It’s not my business to like or dislike my students, just to teach them English. But I am easily and naturally drawn to some, not so much to others. Sometimes my feeling changes, but only once has my initial fondness for a student turned to dislike. The student in question was a sweet chubby child when I met him about eight years ago. He had blue, plastic-framed glasses and a winning eagerness that was tempered by shyness. Since then, I have often been his teacher, but even when I didn’t have him in class, I kept track of him, watching him take shape as he grew from a young boy into a tall, strong teen. Bigger and older is the expectation, though you know you’ll miss the sweetness. But older is not necessarily better. When this youth, now a 16-year-old, sauntered into class last year, I smiled and said hello, but he hardly returned the greeting. Could this boy, I wondered, be the same boy? Gone were his hesitancy and his desire to please. Gone the goofy grin and pleasure at giving the right answer. Instead he was supercilious, superior. He now had what I was told many years ago in France is a tête à claque, a face you want to slap. In a fantasy of surprising him out of his disdainful demeanor, I imagined asking him what had happened to the sweet little boy I had known. What have you done with him? The teenager before me was not simply the older version of a child I had once liked and now didn’t; he was an entirely different person.
Sometimes I thought that the young boy was hiding in the mantle of the older one, and if only I could get him to loosen his grip on this disguise, it would fall away to reveal the child I cherished. Sometimes I believed the child was a prisoner held by the older boy. Sometimes I believed the boy in class had never been that other younger boy, but had merely acted a part that now bored him. It had been a trick all along, a guise, and always behind that sweet smile had lurked this arrogant being. Which of the two, I often wondered, was more real? Which was authentic? Sometimes I suspected neither was the real boy. Both iterations had been inventions of a person I would never know, not the dorky-looking, bright-eyed child or the tall, well-built, and very good-looking lad. No need to be offended by the present incarnation because it was not any more true than the earlier one. No point in mourning the earlier incarnation, because it too was a misapprehension. He had sat eagerly forward in the past as I bent over his notebook trying to decipher his nearly illegible writing, his eyes following my finger along the lines, ready to spell aloud what I couldn’t read. He now leaned back in his chair and shrugged in answer to a question, not in helplessness but as if to say, “Why would I bother?” He had shed his glasses to be this one; maybe in the future he would shed his sneer to be another.
One day near the end of the school year, I paired him with a younger boy, one more hesitant and more cooperative. The older was doing the minimum, merely asking in the briefest terms what his partner thought and keeping his own answers monosyllabic, rather than discussing the questions, as I’d asked them to do. I felt sorry for the younger boy, who was trying to follow my instructions, but couldn’t without the participation of his partner. I looked around the room. The other four students, also paired, were making only a slightly better show of discussing the question. The sneering boy was not, in other words, the only sticky cog in the gear. It was tempting to think that with his attitude, he had infected the class.
A few hours earlier, walking from my car to work, I’d seen a young man, older than these students and leaner, more compact, tough looking, come around a corner. His demeanor was both ominous and sulking. He crossed the sidewalk in front of me at a diagonal, passed a light post with a trash bin mounted on it, and without slowing gave the bin a hard kick that knocked it off the post. It fell to the sidewalk with a clatter, bounced twice, and settled on the pavement, face down. Immediately I heard a bellow of rage from behind me. The youth must have heard it too, but he was already jaywalking across the busy street and didn’t look. But I did and saw an elderly man, stopped in his tracks. The situation reminded me of something I’d once heard from a friend, about a trip to Turkey. He had seen a boy push an old beggar woman and kick away her bundle of possessions before turning away. Coming down the street, was a man who, on seeing the boy, roared in outrage. He collared the boy, shook him, boxed his ears, and then shoved him away, telling him to never again mistreat his elders. My friend had been impressed at how an offense in Turkey was anyone’s business to redress. It certainly wasn’t in Gijón. Had the old man on the street in Gijón tried the same assertive reprimand, he would have been knocked aside.
“Did the man help the old woman?” I’d asked my friend, hoping for a happy ending.
He did not help the woman, my friend answered. He did not even glance at her. His outrage was solely because of the boy’s behavior, and though the old woman was the victim, he was not concerned about her suffering. She meant no more to him than the trash bin lying on the sidewalk.
The youth had already crossed the six lanes of traffic, the old man staring after him. The bin lay motionless. I looked at it. It would be easy to go pick it up, and carry it back to the post. Or at least try to. What do those things weigh? Had it been a person or an animal, I would have hurried to help. But a bin? I left it there, as did the elderly man who muttered as he passed next to it, not even glancing down.
On another occasion, in Segovia, I had seen an injured swallow on the sidewalk, its wings outstretched, kicked out of the way by a passerby. I was outraged. My instinct was to accost the man who had treated this living creature as if it were an offending piece of trash. The person I was with, however, did not waste his thought on the offender, but stooped to lift the bird. He transferred it to a perch on a nearby bush. I doubt he saved the bird’s life, but he saved it from the next careless, cruel person who might have come along.
As for the trash bin, it was back in its place when I left work that night. Someone had known what to do. I hoped I wouldn’t have the sweet-boy-turned-careless-teenager in my class next year. If I did, I hoped to see him as a fluttering bird trying to get airborne, not the scornful, irreverent youth he appeared to be.
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