I knew Raul for only eight hours. He was an elementary school teacher; unusual work for a young Latino. And, he was a grad student of mine in a Master’s degree class devoted to “at risk students.” As things turned out, he knew a lot more about this topic than I did! As for me, I was teaching this class because of my years of experiences teaching high school students in a correctional facility.
I met Raul when I asked 25 grad students, “What do you already know about juveniles in correctional schools?”
Several students knew somebody; a relative or a friend who volunteered or was in law enforcement. But then Raul responded. “Spent four years locked up in one; manslaughter you know; gang business; stupid shit. Got through school, though, and here I am, teaching little kids over in East L.A.... just where I grew up.”
The confidence with which Raul had spoken was as silencing as a gang challenge; as if he had said on the streets, “Where you from, man?” and you knew you had the wrong answer. It took a few seconds for the class to compose itself, and it took me a few seconds longer.
“Thank you, Raul,” I said. “I do appreciate your candor! Your views will be most welcome during our discussion today!”
Raul, candid and assertive a moment earlier, lowered his head and nodded his agreement with subtlety, and maybe some regret. An hour later it was break time and I dismissed everyone for 15 minutes. I had a chance to speak with Raul.
“I want to thank you again for your candor about being locked up. There’s always another side to the things I say here in class, a broader context, so please let us know what you think about things I say here today. Also, I admit to being curious... about your journey, you know? From the gang life out there, to jail, to now! Remarkable I think!”
“Thanks Mr. Phipps. You know, I used to be ‘Chevy’ because I stole ‘em all the time. Never did any time for that though. Like I said, stupid shit. So, I went from being Raul to Chevy, then back to Raul. And now in school my kids call me Mr. Fuentes. First time anybody called me that was in the joint. My teachers called me Mr. Fuentes... I liked it.”
“Now, Raul, I am guessing that you also speak Spanish, right?”
“OK, so here’s what I am curious about. A young bilingual Latino like yourself, teaching elementary over on the East Side. You know, you could teach anywhere! You could...”
Raul cut me off. “No,” he said, shaking his head and waving away the idea. “I’m where I’m supposed to be you know? My kids... third and fourth graders... you know who they are? They’re my homies’ kids, man, lots me of them! I can see it coming; they’re headed for the slammer too, just like me.
“You see Mr. Phipps, some of my homies are still out there in the hood; still just hangin’ out, gettin’ high, not workin’. Hell, some are still bangin’! Then they go to jail for a while and my kids go to see them on visiting days. It’s just all so normal; little kids going to prison to see Mom or Dad every other week. I did it as a kid myself! I remember thinking about going to jail; wasn’t any big deal! Kids don’t know anything; it’s all just fun! All my dad’s homies smiling at me and sayin’, ‘Wassup little man?’ First time I got locked up... just like going off to camp. No problem. Hell, my dad wrote me from prison! You know what he said? Said he was proud of me; down for the hood and all that crap!
“How can any kid growing up like that NOT go to jail? It’s normal! Hey, I bet YOU lived up to YOUR parents’ expectations too, right?”
“My god, Raul, I feel like I said one of the dumbest things of all times... ‘You could teach anywhere!’ I am so sorry, you know, what I meant by ‘anywhere’... I guess it sounded like, ‘in a white school.’ Is THAT what I sounded like?”
“Yeah, hard to get past your upbringing, man! At first, I thought jail was cool. I was wrong about that, but it was too late, man; four years to go. And it’s culture, Mr. Phipps! Look at me... I’m lucky! I got another look at my culture while locked up, but only because of all those white people... teachers, counselors and all... so ignorant about what barrio Latinos are all about. It was easier for them to think they were right and we were wrong. They tried... god knows they tried... sending the message, ‘be like me’... but I didn’t know how to do that... none of the homies did! Going to the prison to visit the folks on weekends... that’s what WE knew!
“I mean no disrespect because I know it’s damn near impossible to change culture. But tell me... do teachers and counselors in the joint think the ‘be like me’ approach works? I really want to know, because it sure as hell worked for me! But it sure didn’t work for most of my homies... still out there doing nothing... and their kids in my class! You see... I am a Latino teacher and I have my gang tattoos and I make sure the kids see them here on my arms. My kids are seven, Mr. Phipps, and they read my tatts even as they may struggle reading anything else. They can read them because they have seen them before; every Sunday when it’s visiting day at the jail, or everyday at home when it’s hot and someone wears a tank top. Yeah, they see those tattoos and they already know everything about what they mean... and they are just seven!
“No, I’m a bridge between cultures for my kids. I am not white, but I AM a teacher. And, I couldn’t be Brown because I have been to college and I am a teacher. How could I EVER teach where my students don’t need the lessons I have for them? You see?”
I did see, and I was moved by his courage and by his words. Here, in my class, a teacher not of reading or of math, but of kids. They were the kids of his neighborhood there in East L.A. and they needed to have a choice and a chance.
I had two hours to go in my class and I was weighing every word; EVERY word because of this young Latino teacher who had chosen such a righteous path. I felt inadequate, giving up a Saturday to teach a class I liked to teach, compared with Raul’s mission... to move his kids towards a future of freedom and promise.
After class I called Raul up to talk again, because I had an idea.
“Say Raul, I have been talking all day and I hope you got something out of it. But I have to tell you, I was also thinking about all the things you said when we spoke during the break. So, I would now like to ask you if you would be a guest speaker at our upcoming graduation. You have a great message for our graduates; we have about 20 high school or GED grads this year and about six AA degrees.”
Raul didn’t respond immediately. Instead, he put his hands in his pockets and stared down at the floor. Then, he looked up and around the classroom before looking down again and then he spoke.
“Yeah, I have a message alright; probably lots of them.”
He was speaking to me with no eye contact, in a low and thoughtful voice, as if melancholy.
“You know, I still know some kids locked up there, younger brothers and sisters of some of my old homies. I don’t think any of them are about to graduate, though. You see, going there and speaking is like saying, ‘hey, look at me, be like me, you already have been, getting locked up... just like me. Now, be like me some more and do something good for a change.’ They get out and go home, to the hood, and nothing there ever changes. They can’t be like me when things are still all messed up out there. In a while, I’m just some vato who turned his back on the hood.
“And now I am teaching their kids and some still think I sold out! Some of them still don’t get it! No, any messages I have from now on are for the kids who haven’t been locked up yet and it's coming from all of me, not just the tattooed parts. So thanks for the offer Mr. Phipps, but I’ll pass. Besides, four years locked up was enough. I’m not sure it would be healthy for me to be back inside. Hope you understand.”
“I do understand, Raul. I just got the message, at last... Thanks!”