The ones who drive us crazy because for as much time and energy and attention we pour into them, they can't or won't do anything to change their behaviour, their attitude, or their acceptance of the inevitable failure they will have. He was in two classes with me in the 2010-2011 school year; despite a higher than average ability, he was designated as needing remedial English in addition to English 9.
Him being in remedial English was a huge joke. His 8th grade teacher had seen his chronic disorganisation, his resistance to authority, and his frustration at feeling like he was already in the "stupid class" and did what most of Steven's teachers had done - judge him, pass him on, with no hope that he could ever change. He had failed every class for years. Not due to lack of ability. Mostly because it made him incredibly angry to be treated as if he were stupid.
That's the kid that walked into my room on the first day of school. I can't recall exactly what he was wearing on that first day, but I picture him in the same baggy white shirt and black jeans he wore most days. Same SF Giants cap. Never a backpack, but always a phone in his pocket. For being a gigantic flirt, he had stayed faithful to the same girlfriend for a year. He would do anything I asked him to do, so long as he felt like it was worth it and I wasn't being disrespectful.
A few weeks before school was over, he stopped coming to my class. He had been testing limits with me for weeks, and the last straw was him taking a few of his more impressionable classmates with him in a mini-rebellion against me. I don't remember what it was about, but just that he was angry. At me, at the school, at the fact that he was failing every class except for mine...it was a lot of anger. When he didn't show up for the third day in a row, I found his number and sent him a text telling him to come see me, because I cared. That I didn't want him to think that I was giving up on him. That he could push me away, but that was okay. I was safe - my affection for him or approval of him wasn't going to change. He knew that. So in his frustration at everything else in his life that he could do nothing to change, he tried to make me hate him too.
I saw it because I do it. He didn't want someone to care about him because he figured he would let me down eventually, or that I would leave, or that I would stop caring. So he was ending it before I got a chance to. Just like I do. That reaction comes out of a place of utter brokenness. Of seeing the standard you can never reach and giving up before you prove that you're the failure you know you are. I saw him setting as impossible a standard as I set for myself. I saw beneath the anger was fear. Fear of failure, fear of abandonment, fear of loss.
So the only think I could do was text him and tell him just how much I cared. That I wasn't going to be pushed away like he did with everyone else. That I wouldn't accept his own view of himself - as a failure - that instead, I saw an inordinately talented kid, who loved to argue, but cared deeply. Who saw his own flaws but could ignore the flaws in others. Who thought he didn't deserve people to love him, but gave his heart away anyway.
That he was just like me.
A few hours after I sent those messages, he showed up at my door. No hat, no friends with him, just his phone in his hand.
"Do you really mean what you said?" he asked.
"Yes," I said without hesitation.
"Then I'll see you in class tomorrow morning," he said.
He later told me that his girlfriend had gotten pregnant, and he couldn't tell anyone. That he wasn't ready to be a father, but that he didn't want her to have an abortion. That he was angry because he couldn't change it or fix it or make it go away. And he was angry at me because he didn't know what else to do, or who else to be mad at who wouldn't send him to juvenile hall, or fail him, or break up with him, or kick him out of the house.
He hated me because it was the only thing he could do to make sense of what was happening.
His girlfriend lost the baby a month later, and the school year drew to a close. He got an A in English Support, and a B in English 9. Those were the only two passing grades of his 9th grade year. Eventually, when he turned 16, he moved to independent studies. He was doing really well, and seemed to finally believe what I believed about him from the start: that he was good enough, smart enough...that he was enough.
Two days ago, Steven was shot in the back and died a few hours later in the hospital.
I don't know how to make sense of that. I don't know if anyone knows how to make sense of it.
I won't pretend that it was easy to be his teacher. It was tough. He always had something to be angry about, to argue about, to push back against. He always saw the injustice and wanted everyone to hear about it.
But he's also the kid who cried when George shot Lennie. Who loved Derren Brown and wanted to study psychology to understand why he could do the things he did. Who would stay after class to talk to me about the problems he was having with his mom, his other teachers, his girlfriend. Who was beautifully broken, and willing to be vulnerable about that brokenness in the midst of other beautifully broken people.
Steven Rosalez may not have changed the world, but he did change me. And although I mourn his death, I am thankful for the life he did have. The impact he did make. I don't understand why he was killed, and I probably never will. But I am thankful that I got the chance to know him, to care about him, and to see something in him that he never saw in himself: that he was good enough, strong enough, smart enough.
That who he was is more important than what he did.
That in the end, it's only who we are that matters.
Edit: I thought I was done with this post. But as I was grabbing my bag out of my car today, I found a stack of papers. It was the evaluations from the last day of class in Steven's English support class.
I asked them four questions:
1. What did you learn about yourself in this class?
2. What was the most important thing you learned about English in this class?
3. What will you remember most about this class?
4. If you could start this year over, what would you do differently?
Here's what Steven wrote:
- I learned that I am smarter than I think and that I can accomplish anything I put my mind to.
- The most important thing I've learned as a result of your class is to take my time on essays, because I can actually write a really good one if I don't give up. I used to just give up because I assumed I was going to fail no matter what. Now I know I won't.
- I will remember that you are way more reasonable and understanding than any other teacher I've had.
- I would have done even better than I did, cause if I got to do it again, I would not be going for the bare minimum.