"Es la maestra!" Jasmine yells up the stairs of her apartment building as soon as she opens the door and sees me. I can hear little feet scurrying around on the top floor and marvel that I really am "la maestra," the teacher. As I follow Jasmine up the dark, narrow staircase, I feel more like a tired and somewhat desperate student than someone who has come to teach. I am actually here hoping to learn.
Jasmine leads me into her family's crowded apartment with a look of embarrassment and curiosity. In my classroom she is a tough, angry 7th grader; here she is suddenly transformed into a younger, softer self. The difference is startling. It's hard for me to reconcile this shy, timid girl with the fearless child I've struggled with so much in my class.
I wonder again what I'm doing here. Jasmine's family has a reputation in our school, and I've heard all the opinions and rumors from teachers, office personnel, and the parents of other students: "How could the mom let her daughters run around like that, fighting and doing no work?" "Y tienen una boca." "I think there is another daughter who already has a baby." "Do they even have a father? I've never seen a dad." "If they were my daughters, I would . . ." No one ever seems to finish that thought, but it's clear they all think they would do something different. They only have minimal interactions with Jasmine, though. I have her in my class all day, every day, along with 29 other students, and right now I am mostly feeling mentally and physically exhausted.
Inside Jasmine's apartment, little kids seem to be coming from every direction. She has five brothers and sisters and a baby nephew who are all curious and excited about a teacher visiting them. I remember that I am carrying a bag of pan dulce I brought for Jasmine's family and I offer it to them. A quick suspicious look crosses Jasmine's face and I see the first sign of the girl I know: she detects B.S., bribery, and threats a mile away. Jasmine only respects honesty and openness, and even then you have to know her well to be able to spot her grudging respect. I can almost read her mind: If she thinks I'm going to be nice to her because she brought bread . . . No, Jasmine. I've learned. After four years of teaching I've learned that it's not like in the movies. There's no guarantee that things will get any better after this visit. They might, in fact, get worse.
When I started teaching I was eager to meet the challenges presented by students like Jasmine. I chose to work in a predominantly Latino community because I feel a strong connection to it. Like the majority of the families of the kids I teach, my parents immigrated from Mexico. I was born and raised in Chicago and attended public schools. My elementary and high school experiences were not good ones, however. I had mostly unremarkable teachers with a couple of awful ones mixed in. In grammar school I was a "successful" student by many measures-I excelled on standardized tests, I was placed in the one gifted class, and I was the only student from my school to attend a selective magnet high school. My teachers deposited information and I was able to spit it back out: no real thinking, just regurgitation.