I was back in New York this past week, visiting from my new home in Pittsburgh. As always, I bumped into a few people I knew—colleagues I taught with and students I taught at a small public high school in Brooklyn. All were desperately counting down the days, hours, minutes until school was out for the year. The same week, the local papers broke a story about public high school’s attempt to cheat the Regents (a series of state-wide tests mandatory for graduation) and save their school from closing. All of it—the exhausted colleagues, exuberant kids and terrible choices left to teachers and administration—reminded me of how often I lived on the edge of desperation myself as a teacher.
October was always one of those times. The summer is gone, winter holiday break is too far off and the long school year stretches out, endlessly ahead. For the underprivileged teenagers who attended the school in Brooklyn where I taught, the approaching winter only made their usual worries—where to get food, shelter, money, and a future—feel even more grim.
Rob told Brittany to back off, now. We were moments away from a meltdown.
It had been a difficult year from the first day of school, as kids from rival gangs were thrown together in my Beginning Playwriting class. Harsh words flew across the room too often and I wondered how they would collaborate on writing a play, the major project of the class. One gray October afternoon, I couldn’t even get most of the class to open their notebooks. Stan yelled something nasty at Mike. Andre cursed at Yusuf. Rob told Brittany to back off, now. We were moments away from a meltdown.
“Bring your chairs into a circle!” I declared, knowing I’d have a few minutes to figure out a next step while they did so. When the class was in place, looking up at me expectantly, I sketched out the Compliment Game on the spot: One person would stand in the center of the circle. The rest of us would raise our hands when we had a sincere compliment to give. The person in the center got to choose whom to call on next. The only other rule was that each compliment had to be received with a sincere thank you. “Words matter,” I told them, not for the first time.
It felt like being punched, if that could be a good feeling. More hands, more compliments.
The class looked skeptical but interested. No one wanted to go first, so I walked into the center of the circle, trembling. Was I going to get lauds, slams, or, worse, nothing at all? After a long pause, a hand went up: Mike’s. “You a good teacher,” he said. “You keep trying.”
It felt like being punched, if that could be a good feeling. More hands, more compliments. One by one, they all took a turn. It turned out that Andre had something nice to say about Yusuf after all, expressing his admiration for how hard he worked. Danny told Brittany that she was sweet. And Stan, dragged into the center of the circle under duress, was told that he had the best smile they’d ever seen, which, of course, made him smile. It was like the sun came up in the room. I was so happy in the glow of it, in the wake of a good class. “See? Words matter,” I told them again.
Just few days later, Stan was dead, gunned down steps away from the school in a gang-related crime that’s never been solved. There is nothing consoling to say about a young man dead before he could figure out what kind of life he wanted to live. We all felt his absence sorely in that classroom, and while things never got quite so angry again, we continued to struggle to work together, always two steps forward, one step back. But in the end, in the springtime, we wrote our play, and the class wanted to dedicate it to Stan.
I decided that the dedication should read, “To Stan: His smile was like the sun.” I was so pleased with my poetic words. After I typed them up, I showed the dedication to Mike, who was hanging out in my room after school that day.
“Uh-huh,” he said. “Stan had a good smile.”
“I’m so glad we told him that,” I said. “Remember that day?”
A small smile zoomed across Mike’s face, quickly changing into a look of pain, and then he stared out the window, the noise of the traffic on Ralph Avenue filling the silence for a minute.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
I couldn’t let it go, desperate for a little more. “Aren’t you glad we told Stan those things?” I said.
He looked at me hard—searching—and then turned on his heel and walked out of the room.
He was right: though they matter, words aren’t enough.