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  • It’s a good idea for parents to love their kids…I can’t help but think this as I sit in my new weekend place in Samaipata Bolivia, a small traditional Bolivian pueblo with a hint of the Boheme in the foothills of the Andes. I have rented this place with friends, a beautiful couple that have a six-month old beautiful baby boy. These people are amazing educators and you can just look at the baby and can just see his enthusiasm to share in his parents’ world and you can just see him grow up and grow far…his parents love him and they are a team.

    I also got to visit a village school today. A school started by a couple who love their kids and who love kids in general, so they created a school that is highly hands on…some might even go so far as call it ‘experiential’…they have a ceramics shack where the children beamed at the opportunity to play with clay; they have a garden where kids can watch what they plant grow…you can also see the enthusiasm of these children to share in this world… you can just see them grow up and grow far…their parents love them and their parents are a team.

    As I move through these days with thoughts of love, babies and experimental schools, I also can’t help but think that I am a far away from home. Home. California, to be exact, a place I taught for over ten years, a place I lost faith in things like this.

    His freckled face showed up on my classroom doorsteps ten years into my career. He was freckled, red headed with a body like a chubby leprechaun to make him complete.

    “What is your name, sir?” I greeted him like I do all the rest.

    “William.”

    “Your last?”

    “Grogins.”

    For this freckled face, there could be no better name.

    “William Grogins,” I say in my best Gaelic lilt, “You Irish?”

    “Don’t know,” he shrugs and slumps into my room. They all do, in fact. My job this year is to teach the low kids…the sweathogs, if you will.

    When I am hired for the job, my principal gives me the low down.

    “So, this is your job…these kids can’t read…well, they can but they are reading on a second grade level and they are fourteen.”

    “So, they are reading six grade levels below where they should be?”

    “Yes, and because of this, we feel they need reading 3 hours a day…this means no art, no shop, no PE…they will come to school each day and take 3 hours of reading and 2 hours of math and then we’ll see.”

    I nod. I have two mortgages, an unpaid truck and bills coming out of the wazoo…I say yes to the job because I have to.

    “Have they been tested for Special Ed?”

    She sighs, “They take it every year and it is just another test they fail. Because their scores are all low, they don’t have the discrepancy needed to qualify for any extra services. I don’t know what is wrong with these kids.”

    Neither do I as I survey the class. There is William Grogins and twenty of his twins…there is Devin with the dyed black hair and spikes; there is Trevin, the skinhead in training; there is Russia Hunter, an oversize girl who only comes to school to, to borrow her words, ‘get her some.” After a few days with these outcasts, I have to agree…these kids are far behind and because of this, they do anything to keep from having to learn that which, for some reason, they can’t. They act out; they throw things; they put their head on the desks; they pull sweatshirts over their heads. This is going to be one hell of a year and then, there is William…a kid that when he is here only tries to escape.

    A hand is rose.

    “Can I go to the bathroom?”

    Yes, I suppose.

    “Ms. Gurley, can I get a drink?”

    Yes, I suppose.

    “Ms. Gurley, I left my paper in my locker. Can I get a pass?”

    Yes, I suppose.

    Every class goes like this and today a hand is rose at a moment most inopportune.

    “What is it now, Grogins?”

    “Ms. Gurley, I think I am sick. Can I get a pass to the nurse?”

    “William, I’ve had it. Write your own self a pass.”

    His freckles take on a new shade and he sits blankly at his desk. I ignore this because the longer I can keep him in the classroom, the less likely he will try to escape. These are my thoughts until I start to see him turn green.

    “William, geez, come on…write yourself a pass.”

    He doesn’t move but simply puts his face onto his desk. I walk closer and he looks up and at me direct in the eyes…he has tears that he is trying fiercely to hide.

    “Grogins,” I move closer to him, “What is going on?”

    He leans in and whispers in my ear.

    “Can you please write the pass for me? I can’t write my name.”

