stories Archives - The Jose Vilson


Stand Up On The Train

by Jose Vilson on May 14, 2013

in Jose

She’s got auburn hair, a blue cottony zip-up sweater, and navy blue uniform pants. She gets on the train searching left and right, for a face perhaps. She’s slightly jolted when the blonde woman in the velvet-black suit jacket and sharp black heels.

She’s standing there, exasperated, but looking straight ahead. At what, I’m not sure. No one else notices because everyone on this train looks outward, but in no particular direction. The looks of nothingness last as long as the train ride does. IPods and smartphones light hands and eyes up, headphones tangled around their heads, and passengers try to avoid each others’ shoulders.

The young woman continues to look straight ahead. This time, I do too. But this was different.

She was directly in front of me now, unable to hug the pole directly in front of her fully. She doesn’t have enough room in front of her.

Her stomach shook a bit even as the train stood still, and whether I realized it or not, my fatherly instincts kicked in.

Something told me “Stand up.” I did. I saw the young lady mouth “Thank you” as my earphones blared Kendrick Lamar.

She rubbed her belly, hoping to tuck it in before she went to school. Bellies don’t often cooperate with our intentions. She looked left and right, searching for something. What, I’m not sure.

As I stood, I had questions that weren’t any of my business. I just settled for standing with my coffee for two long stops. My burdens aren’t as heavy as my blessings.

I’m hoping she realizes that, too.

Jose, who’s not quite back yet …

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A Suspension of Time and School

by Jose Vilson on March 5, 2013

in Mr. Vilson

Empty Chair

Empty Chair

You weren’t supposed to come back.

Even though you were on our school’s roster, rumor had it that your guardian put you in a different school, and you’d no longer half-bounce into my class, calling one of your friends a “nigga-what-the-fuck” for something they allegedly did to you.

Before you came back, you only knew me as the second math teacher, the Black-possibly-Dominican guy who came in to help your math teacher at the time. You’d go off on one of your classmates, and I’d refocus you with a “Why are you doing that?! You’re so close, and you’re not even going to finish?!” You’d get back to work and go “Alright, fine” and get back to work.

Your reputation preceded you long before eighth grade, in hallway fights and missed classes, in snickers and whole period meetings, in Blackness, in label. Some inferred that you and others like you were a social experiment, opining loudly that perhaps you have no business in a regular classroom.

Fast-forward to last week, when your appearance set off an ominous commotion, a reaction perhaps set on by things that transpired outside the classroom. Now as the main teacher in the room, I acknowledged your return with a “Hello, young man. Welcome back,” with a gravitas that signaled to others that they ought to focus on their current task.

As I approached you in the class, I noticed the din hadn’t settled down much, but you looked ready to learn whatever it is this guy wanted to teach. For a time, sitting next to you and two of my other struggling students around your desk meant more than what the other 20 students had to do. 15 were genuinely focused on completing the assignment, five of them did a good job of pretending, three worked with my co-teacher. Two or three openly pondered why you’d show up, possibly plotting.

“OK, so young man, here’s what you missed. If you look at this graph …”

“Mr. Vilson, I don’t want to do work,” he politely retorts.

“I get it, but you can do it. Let’s go. So anyways, here are some points …”

“Wait, the other teacher’s not here?”

“Nope. Now we have Mr. Vilson.”


The other students in my small group had mixed reactions to your exclamation, but at least I hooked you in. For the time being.

We get to the crux of my lesson, sans a-ha moments and quasi-discovery. A week’s worth of lessons compressed into ten minutes. You’re trying hard to retain it, but you’re farther removed by the minute, a palpable agita festers in the room, elements seemingly out of my control.

While I refuse to share what happens only a few seconds after, I knew what would occur. What people outside of schools sometimes forget is that teachers can only control the 45-90 minutes a day we have with our students. The first activities, routines, and seating arrangements of the class accompanied by our lesson plans and conclusions serve as the bookends to what a class session might look like. Students carry luggage much heavier than their book bags, a set of issues that my pleas and advises can’t solve so readily.

