Guest Commentary

A teacher needs special qualities to handle at-risk kids in South Tucson

"I can teach these kids," I thought. After all, I had been teaching English to adults in Costa Rica for the last four years. I spoke Spanish, and I was accustomed to Latino culture. I didn't know how different it could be to teach high school kids in South Tucson.

On the first day of school, in poured 20 Hispanic high school kids--some waiting patiently for a lesson in English, others secretly waiting to put up a fight. One veteran teacher warned me not to let them get to me: "It's all over if they can smell blood," she said.

I introduced myself, and said that I had lived in Costa Rica and loved the outdoors. They became fixated on only three questions:

"How old are you?" they asked.

"I'm 34," I replied.

"Why aren't you married?" they wanted to know.

"Well, I haven't found the right man," I responded.

"Why don't you have any kids?" they asked bewilderedly.

"Well, I don't have any kids, because I haven't gotten married," I concluded. Catholicism had taught them that their main role in life was to get married and give birth, so they had a hard time accepting that I hadn't done either.

I was taken a little off guard when a student asked me what kind of truck I drove, and the color. Another even asked me half-jokingly for the license-plate number. I said that I drove a white Toyota pickup truck--and instantly regretted it. I found out later that when another teacher gave a student a bad grade, the student marked the side of her car with a big line.

When the students told me about themselves, my heart went out to them. Most had been uprooted from family and friends in Mexico to find a better life here in the United States. They said that they missed their family, friends and culture in Mexico, but they knew that there were better opportunities for them here.

"Mexico is more fun," one student told me, "but there aren't many jobs."

When I read their writings that talked about people getting shot here, I wondered if they had really found a better life, or just a better wage.

My feeling of empathy was soon replaced by frustration as I entered a futile war of control for the classroom during my second-period class. There were strongholds of teenage girls on each side of the room, chatting, powdering their noses and snapping their gum. When I tried to get one girl to stop talking, she used her best ammunition: "You're a racist, miss."

"Calm down; don't let them get to you!" I told myself, as I became infuriated and short of breath.

The classroom was booming with laughter, talking and general chaos.

"Take control, teacher," shouted out one of the students who actually wanted to learn.

The chaos stopped in the last 15 minutes of class after I threatened to give the troublemakers a bad grade. In the next class, I asked Mario to read something out loud. He grinned mischievously while reading the page and saying, "Mi maestra tiene una cara de perro." (My teacher has the face of a dog.) Mario figured out that I spoke Spanish as the officer escorted him to the main office.

That one day of teaching was one of the worst days of my life. I decided to resign at the end of the week, and gave my notice to the principal.

When I told the students that they would be getting a new teacher, one student asked if it was because of them. This was a difficult question: Some students had been cooperative and nice, while others were downright vicious. "No," I said to my student, "I just don't want to have to fight with you to teach you."

I accepted that I didn't have what it takes to be a high school teacher for youth at risk. I was neither entertaining, nor authoritative, and this is what the job requires. Teaching English to a smiling group of Costa Rican adults had done nothing to prepare me to teach Mexican-American teenagers in South Tucson.

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