When I turned 29, I had to get a job. If my wallet could talk it would have said, “Please fill me with something instead of overdrawn bank cards.” My mother called me a bum. Which I was, compared to my older brothers. They went to fancy schools like Yale and Columbia. I could barely spell college. She told me she didn’t leave Bangladesh, marry a stranger in an arranged marriage (whom she also called a bum), and come to America for a better life so her son could sit on the couch and watch TV.
I’ve always hated school with a passion. I found it boring, annoying and elitist. I took a few college courses when I was 18, but I spent more time looking at girls than my books. I had no interest in college. I knew I wanted to be an artist and school was not the place for me. So, when my brother referred me to a job as a teacher’s assistant, I was reluctant. Sitting in a classroom was going to be a challenge. But I wasn’t getting any younger, and I needed the money. The upside was that I would get out of work at 2:30pm every weekday. That left a lot of time to party, drink beer, and live the lifestyle of a freelance couch potato. The downside was that I had to wake up at 6:30 every morning.
Those first few days were overwhelming. I assisted with kids in Special Education, or what we called 12-to-1 classes, after the required ratio of students to teachers. The kids were a motley crew of dysfunction. They were middle-school-aged juvenile delinquents, learning disabled, violent, from foster homes, and no one seemed to give a damn whether they succeeded or failed. Our job was to keep them on task.
One morning, I was grabbing my usual wake-up coffee at a bodega near work when I ran into one of the students, Anthony, and his baby brother Roy.* Right away, I could tell they were up to something. As a former shoplifter myself, I could spot a shoplifting team from a mile away. Roy was the cute one distracting the guy behind the counter, while Anthony was stuffing Ring Dings, Honey Buns and Twinkies in his jacket. I watched this happen in a matter of a few seconds. No one else saw.
I watched both of them for about two weeks in astonishment. These two were brilliant shop lifters using incredible teamwork. They were the NY Yankees of shoplifting. I walked out of the bodega with them one day and finally confronted them. I said to Anthony, “What you got in your pocket?”
“Nothing,” he responded.
Cute little Roy said, “What you got in your stomach, fatso?”
I hadn’t laughed that hard in a long time.
They were caught, but they were quick. “You want me to call your parents?” I said.
“We don’t have any parents,” Anthony said. “We foster kids. Nobody gives a shit about us. So you can be a bitch ass snitch and tell the principal. I don’t give a fuck.”
“How about you not curse. Or else I’ll feed you to zombies,” I said.
Little Roy said, “There’s no such things as zombies.”
I said, “I fight zombies part-time, because the Board of Education doesn’t pay me enough.”
“Well, we ain’t got no job,” said Anthony. “No parents, no nothing.”
Finally, we worked out a deal where I would get breakfast for Anthony and Roy each morning, and if they did well in school, I’d buy them lunch every Friday. Of course, it did bother me that these kids had to be forced to steal because no one took the initiative to see that they did not have breakfast provided for them. I spoke to the guidance counselor at the school. “Their parents never sent the forms in for the breakfast program,” she said.
“Well,” I said. “You do know they have foster parents? Can anyone just make a call or find a way to put them on the program?”
“If they don’t bring the form, there is nothing I can do.”
The principal had a similarly bureaucratic answer. “If the guardians don’t provide the proper documents, then we can only do but so much.”
It seemed like the adults in the school were doing the bare minimum. I was starting to see how Anthony and so many of the students were feeling neglected. The reality is that a lot of these students feel like no one gives a shit about them. Sadly, they’re right. They are the forgotten, the riff raff, the outcasts, the ones that everyone has given up on. When I went to visit Anthony’s apartment, it was heartbreaking to see children live in a home where a foster parent was doing no fostering or parenting at all.
Long story short, I got Anthony and his brother on the breakfast program. I became their afterschool tutor. And on graduation day, when families gathered to take pictures, rejoice, and celebrate the end of middle school, Anthony and his little brother Roy were alone. I could see Anthony about to cry as his baby brother was hugging him.
“What’s wrong, homeskillet?” I asked.
“It’s graduation,” said Anthony. “I’m about to go to college. No one is here for me. No one gives a fuck about me. I came this far and no one cares, man. No one.”
“Hey, look,” I said. “Your little brother is here, I’m here, and you’re about to go to high school then college.”
As I spoke to Anthony, conjuring up all the things that good grades in high school and a college education could get him, he gradually started to come out of his depressed state of mind. I promised I was going to help him get into college. I could see that scenario went through his head. Like he visualized it right there. “Yeah you right,” said Anthony.
“Look it’s only a few years and you’ll be done,” I told him.
I kept my word and helped get Anthony into a college. Seven years after that middle school graduation day, Anthony was playing point guard for the Georgetown Hoyas. This kid from the streets of East Harlem made it out. As with all my former students that make it to college, I felt great pride knowing that I had a little something to do with his success.
Then one day not too long ago, I am walking outside my mother’s nursing home when I see two guys who look like tall bouncers approaching me. It’s Anthony, who looks like a Mac truck now, and little Roy who isn’t so little anymore. They ask me how I’m doing. I tell them that I’m still working at the Department of Education. My mom’s health had taken a turn for the worse. I’d been feeling a little lost, personally and professionally. I felt like I didn’t have anyone who cared whether I succeeded or failed.
“You should go back to school,” says Anthony. “Get your degree.”
In his advice, I instantly recognize my own advice to him from years ago. I am so proud of Anthony and all the students I’ve helped get into high school and college. These amazing kids overcome incredible obstacles every day to learn and grow to their full potential. So many people give up on them, yet they meet the challenges and make something out of themselves.
Here I was rooting them on, but I wasn’t even rooting myself on. I’m in college now. I don’t know how I’m going to do, but it think I owe it to the students that I helped get into college, kids like Anthony, to take this journey and find out for myself.
*Names have been changed.
School mural image (c) Laura Costanzo
Author photo courtesy of the author