The Value of an Extended Discussion with a
by by Tara Mansmann Romero
Ten minutes after the bell rings, in walks Roberto, late again. He is one of those students who is easily overlooked and mildly noticed for a wise remark or loud laughter heard every now and again. He is never openly defiant or crude. He is simply one of those students whose name you have to repeat once or twice while taking attendance. Today was a day far from what I would describe as his norm.
As he comes in, he approaches my desk. Like any other day, he has arrived late with a small rectangular sheet of yellow paper with the word “pass” printed across the top. I look at it and then ask him to throw the paper in the recycling bin. He obliges without much thought and grabs a seat with his group.
I present my 8th grade social studies class with a short lesson on economy and then they continue to create their economics project which we have been working on for the last week. It consists of students creating their own products in groups, complete with aspects of marketing, sales and its contribution to the United States economy. The entire class is glued, except for Roberto. The students love being pulled from the pages of a textbook to apply what is usually only discussed. Most days he works on his project without much persuasion. Like most students, side conversations are inevitable. This day however is much unlike those days past.
Roberto sits slouched in his chair laughing loudly with the students in his group. As I am taking attendance on the computer, I redirect the group to quiet down and to continue working on the project. They listen with the exception of Roberto. He continues laughing loudly and then begins adding curse words that are not directed at anyone in particular. He simply says them with great emphasis as he narrates his life experiences called “on his way to school” to his group. I call out to him saying, “Ah, come on Roberto!” He responds with, “Ah” and laughingly says, “Aight, aight, Ms. Mansmann. I’m sorry.”
He is quiet for no more than five minutes when he starts up again.
“F*** him! He’s a little B****! I’ll smack his nasty a** face!” (I have heard these words used loosely in the hallways when students believe that they are alone, despite the fact that all the teachers’ doors are open and ears perked. I guess safety is felt while students travel in packs. These words are rarely used in my classroom and definitely not as loud and Roberto is yelling them.)
I yell out, “Wow, come on Roberto we are in class.”
“Okay, okay for real, for real I’ll stop.”
I walk closer to Roberto’s group. I pull him aside and whisper to him, pleading, “Listen man, you know I want to keep you in my class. I don’t want to send you out, so calm down.” I can see his face getting red as he covers it up with laughter, so I say, “Listen Roberto come over to my desk.”
Roberto gets up from his desk, hiking up his pants, and slowly walks over. The computers are in a line that block my desk from the group of students he was sitting with. I tell him to grab a seat.
“Listen Roberto, there is obviously something up with you. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, for real nothing.”
“Listen Roberto, I’m going to sit here working. When you are ready to talk I am here, but you are not getting up from that seat until you tell me what’s wrong. I’ll wait.” I then turn around and continue working as if he did not exist.
I catch a glimpse of him, however, from my computer monitor every now and again. At first he stretches out his arms, bends his head back and begins to yawn. He begins to bite his cuticles, shake his head and kiss his teeth as if he is having a conversation with someone who does not exist. I get up and walk around the room to make sure the other students are on task. They are, so I go back to my desk to meet with Roberto.
As I approach my desk, I say, “So what’s up? Are you going to tell me what’s wrong or what?”
“Nah man, it’s nothing.”
“Well, obviously it’s something. Something has been eating at you all period. Do you want to head to guidance?”
Shaking his head, he says, “No way. That woman hates me, and I can’t stand her.”
With my usual smile, I say, “So, you gonna tell me what’s wrong or what?” He shakes his head and lets a puff of air out of his mouth, his teeth clenched. This allows for a soft hissing noise to be heard.
“What is it Roberto?”
I was just about ready to return him to his group, hopelessly giving up, when he says, “I’m so f****** stupid. I swear, I’m just dumb, damn! Ms. Mansmann, I definitely am. I have to be. I’m just freaking stupid.”
With my eyes squinting and head shaking I say, “What are you talking about Roberto? You are very intelligent. How are you coming up with this?”
“Man it’s my dad. Everyday I’m late, right, and I know it. This morning he wakes me up and it’s like ‘Jesus Christ, Roberto, get your a** up. You, I swear to God, you’re never going anywhere. You’ll never do anything. Man, I got one dumb ass son. Get up and go to school. Who knows if you are even graduating this year. Get up!’ See Miss, I’m nothing. I’m never gonna do anything. I’m just stupid.”
“Roberto, are you crazy? You and I know that you are very intelligent. We both know that you haven’t done fantastic this year, but man, you put your mind to it, and you can be a real star in high school.”
Roberto let out another puff of air, and his shoulders became a bit more relaxed. “I don’t know Miss.”
“Roberto, what do you want to be when you grow up.” He said, “A pilot…” and biting his lip, he continued, “Maybe even a fighter pilot. I don’t know; its stupid, right?”
“A pilot, really? Wow! I can definitely see you doing that. There are so many different roads you could take to get you there.”
Roberto, who never shows any emotion, allowed tears to flow down his face.
“I am proud of you, Roberto. Now is the time to make that difference and set your goals. High school is where it counts. High school is your vehicle, with good grades and behavior, to allow yourself the opportunity to do well and follow that dream. Keep that dream in your head, and you are truly going somewhere.”
Wiping his tears with the sleeves of his shirt, he says, “But Miss, what if my dad is right? Parents are always right.”
“In this particular instance, Roberto, your dad is wrong. In this instance, forget what your dad said. Allow his words to wash away. He was probably frustrated and didn’t mean it. Believe me. I am not wrong. You are going to be someone very special. I can see it. You are already someone special now.”
Roberto smiled and the bell rang. He got his things together and walked out.
The afternoon of the same day, Roberto walked up to me and said, “Miss, um, what I said to you, um, you can keep it between us, right?”
The same large smile that I had seen earlier came over his face; he said, “Thanks” and walked away.
Now this story would be a perfect one if Roberto became my star student. Unfortunately, life is not that perfect. I did, however, see a change in Roberto. He started answering questions, and sometimes even raised his hand which was, for him, who before had preferred to hide in the corner, a big accomplishment. He was able to pull his grades up from a low C to a low B, and for him this was an achievement.
There was another change in Roberto’s behavior in the classroom that I really appreciated. When the class was being too loud or a student was being disrespectful, he began to step in. He would often say, “Come on bro, respect Ms. Mansmann. Quiet down!” They all surprisingly listened to him. It was nice to have him on my side.
I began calling him out into the hallway to discuss his grades or missing homework a bit more. In these conversations, I discovered that he was in a rap group and I got on stage with them during a talent show. The experience was quite entertaining for the school, even if a bit embarrassing for me.
A few months later at graduation, Roberto ran up to me and said, “Hey, Ms. Mansmann, come take a picture with me and my family.” I said, “Sure.” He introduced me to his entire family: his older brother in his Air Force uniform; his sister who was in our honors program three years before; his mother, smiling, dressed in a flower printed dress; his dad who was still in his mechanics uniform. I wanted to yell , “Do you know what words can do to an impressionable young man - how much he grasps onto and believes every single word you say?” I held back and said, “Nice to meet you.” Roberto introduced me as his favorite teacher and had another teacher take pictures of the entire family including me.
It is rewarding to see that taking time out for an extended conversation can begin to make a change in a student’s life.
I will never forget Roberto, and I hope he never forgets my words.