Sitting down with students, we as teachers can even suspend time for them, create a hub that lets them detach themselves from their other worries. Such a hub only exists in the mind, though, a fragile force field interrupted spontaneously.

When I was done, I realized just how much potential you had for excellence. For a minute there, during that suspension, I had the student I thought I would inherit. Now, we all have to suspend these hopes and let disappointment sit where you just did.

Mr. Vilson, who wants to teach better …


Everything Is Coming Up Millhouse

Everything Is Coming Up Millhouse

A couple of days back, I saw an incident with one of my student ambassadors and a teacher. Nothing to write the Post about, but tempers flared, and misunderstandings ensued. Yelling and consternation spill over to the hallway. Frankly, a huge misunderstanding only inflated by the fact that other adults who felt like pushing the buttons deeper instead of pulling them back. The only phrase that kept ringing in my mind, “He SHOULDN’T BE A STUDENT LEADER!” Shaking my head while I headed home, I thought I would have to do my first intervention of the year between student and teacher to get to the truth.

Yesterday, during one of my breaks, the student ambassador came to me and said he had a discussion with the teacher afterward, which he prompted. The student resolved the situation with the teacher on his own. Thank. You.

Moral Of The Story: Believe it or not, your job isn’t about you.

It’s not about any of us, really. We’re allowed to ask for things that allow us to do the best job possible: reasonable salaries, job security, and good professional relationships with our colleagues and supervisors. We’re allowed to tell people off when they suggest that our jobs as educators see easily with all the pseudo-vacation days and altered working hours. We’re allowed to feel the warmth of the spotlight when most of America likes their child’s teacher way more than most of the political figures who seek to devalue the teaching profession.

Yet, every moment educators step into a classroom (if you’re in a classroom, that is), we gave the obligation to put our best foot forward by taking a few steps back … and let the kids talk.

Unfortunately, too many adults, educators included, still see themselves as the primary foci of all their endeavors. They don’t bestow lessons on children because they ought to learn, but because their students’ learning is a reflection of their own awesomeness, a self-gratification that gives them cool points with colleagues. They see children as means to an end, little people that can do their bidding so they can worship a false idol. They listen not to actually listen, but to use later, to bargain, to hold over as a means of control.

If you find yourself in the above group, excuse yourself.

Rather than constantly finding ways to manipulate kids in ways that don’t help them, let’s teach them how to advocate for themselves in times when they don’t have an adult to back them up immediately. Let’s have kids pick their own projects for school and set the guidelines. Every so often, they have to learn how to make good decisions, and we will just have to be there when they don’t.

We as educators ought to hope that, when they make good decisions, a domino effect takes place and they continue to make those decisions, but if our hand keeps pushing those dominoes, we never get the full effect. Neither do they.

Mr. Vilson, who strives for fairness when he can …


Don’t Let Me Down [On Opening Up When Things Go Down]

October 9, 2012 Mr. Vilson

You’re not supposed to know when your student is this close to suicide. You get up in front of the classroom, get students started on their work, and get into the routine. Whether the routine comes from you or them matters little. The room buzzes for a while as they sit, but when the notebooks […]

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Teachers Teach and Do The World Good [Why We Write Series]

September 25, 2012 Mr. Vilson

My lunch period usually consists of a walk around the way with a strawberry-banana-mango protein shake and a baked empanada, enough to hold me over until five o’clock dinner, usually uninterrupted by the passersby, especially not a former student yelling my name for the entire neighborhood to hear. “Oh my God, is that who I […]

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On Setting Expectations In Your Classroom [For The Student You Once Were]

September 13, 2012 Mr. Vilson

“You’re not old now. You’re old when you start teaching your former students’ kids. THAT’S when you know!” We laughed. Mr. Herrera is the type of teacher who had a way of reminding people that we should laugh at the process of aging as teachers, especially those of us who love our jobs. This year, […]

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