Friday, June 4, 2010

In Memory

This morning, he didn’t show up for work. There was no substitute to fill in for him, because he hadn’t called for one, or let the school know that he wouldn’t be coming in. His wife called during first period to let the school know that he had passed away the night before.

The decision was made not to tell the kids what had happened until Monday. On Monday there would be grief counselors in the school, and a proper assembly to notify all of the students. But in such a small school, there’s really no keeping something like this quiet.

It was the school chorus teacher, Mr. Maldonado, a beloved Puerto Rican man in his late 40s, who wore a beret-like hat and was fiercely passionate about his work and his students. He had been at the school for many years, and a part of most students' lives since they were in 5th grade. On Thursday he came to school, taught his classes, and stayed after to rehearse with the cast of ‘Grease’. On Friday he didn’t come in. No one yet knows what happened.

The students put two and two together quickly, as they tend to do. They noted his absence, the tears of so many of their teachers, and the unusual traffic in the hall outside his classroom.

“Where’s Mr. Maldonado?” the questions began. Teachers averted their eyes as they evaded the truth, saying that they didn’t know, that he was absent. But kids are wise, and in situations like these, they seem to have some instinct.

The official word was not to tell the students. Immediately, we all thought of the kids who would be most devastated - the ones whose lives he had most obviously touched. It seemed cruel to let them go home, and spend the weekend wondering, hearing rumors from their friends. And yet the principal remained firm through the day - we were not equipped to handle the grief or answer the inevitable questions now. We must wait until Monday.

“It’s true, Mr. Maldonado died?” asked one of my students.

“We don’t know anything for sure,” a teacher replied. The student thought it over.

“If he isn’t here on Monday, or Tuesday, then we’ll know,” he said thoughtfully.

Teachers were crying, crowding into the office to get away from the curious eyes of the kids, who sought to comfort them, and to get answers. Eventually, there was no denying it to those students who demanded the answers most fervently, who were in tears at the thought of losing this mentor.

The 10 kids who were closest to him, who performed in his shows and went on trips with him, and cut class to be with him, were gathered together, and I and another teacher took them out of the steamy courtyard and up into my air-conditioned classroom. Part of this was damage control, isolating the few who knew for sure from the mass that was wondering, and another was out of respect. We spend all of our time earning the trust of these kids - we couldn’t lie to them anymore.

In the room they sat silently - a rarity for any eighth grader, but especially for this outgoing bunch of performers. Tears streamed down their faces, and for 20 minutes, no one spoke, they just hugged one another.

There is little to say in this situation. Another teacher, one more equipped than I to handle their grief, came into the room and cried with the kids.

“We have to be sad, we are all hurting, but then we have to be happy, and remember him for his joy and humor,” she told them. She talked about her own struggle, and how hard it was to get past the sadness. The kids were responsive to her - and 2 of the girls began recalling their own happy memories of him. One of my students sat alone, apart from the group, tears running down his cheeks in silence.

This is a flamboyant boy named Darien, who dances when he walks. He is effeminate in every way, and deviant enough that people respect him. He sashays into class everyday, calling himself Britney, and Lady Gaga, and talks about pole dancing. He sings and dances unabashedly, and is never silent. Now, however, he had no words. Darien is a boy who needs a lot of attention. When I get to the end of my rope and demand that he require less attention, he explains to me that he doesn’t get any attention at home. His father never speaks to him, and his mother is gone - a drug addict who isn’t in his life. He wrote a poem earlier this year about feeling invisible, having no one to celebrate him or come to his shows, or ask him questions, or be interested in his life.

Today he lost a man in his life who genuinely cared. A man who got to the end of his rope much more slowly than the rest of his teachers, and who made Darien feel good about himself. Much of it likely had to do with the fact that he was the chorus teacher, and that Darien easily excelled in this class, but it was also that this man had far more patience than most of us. I looked at Darien and my heart broke thinking of what he had lost - someone who really saw him in a way that perhaps no one else did. Darien got into a good high school - one for performing arts - and the person who he ran to to tell was not his father, or even me and Ms. Jimenez, who love him - it was Mr. Maldonado.

In our school, chorus isn’t a small elective. It is one of 3 talent classes. 1/3 of the school attends chorus for hour and a half blocks. They also get pulled out of class and stay after school in order to practice.

The shows are never amazing, the kids never exceptional, but it’s middle school, and it’s not really about that.

There’s a big, loud, crazy 8th grader who sat in my room, her whole big frame shaking with sobs. This is girl who teachers beg to skip class, who is so loud and destructive that we are often happy when she skips class to go to chorus. But for all the craziness that prevented her from having success in so many classes, she found a home in chorus. Chorus made her feel like there was something that she could do.

A 7th grade Puerto Rican girl with long blonde hair, who people say looks like my daughter, also resembled the chorus teacher, and shared his last name. Her mother died of a drug overdose when she was in 5th grade. She is scarred by this - leaving class in tears if anyone makes a ‘yo mama’ joke, or mentions her own mother. She was the star of every show, standing in front, singing solo after solo. She called Mr. Maldonado her uncle, and he said that she ‘sang like a little bird.’ When she left class angry or upset, his room was where she retreated to.

There are countless tales to exhibit his impact - the lives that he touched. In this challenging neighborhood, with these kids coming from such a variety of harsh backgrounds, he was someone who really loved them, who made them feel loved. No matter how they disappointed him, got in trouble, threw tantrums, or aggravated him and the others in the school, he always took them back.

He always said he couldn’t sing, and he didn’t know why he was the chorus teacher. His shows were always the same, the kids slightly off tune, dressed in semi-matching, at times inappropriate clothing, swaying to the music with great rhythm. But he was so proud of them. He was relentless at his work.

He made me crazy pulling my students out of class all the time for his shows. I would get upset that they were missing academics for chorus, frustrated with how much class they missed. But he really believed that it was necessary - that what they were doing was the most important thing in the school He made them feel important. He would play the piano in the auditorium, furiously waving his arms, growing red in the face as he conducted the chorus, and nursed a solo out of a shy 6th grader.

In short, he really was everything that you want a teacher to be. When you leave, for whatever reason, you want to have had a deep impact, to have loved your students, to have given them a gift that they will carry with them. For all of his students, regardless of their successes or failures in academics, he gave them something to feel good about. He got them to stand on a stage during their most awkward adolescent years, and sing in front of their peers, and feel great about it afterwards. He let their parents come to school and feel pride as they saw their son or daughter swaying tot he music and clapping a beat, belting out Spanish love songs.

He will be missed, and remembered, most of all, by the people who matter most. His students.

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