. Recruiting letters often arrived for him during my class. I must have delivered contacts from 30 different colleges over the course of the year. After our conversation that first day, he was always unfailingly polite, and he worked hard. He was being raised by a single mother, one who cared tremendously for her son and knew his potential. A humorous moment came for me when his mother arrived for teacher conferences. I now knew where Antoine got both his size and his looks. Good for him, not so good for her!

Antoine willingly participated in class discussions, and this led to another key moment for me, one which I've related on numerous occasions to others. My class, full of students of color and recent immigrants, was discussing the civil rights movement. The question posed was does discrimination still exist today, or has our society conquered such attitudes, essentially, "Is there a need for further civil rights work today?" I'll admit to having been honestly taken aback when the majority of my students stated that they did not believe discrimination was a big issue in modern-day America. I had expected our discussion to take a different route, in fact, I was rather depending on it to help in my efforts to make the these events of the 60s and 70s relevant to the 16 and 17 year-olds in my class, for whom those years might as well have been eons ago.

Finally, Antoine spoke up. This 6' 3" guy, weighing in at about 250 lbs. said,
"If you think there's no such thing as discrimination these days, you need to walk home from school with me. When I get to the corner of Cook and Bellaire, I have to wait for the light so that I can cross. Every day, all I can hear are the automatic locks clicking on the car doors around me. People don't see me at that corner. They see a big, black guy. And, you know, all I'm doing is walking home from school. I'm a kid, walking home from school."
It absolutely broke my heart. Both because I knew he would never do anything to hurt anyone and because I knew that if I didn't know him, I might be afraid too. It taught me about myself, and it taught me a little, just a little, about how it must feel to walk in his shoes. I never took him up on his invitation to walk home with him, but I often wished I had. Later, when I moved to Suburbia and began teaching at All-American High, a much less diverse school than the one I had left, I shared Antoine's story with my new students, students who had even less reason to believe that there were still issues with discrimination than my Houston students had.

Antoine left my class that year with us both knowing that he had been wrong in his assumptions about U. S. History and his role in it. He kept in touch the next year, and I enjoyed watching his achievements on the football field. I celebrated when he accepted a football scholarship to a quality, four-year university. Antoine was the kind of kid that college athletic scholarships were designed for, a kid who was talented both athletically and academically. I knew he was smart enough to get a degree, and I hoped that he'd be able to overcome some of the circumstances in his life that made it less likely that he would cross the stage with a diploma in hand. I hoped he wouldn't let the distant prospect of a career in the NFL distract him from taking full advantage of the academic opportunity he'd been granted.

I saw Antoine again the following year when he came home from college and stopped by to visit. He told me about his classes and his experiences in football. He'd been redshirted, which he said gave him more time to focus on studying and also more time to complete his degree. He also told me about his "coat allowance." He was thrilled to have a "real coat, not these pretend coats people wear down here." He was making friends, enjoying life, and eating well. He was huge! Those college strength and nutrition programs are nothing if not effective. I hugged him and wished him well. He walked out the door of my room, and I haven't seen him since.

But I've always wondered. What happened to him? Did he get the degree? What's he up to now? Moving away made it difficult for me to keep track of my former students, and Antoine was one of the ones I regretted not being able to contact to let them know where I was headed and why I would no longer be working at Multicultural High.

Today I found out. Inspired by the post on Oh, The Joys, and aided by the vast array of information out there on the world wide web, I found Antoine. Since I knew his full name and where he attended college, it really wasn't too difficult to find references to him, especially if I was interested in his football career. But I hit paydirt when I unearthed a report for a project he worked on recently that listed his credentials: a degree in economics from the previously mentioned quality, four-year university. He's a consultant working in the field of public transportation design. A little more searching revealed an address, and the Big Brother satellite in the sky allowed me to zoom right in for a shot of his home. From the suburban address and the house size, I'm also guessing he's married and has a family. What I know for sure, though, is that he's come a long way from that street corner with its accompanying soundtrack of locking car doors. It's great to know he achieved his goals, and I'd love for him to know that he also helped me achieve mine.

6 comments:

Rambling Mom said...

Are you going to write him a note????

How cool.

And I just today wrote a comment on my blog about single parent families.

Oh, The Joys said...

What a great post! Thank you so much for sharing that - though I admit, I had to swallow back the tears (HARD) at the door locking part.

Her Bad Mother said...

For anyone who's ever worked with kids, this is such a universal experience.

Beautifully told.

tulipmom said...

I linked here from OTJ. What an inspiring story! As a former teacher, I truly appreciate you sharing this.

Mom of 4K said...

MMMMMmm, Thanks for sharing your memory and research! I hope you have a chance to let him know how much he inspired you.
Anne

Sock Girl said...

This is a powerful post LSM. Thank you for sharing this!