A.B. showed up in our below basic English class midway through the first quarter. He came in sullen and gaunt, a skull-faced kid with slicked back Eddie Munster hair, sporting Norteño red and a state-sponsored ankle bracelet. He’d just come off of a stint in juvie over a range of infractions including car theft, dealing, and assault. For some reason, the terms of his parole forbade him the use of knives and scissors, even in supervised classroom activities; I never asked why. In addition to constantly flouting our school’s policy against gang apparel by accessorizing with an eye-catching red belt and rosary combo, he was prone to vandalism, cutting class, and every once in a while, just to remind us that he was, in fact, just another kid, histrionic sissy fits upon not getting his way.
During his first few weeks in class, he seemed to spend most of his time intentionally mispronouncing my name, practicing his fight-face, mumbling under his breath in Spanish, and denouncing our assignments as bullshit.
At the time, I’d been working with the class on CAHSEE preparation in our regular small-group sessions. One day, A.B. became frustrated with the lesson at hand and exclaimed, “Chinga a tu madre, Cardboard. Man, why we gotta do this bullshit?”
It was a worthwhile question.
Rather than launch into a debate about the merits (few) and flaws (many) of standardized tests, I told him, “The CAHSEE is an obstacle; it is meant to make it harder for you to graduate. Passing this test gives you options; whether you like the test or not, want to take it or not, you’ve got to take it, and you’ve got to pass to graduate.”
It was our first real moment of understanding. A.B., like pretty much anybody, had no interest in being told what he couldn’t do, even if it was something he had no interest whatsoever in doing. He didn’t think of himself as college bound, but he wasn’t going to let some bullshit test stop him from graduating.
After that, he started dominating his small group’s prep sessions, asking my advice on his practice essay revisions, and calling me Carpenter.
One day in class, he called me over to his desk and said, “Hey Carpenter, wanna see my bitch?”
I geared up to lecture him as he pulled out his cellphone and flashed me a picture of an adorable, caramel brown pit bull puppy.
“What’d you think it was gonna be?” he asked me.