Dwayne. He was my most memorable student in the South Bronx high school where I taught freshman and junior English nearly a decade ago. He was one of those kids that doesn’t fight you, doesn’t resist, doesn’t participate, just puts his head down on the desk and doesn’t lift it up again till the bell rings. Dwayne was a junior and he clearly wanted nothing to do with me or my class.
For me, kids like Dwayne are often the hardest challenge. When students are loud and unruly, when they aggressively challenge what you say or do, there is some opportunity to interact and possibly to persuade. But what do you do with kids like Dwayne? How do you engage someone who shuts down the minute they get to class?
Every day, I would see him slouch into class, his face expressionless, his eyes downcast, and slide into the chair at the table he shared with two others. Only two rows from the front of the class, he would then dump his book bag on the desk, cross his arms, and with a deliberate sigh put his head down between his arms and attempt to sleep.
No matter what stories I told, what exciting topics I discussed, Dwayne’s head remained firmly on the desk. Until one day, I was teaching a lesson on stereotypes. All the students were engaged in this controversial topic, yelling out answers and opinions on why stereotypes exist and how we can combat them. Not Dwayne. At the end of the lesson, I was reviewing the connotations of words and to illustrate, asked my students who they considered one of the most influential poets of their times. The room grew immediately silent as the topic moved from one they cared about deeply to one they felt unsure of. “Shakespeare?” mumbled one brave student, drawing on his past knowledge of English teachers and their love for the bard. “No!” I responded. “What about Tupac?” Dwayne’s head shot up as if he had been jolted with an electric prod. He now sat straight up in his chair, staring at the board and at me in disbelief.
“Tupac? You mean Tupac Shakur?” They were the first words he uttered in my class.
“Yes, exactly. Wouldn’t you say Tupac had a wide influence on many young people?”
Dwayne nodded silently, but his face reflected a range of expressions from astonishment to euphoria to a bewildered joy. I was meanwhile equally stunned and determined to keep him upright.
I had found the secret hook to Dwayne’s motivation and I reeled him in without relenting. “Which of his poems would you say affected you the most?” Before Dwayne could even muster up an answer the entire class jumped in again, excited to offer their own opinions. As the bell rang and they streamed reluctantly out, still arguing over which poem was the best, Dwayne turned toward me with an expression of wonder and begrudging respect, his mouth turned upward in the semblance of a smile. As I stood at the door, waiting for my next class to enter, I watched Dwayne joining animatedly in the conversation that continued in the hallways as my students proceeded to their next class.
From that day on, Dwayne sat up straight throughout the entire class period. He would stop by my desk on his way out, leaving me copies of his favorite Tupac poems, and I would be sure to bring up something about Tupac or the topics of his writing at every opportunity. Eventually he began sharing some of his own poetry, beautiful profound verses about life in the midst of violence and poverty.
It was that simple. Suddenly, with just one shared interest, one instance where I demonstrated respect and understanding for what he held dear, Dwayne was now willing to demonstrate the same respect and understanding for what I had to offer in terms of content.
When I left the school at the end of the semester, Dwayne stood in front of my car, blocking my path. When I said goodbye, he asked me plaintively, “ What do I do now, Miss?” It was as if, by losing the one teacher who “got” him, he was losing the path to progress and the chance to graduate. Sadly, he was right. While I reassured him that he would be fine, Dwayne never did graduate. His teachers during his senior year didn’t connect with him and he was written off as a student who slept through class and just didn’t care.
I am still in touch with him, as I am with many of my former students, and Dwayne continues to write books of poetry. Currently he is working on a volume of “Haiku from the Hood”. He lives and works in the same South Bronx neighborhood, unable to obtain a diploma and unsure how to improve his condition. While I do my best to guide him from a distance, it disturbs me greatly to think of all the Dwaynes who inhabit our schools today, full of potential and promise that go unrecognized. If only we could take the time to get to know their secret hook, to catch that glimmer in their eyes when they hear a certain phrase or topic, and to fan that spark into a flame that lights their path to success.