It’s always nice to pick up the newspaper and read something good about your hometown. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy and drums up some pleasant memories. But when the opposite occurs it can be rather troubling, no one wants to hear negative things about the place where they grew up. Well that’s exactly what happened to me this week and it made for a dark day indeed.
Wednesday morning. I picked up the LA Times and had the displeasure of reading about my hometown in a front page article, and believe me, it wasn’t pretty. In a series of morning raids that targeted Azusa 13, a local street gang, authorities made 16 arrests and are still searching for 12 more suspects. Authorities were acting on a 24 count federal indictment dating back to 1992, that accuses the Latino gang of conspiring to rid the city of black people through intimidation, threats and violence. 23 of those named in the indictment were already in custody.
Hard to believe, nearly twenty years of racially motivated hate crimes that included intimidation, threats, beatings, stabbings, shootings, and fire bombings in my home town! And ties to the Mexican Mafia no less! With a little internet snooping and Google’s assistance I was able to find the actual 24 count indictment, a list of all those indicted and their charges and a detailed chronological listing of related events dating back to 1992. It made for some interesting but disheartening reading.
As I read through the material I recognized several of the names but two names in particular grabbed my attention, it was as though they were printed in boldface type. They were both former sixth grade students of mine from the early nineties. I can’t tell you how sad I felt as I read about them. Student A is involved in the current indictment, his name appears several times. Student B’s name appears in a related article.
It blows my mind! I can honestly tell you both boys were decent students. I never had a discipline problem with either of them. They were polite and respectful to me and everyone else in the class. In fact one of the boys, student A, who was part of a well known gang family, would always address me as sir. “Excuse me sir.” “Yes sir.” “No sir.” If I hadn’t already known about his gang ties I would have never guessed. I remember once when the principal was in my classroom for an informal observation he was surprised by student A’s manners and how well behaved he was, it was quite the opposite of his behavior outside my classroom.
Student B was in my class the following year. He was a very quiet student and hardly the type you would associate with being in a gang. He was an average student who did his work most of the time and never caused problems while in my class, outside was another matter. I’m not sure why they did so well in my classroom but had problems elsewhere, I can only assume it was the way I treated them. I never looked down on any of my students, singled them out or put them on the spot in front of the class. If there was an issue it was addressed and dealt with fairly. My motto was “firm but fair.” The kids respected that. Speaking of respect, I always showed my students respect. I’m a believer in the “you get what you give” principle. If you want respect you give respect. Most students saw my classroom as a safe haven. They knew they would never be brow beaten or criticized and felt comfortable with me. What I offered was real and they knew that.
So now here I sit. I can’t stop thinking about my two boys. Student A has already served time for other crimes and now with the federal civil rights violations he’s probably facing a lot more time. Student B is already behind bars, has been since 2008 when he was found guilty of multiple murders. One was the racially motivated murder of a black teen in 1999. He is currently on death row.
It’s hard for me to imagine one of my former students on death row or prison for that matter. It’s not a mental image I care to have. It saddens me to think that their lives will be spent wasting away behind bars. I sit here wondering about the years those boys were with me, Is there more that I could have possibly done for them? Could I have done or said just one more thing that might have changed their direction in life? Could I have planted an idea deep in their minds that might have one day spring forth and changed their life? Maybe, but I don’t really think so.
I know I tried my best to encourage and I tried to inspire, because that’s what teachers do, at least most of us. We are in the teaching profession to keep students from losing sight of their potential and help them feel good about themselves and their accomplishments. We try to help them see the rewards of effort and hard work. We are educational cheerleaders!
We do what we do, day in and day out because we care. I cared about those boys and still do. I’m sorry about the way their lives turned out, I really am. But I know without a doubt that I tried, I really did, and sometimes that’s the best you can do. Teachers are always trying to save students, it’s what we live for, it’s our cause, but the harsh reality is, you can’t save them all…