I was a substitute teacher, and he was a 13-year-old boy. His face, still chubby with childhood, was framed by greased black hair that formed two spit curls at his temples. First he came and told me that he could not participate in physical education class that day because he would get his shoes muddy on the football field. The block of study was touch football for seventh and eighth graders. Childrenyes, I call them children12 and 13 years old were to divide into four pre-determined groups to play, girls and boys together.
The lesson plan left for the substitute teacher indicated that the kids were to run a short lap around the field, trying to improve their personal times. When I said he would still need to walk or run the lap, I had in mind his resistance in not dressing for class and his considerable body fat. (Like many young people these days who spend too much time sitting in front of the television screen, he appeared to have a sedentary lifestyle.) It seemed that my obligation as a substitute teacher was to teach respect, for there is nothing like the entrance of a sub on the middle school scene to call forth spontaneous creativity by students ready to take advantage of the situation and claim all kinds of rights and privileges not ordinarily granted them.
You’ve got to run the lap, though, I explained to the boy, who was pouting, sullen and defensive.
I told you I’m not running the lap because I have to go somewhere after school and I don’t want my shoes to get muddy. He raised his voice just a little and spoke with belligerence.
Then you may walk the lap. You can find paths around the mud, so your shoes stay clean on the sides and top, I said while looking at his shoes. He wore plastic oversized sneakers with soles shaped like a roller coaster track. He turned and walked away from me toward the school buildings.
Excuse me, where are you going? I asked. You need to stop where you are right now! My voice was bigger. He stopped but did not turn around to face me. I walked over to the boy, looked him in the eye and spoke to him in the same volume I had been using to get the attention of the other 40 or so students in that morning class. You are going to walk this field, or you and I will go to the office and call your parents and we’ll talk together about why you are not taking P.E. class today. The boy turned to walk the field, but not before he spit on the ground between us.
Walk. NOW! I shouted.
He turned and yelled, You’re going to pay for my shoes if I mess them up, too!
The boy began to swagger around the field. Once he deliberately stuck his shiny white shoe in a puddle of mud. I occupied myself with the rest of the class, dividing them into teams, making certain the girls were included in the plays. When the boy finished his lap, he headed for the shadow of a Dumpster. I walked over to him.
Are you still mad? I tried to melt the ice.
What do you think? Of course! You yelled at me! He looked directly in my eyes, firing a wounded hatred. You don’t mean nothing to me!
Well, you mean everything to me, I said. This moment between us is the best we can do with everything in our lives that put us into this relationship with each other. I can’t change what you’re angry about, and you can’t change what I was before I met you. But what we do here now is important. That’s how wars are prevented. That’s how to end all the ways people hurt each otherpeople need to talk to each other, people need to try, to care.
That’s what all my teachers say, he blurted. They’re all watching me!
Why don’t you chill out over here. I’m sorry that happened between us, gesturing toward a resting spot over in the shade.
He brooded through the remaining minutes of class, then dragged his feet all the way back to the classroom buildings when the bell rang. I was left wondering about the spit on the ground.
What ground between us did the child really spit on? Was he spitting on the promises of American soil that haven’t come true for his parents? Did he spit on the earth that has his father sitting on a curb waiting for work while the fathers of his white classmates wear elegant clothes to their dignified jobs? Did his father hit his mother last night, and then a brother or sister? Had he seen an adolescent spit on the ground in a film or television show?
I wanted to go back to that field and shovel up that earth with his defiance and plant something in that soilsomething that could grow between us. Some hope. Some caring. Some promise that the world would not always be as cruel as he was finding it. I wanted his male initiation tended by men and women who knew that the soft overcomes the strong, like water wears smooth a rock. I wanted to take those stiff plastic shoes that no one can walk in and give them back to the greedy manufacturer who sold them to him, denying what is needed for a 13-year-old developing body to stand upright and enjoy running.
Boys like this are everywhere among us. Their fathers are hopeless amid our economic sophistication, and their depression turns into toughness and rejection of even their own children. Their mothers are ignorant of what it means to initiate their children through the different stages of childhood. They are led by our media and consumer pictures of success to believe that they are to get those kids a public education in America, and then everything will look different for them. The only problem is that public education has become a consumer item too. It is a way to send them all on their ways into the job market, prepare them to be good worker bees. But at the turning point into teen life, these children have caught on. If you work, if you do the job high school prepared you for, you’ll still live in the projects, where the drugs are the only way you get a lovely view and the gangs are the only way you fulfill that basic human need to belong.
And who among us dares to change the situation? Who can go into these neighborhoods and offer them any hope? Will someone who belongs there rape or kill an outsider? And if you were from there and did somehow get out of it all, do you have to go back and save the others? Don’t you deserve a room with a real view and a job where this kind of painthe pain of humiliationis not what you feel? After the spit on the ground we all walk on, there is also the threat of the child wielding a weapon. If we are afraid of our children, how can we reach out to help them?
Unprecedented courage is called for today. We all need to stick our necks out, take a risk for a world that can hold both the darkness of a Dumpster’s shadow and the light that is still inextinguishable in the eyes of a 13-year-old boy. He probably has only a few more years before the gateway to his inner world will lock itself off. Middle school is no longer the middle of anything. It is the threshold where children of a culture gone cool can still feel warmth. It is their last time to be in children’s bodies. And the embodiment of a child’s hope is flickering there. A middle-school child is still close to belief in some good, some truth and some beauty in the world, no matter what abuse he or she has suffered. We adults in the company of early adolescents still have a chance to cultivate childhood, so the entire memory is not lost on cruelty and frustration at all that was not fair for their parents and friends.
Whatever you do today, if you see someone on a skateboard looking 12 to 14 years old, or someone of that age hanging out in front of the grocery store, do something to change the ground between us. If we are afraid of the children of our culture, there will be no one to initiate them. If we continue to deny the dignity of their fathers, these children will be abandoned or mistreated. If we pride ourselves on paying their mothers less than it costs us to keep our own middle-class lives in order, then we silence the power of the voice that could call forth the father’s responsibility and the child’s sense of family pride.
In a global world, family values are no longer something shared among four to six members of a nuclear family. We are all here together to take responsibility for the family of humanity and the very ground of our being, the earth. Let us not kissor spit onthe ground between us. Let us dig it up and turn over the soil of old prejudices and attitudes that cause us to think the planet we live on is something to be owned by us and deprived to others. We need to belong to one another. Our children need to feel that they mean everything to us. We must wake up to the fact thatcontrary to rap lyrics that suggest otherwise or random high school shootings by kidsour children need to believe that.