    William Grogins is fourteen years old and has spent 9 years in places like these where people come to learn and he can’t even write his…? Of course, I write him a pass and I bring this issue up in the teacher lounge during lunch.

    “You won’t believe what happened in my classroom today,” I start, “I have a kid named William Grogins.”

    I hear the groans.
    One teacher chimes in, “Watch out for that Grogins kid…he has one hell of a temper.”

    The other teachers nod at each other…the verdict is in, William Grogins is one bad kid…the difference between the other teachers and me is I have 19 other bad kids to compare him to and in the area of bad, he comes up short and there is something about his Irish ‘rage’ upon which I relate. So, because I am at a professional loss of what to do with this kid, I resort to my Irish family ways…I tease him. I chide him. I treat him like I did my own redheaded freckled brother so long ago.

    “Ohhhh…Mr. Grogins, what an honor you are at school today.”

    “Ohhh…Mr. Grogins, what did you to your freckles today?”

    “Ohhh…Mr. Grogins…what’s up with you?”

    And there is something about this treatment that this Irish lad relates.

    “Ms. Gurley, why do you always say my name like that?”

    “Like the Lucky Charm guy?”

    He nods.

    “Because you are a leprechaun, haven’t you heard?”

    He blushes but a smile emerges. I am making headway and then, Grogins disappears for several days. When he comes back, I welcome him back with the same,

    “Ohhhh…Mr. Grogins, where have you been?”

    He doesn’t smile this time; it is as if he doesn’t want to be seen. I let him come into the room before I try again. Then, in the middle of the lesson, I approach him again.

    “Ohhhh…Mr. Grogins, where have you been?” Again, he doesn’t move but simply puts his face onto his desk. I walk closer and he looks up and at me direct in the eyes…he has tears that he is trying fiercely to hide.

    “My brothers wouldn’t let me come to school.” He leans in close to say.

    “Where’s your parents?”

    He looks at me blankly and asks,

    “You mean my mom?”

    “Yeah.”
    “I think she is in Vegas…that was the last thing she said.”

    “So, you live with your brothers?”

    He nods.

    “How old are they?”

    “I have three of them. The oldest is 18.”

    I look down and see little bruises along his wrists. He sees me stare.

    “They aren’t nice to me,” he whispers again.

    I think of where Irish rage can lead. My voice softens,

    “Is your mother coming back?”

    “She said she would but who knows..she has a new boyfriend, so that might mean she will have another kid.”

    “How many kids does she have?”

    “There are five of us in the house so far. We all have different dads.”

    “How old is the youngest?”

    “I think he is nine.”

    “Do your brothers do this to him?”

    William nods and puts his face back on the desk. Something about bruises and learning the schwa that this kid cannot relate. I continue to chide him, to tease him and I think we are making some stride and then, one day he disappears and when I ask, someone says,

    “Didn’t you hear?”

    “William brought a knife to school. He is not coming back here.”

    So, that is the last of William Grogins. He is out of my sight until I run into him in a Mini-Mart. He is with a little version of himself…stocky, freckled and fierce.

    “Ohhhhh…Mr. Grogins, it’s good to see you again. Is this your little brother?”

    Both freckled faces nod.
    “Grogins, where did you go?”

    “They sent me to continuation school but my brothers don’t make me go.”

    Fourteen, can’t write his name and no more school for this kid at least for the rest of the year. I tell him I miss him, jump back in my truck and I am sick. Ten years teaching in California public schools and I have too many stories like this…this would be my last year.

    It has been quite a journey from there to here. I think this as I walk through the dirt streets of Samaipata, a city out of reach of cable TV where people could gather to watch such American gems such as “Teen Mom” and “I Didn’t Know I was Pregnant” if only they could get the “Learning Channel.” Primitive, I know….these people have very little in the way of American success and they have issues for sure but one thing they have that I have seen the US public classroom lack and that is a love for their kids…and this is one reason, I’m not coming back.
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