Magnets

April 19, 2013 § 6 Comments

I used to teach GED and Adult Basic Skills, which is what it sounds like. In one math class, I taught fractions, decimals, and percents; at least 75% of the students were pregnant.  I have taught a grown man how to recognize the letters of the alphabet. That is a humbling experience. I didn’t want to believe it was possible for him not to know. My former colleague, a brilliant man called Mr. Phil, sends GED grads to my intro comp class now. I can identify them on day one. It’s the look of fear in their eyes, the palpable certainty they’ll fuck everything up again.

 Jeff says I like to work with broken people, and I guess he’s right. I recognize them, and they recognize me. I don’t totally trust people who are all put together, who match and keep appointments and professional jobs and go to the mall. I know: what did they do? Nothing. They did things right, and things were done right for them. Still, they make me aware that my hem has come undone, that I didn’t spell a word right on the board, that parts of me have healed awkwardly, that my family was never what it appeared to be.

The people in recovery are pulled to me like magnets. I wonder, is there a residue of iron? At least once a semester, a student tells me his or her story of being on the street, strung out, whatever. I see my parents in every one. It comforts me that I can fix them for at least four months, that I can lead them to an A, a B, or even a C, then send them on with some kind of hope.

I have two homeless students now, but none of the other students know it. They look like any students. One is writing a research paper on homelessness. At the same time, Jack Henry has been on my case to do volunteer work with him. I sign us up to serve food at the homeless shelter, the Rescue Mission. He came up with this. He is the child who used to apologize to shoes he didn’t choose to wear. “Everything has feelings, Mom,” he’d say—my Buddhist child.

 We arrive at the made over hotel—the women and children’s shelter. We get a tour of the place and our guide tells us, “We’re not ashamed to be here. We’re proud.” The kitchen manager, Jaria, gives us hairnets, made like surgical hair covers. We put them on. We are to serve dessert, one cupcake per person, to make sure no one gets left out.

We are introduced, along with the other volunteers standing in the dining room in our hairnets and plastic gloves, to the women and children. They applaud, and I want to cry. I only put cupcakes on plates. I know that one of my students there has overcome an addiction to pain pills. I know the other one has three children sitting with her politely around the table. I see my mother. I wonder if this is anything like the two places she went to, trying to recover. I wonder who served her dessert, what plastic gloved hands washed her dishes, and if they were doing it somehow for their own mothers, their sweet-hearted sons, or both.

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