With Your Hearts Wide Open

Jose Vilson Education, Jose

(A Part of) My Kids at Yankee Stadium

Last night, and over the last few weekends, I’d been working on a piece (of poetry) for my students, one that I hope they’d remember, that would capture the memories we had for so long. I couldn’t come up with anything appropriate until last night. I couldn’t have it be too sad or too corny, because I do neither of those. In my graduation t-shirt and jeans today, I tried to convey a relaxed and joyous aura on a day that would be rough for me.

I failed at that.

“The Sound of You” by Mr. V

Don’t you love the sound of a school bell ring
Of the chains and swings
Of the winter breezing blowing by
And children growing into young adulthood
The screams turn to silence
The scratching of pencils and chalk becoming the sounds of instruments for learning
The pats and stomps of stage dancing
The horns and drums moving our bodies to ageless rhythm
The squeaks of sneakers and rustle of nets in victory and defeat
The metals clank against the tiled floors as students move to books and after problem-filled books
The chatter of light voices fill the room with youth and inexperience about the world around them
These are the sounds that will echo rooms 518, 413, 315
The yells and passion of a teacher who cared enough to remember these things
You are the sound
And for years and four years from now, they’ll never forget the feeling that sound brought them
The stories you shared, the trauma of living in a hood where cats hardly ever make it
The sleepless nights on MySpace and finding your own space
The countless playoff games, secret handshakes, and chewing gum that left your stomach growling in the morning
The raps and songs you created when the subs were here and the same beat people dropped for every single song
The people you said your teachers looked like like like like
It’s crazy how you can dream about freshmen
To being a few months from being fresh, man
I’m hoping y’all can be leaders, no yes men
Next time I see you here, I should see no less, fam
The superstars I know you are
The next champions of the new millennium
The ones I put money on, even when I have no money on
Maybe just enough to sing this song
And the sounds coming out from this room may never compare knowing that each of you won’t be there
But I’m happy to have had you and I hope that you know
That I’m there when you need me, now you can go

After reading the poem, I noticed a bit of tension. People liked it, but some of my more boisterous students sat quietly. I chalked it up to them thinking to themselves, wanting to read the poems on their own. Fair. For the next 15 minutes, it went from last-day-of-the-school-year deafening to a palpable quiet. After dealing with a few situations in the hallway, I saw some of my boys sitting there quietly, staring at their report cards.

With a few minutes left, I decided to hand out diplomas. Some of my students asked if they could help me out. I said, “No. I’ve been waiting for this moment forever, and I want to do it. Thanks anyways.” As I kept going down the list of students, some of whom won’t return to the city until September, a couple of whom won’t ever return, I noticed that set of envelopes get thinner and thinner. Like setting birds free from my hands.

I stood in the doorway, and started letting people go. Just then, I saw these boys, my boys, raised their faces to me, teary-eyed and weak in their step. Only a week ago, they acted too big for their britches, telling me the sorts of things they’d like to do with their paramours, screaming to the world that they weren’t going to graduation, sharing their ridiculous NBA dreams with me instead of thinking four-five years ahead of them. Now, I was looking at boys and girls who I’ve had for three years in my grip. The process of letting them move on seems so simple until you actually have to do it.

Someone during prom told me that I’ve been with them so long, I could put them on my taxes as my own children (nevermind that I did). Today, I felt it. These boys and girls who don’t have men in their lives, or never experienced an environment where someone would go to the ends of the Earth to get them what they wanted. Their tears were part fear, part joy, but mostly a longing for this process to go just a little slower. The same friends may not be there, nor will the same environment. Growing up is tough, and they recognized that.

So as I wished them all adieu, I stood there in my classroom, stuck halfway between gasping for air and finding a way to plug the faucet that became my tear ducts. It was probably the most emotional I’d ever been at the school, and not one person could stop me. Not my principal, not the people in the office, not the other student passersby. Only a 2nd wash of cold water to my face stopped me and a little beer for lunch calmed me down enough to go about the day.

And it’s weird because people had such a strange reaction to my emoting, as if they’ve never felt passion for their students. Days like this piss me off, mainly because when we first start teaching, they beg of us to not get emotionally attached to these kids, to build an icy relationship where the academics matter exceedingly against things like caring. Maybe students who find that glimmer of hope have a teacher who teaches with a heart wide open to the possibility of them.

Mr. Vilson, who wants to live forever young …