Thursday, November 12, 2015

Can You Make a Difference, Part 2

When I was teaching in a jail school, people were always asking, "Can you make a difference?"  Most teachers know change does happen, and it happens often enough right in the classroom to keep us flinging our hearts up on the blackboard.  In fact, we live for those moments when we see a light flicker on in a dark place.

Teachers are also full of dark places. Interactions with our students change us irrevocably ‑‑ and change is painful.

Pete had taken my communication course at night school.  He was hoping to get into college full‑time.  He had been a young offender in his teens, and now wanted to be a youth worker.  After the course was over, we continued to talk, usually about his romantic and cash flow problems.

To help his cash flow, I asked Pete to come over to reshingle my leaking roof.  He brought a recent acquaintance.

At one point, I let the acquaintance into the house to "make a phone call."  It turned out he was actually looking for theft‑worthy goods.

A few months later, I had a break‑in.  The thief found spare car keys and used my car to take my computer and other items for his clients.

Image result for early ibm clone
My IBM clone
He smashed up my car in a four‑car collision and was seen fleeing the accident, carrying my guitar.  I was devastated, especially for the loss of poetry, stories, and teaching materials that were saved on my computer ‑‑ and nowhere else.

The police asked me to think of everyone who had been in my house in the past six months.  Witnesses at the accident said the driver was in his 20s, blond, and bearded.

I called Pete and, before I said anything, he sighed, "Oh no, not you, too."  It turns out his "friend" had broken into Pete's house and the homes of everyone he had met during the weeks the two of them were socializing.

Pete gave me his friend's name.  At the police station, I discovered the friend had a record and I identified his picture.

Pete came over to talk.  He felt responsible.  He was profoundly apologetic and crying and wished he'd never brought the guy over.  He also let it slip that he knew the receiver of the stolen goods - the fence - but would not name him.  Pete had served his time and been rehabilitated, but he still knew everyone in his criminal community.

Pete also told me that he might know where my computer was.

Apparently, an escort service had put out an "order" for a computer.  Which escort service?  He would not tell me that ‑‑ but he imagined the new "owners" had got rid of the computer by now since they heard the police were looking for their  supplier. 

He knew the fence and probably the recipient as well.

I believe he was sorry.  He pleaded with me to understand.  But he was afraid, so he chose to protect his criminal acquaintances rather than help out someone who had helped him.

I felt disgusted. Our friendship was over.

Eight months pass.  The phone rings late one night.  It's Pete calling from a village on the west coast.

He just wanted to say hi.  He'd moved on.  He was working for some cousin, reading a lot, and living alone.

Two years pass.  I get another call ‑‑ this time from Kingston.  Pete, again "just checking in," saying he's working and staying out of trouble.

I said, "I'm glad to hear it."  What else could I say?

But now, I realize that he was apologizing the only way he knew how:  By getting a job ‑‑ and staying out of trouble.

Sometimes a change in our students comes only from our profound disappointment in them. 

As for me, I gradually learned to be less naive, more cautious ‑‑ less trusting.

This story was originally published in 1999 in The Hamilton Spectator when I was on their  community editorial board.

For more on teaching in the jail school, please see Can You Make a Difference (Part 1)