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Once upon a time there lived a teacher. Her age was twenty-eight but with smooth skin and chubby cheeks she seemed much younger. Daily she showed up to the door of her classroom nervous as a schoolgirl herself. Mostly she wore patterned skorts with flat, slippered shoes, so she, too, could run down and jump hopscotch on the playground. Penny-colored hair fringed her face, and each day after lunch she reapplied a pretty sheen of Cover Girl Lipslick Demure Lipgloss so that she felt more grown up, like a real, professional teacher.

The students called her Ms. Lady. She taught fourth grade. All the Plexiglas windows of her room remained sealed shut, smudged with the ghostly prints of children long swept away by time. Daily she and the thirty-two students in her care circled inside the overheated room like fish in a small, plastic tank, imprisoned beneath the arid air and thick smog of a California valley.

On day one, within hours of the first bell ringing, Ms. Lady’s head hurt from the ceaseless chaos of so many bodies, voices, movements in such an enclosed space. She felt her breath bursting from her in bubbles as she spoke, her arms and legs moving in murky, sluggish resistance. All day long the black minute hand on the wall clock mocked her over the student’s heads, shivering backwards and forwards eight hours a day, there in the desert heat. She intensely disliked the feel of chalk on her skin as she worked, ceaselessly creating small groupings of carefully arranged letters and numbers across the black board like bites of wisdom, tempting enough for her students to digest.

Ms. Lady often stood at the front of the room like an actress, posed forever as ‘teacher’, her character symbolically cloaked in the chalky remains of once snow-white words now faded into dust before the audience’s very eyes.

At night, tucked in bed, Ms. Lady ate miniature Reece’s Peanut Butter cups straight out of the big bag and worried she’d chosen the wrong career.

Even so, as school days evaporated into misty memory beneath the broiling sun, Ms. Lady felt a growing kindness towards her students, eager to know them all better.

One boy – dark-haired, scrawny, quiet – had the unusual name Osvaldo. Or perhaps Oswaldo. No one seemed to know which it was, really. His paperwork was a jumble of both spellings. Ms. Lady sought out his former teacher, appearing in front of the mysterious woman who’d passed Oswaldo/Osvaldo on to the fourth grade even though he could not read or function in any subject at even a kindergarten level. This obese, elderly teacher – Ms. Dung – shrugged when asked how the child’s name was to be spelled, not too interested either way. Mostly she said in loud, clearly enunciated words that the child, this boy, was a ‘second-language’ learner. Ms. Lady left Ms. Dung’s room in a hurry, her skin afire with prickled irritation. Yes, obviously the boy was a second language learner. So what? How did this answer the question of his name or how he came to be in the fourth grade? Ms. Lady persisted in tugging on the tangled threads that ensnared the boy. She asked in the office, in the teacher’s lounge. She was told a translator had spoken with the boy’s mother several times, mostly about discipline issues, and that the mother spoke little-to-no English. She did admit that she, too, was in the dark on an ‘official’ spelling of her child’s name. Ms. Lady felt a wave of sympathy for the boy. She turned to Osvaldo’s many brothers running amok around the school yard, but none of them seemed to care what people called him either.

Whole weeks withered away within those school walls. Until Ms. Lady herself had to accept the fruitlessness of the Osvaldo/Oswaldo dilemma…it surely didn’t matter now. None of the students called Osvaldo by his given name anyway. They simply called him Avocado.

The nickname settled over the dark-skinned, tight-lipped boy with a finality his legal name never had. The whole school could remember him, now. In class he remained quiet and non-participatory. But once out the door to recess he was a trouble-maker. Picking fights, swearing, rough-housing whenever he could. All Ms. Lady heard upon returning to her classroom were bundles of students shouting, “Avocado cut in line. Avocado threw rocks! Avocado hit me! Avocado said a swear word again.”

Osvaldo, (for Ms. Lady never referred to him in her classroom as anything but this) would hang his head, beeline towards his desk, meekly sit almost immobile the rest of the day. He could not read at all, nor perform any basic addition or subtraction. Ms. Lady felt panicked, clueless what to do. She had no idea how to immerse this boy within his peer learning groups, nor even how to help him catch up. He was so very, very far behind.

At home, while devouring chocolate, Ms. Lady worried about her Avocado (the nickname permeated her mind). She was just a second year teacher after all, still struggling to ink lesson plans down on paper, tease butterflies from her belly, wipe chalk clean off her hands. She felt confidence in only one thing – she’d definitely chosen the wrong profession.

She continued to play teacher. Each afternoon, as the kids barged in from lunch – hot, sweaty, amped with energy – she’d pair them off into lines along the front of the room. Here they could cool down while they played a math facts challenge game. The game went like this: the front two students, at the sight of the math flash card Ms. Lady held up, tried to yell out the right answer.  Whoever answered first with the correct number earned a point for their line. Ms. Lady kept score with tally marks on the overhead projector.

Each day her fourth grade class played this game. And it was fun until Avocado appeared at the front of the line. He awaited his turn as if at the guillotine. He scuffed his feet, hung his head, thrust his hands into fists within his pockets. He was unable to guess an answer. He never scored a point. His failure was assured.

Ms. Lady couldn’t bear this depressing scene, time upon time. She didn’t want to give up the game – her other students liked it, and it helped reinforce their math facts. So one day, willy-nilly, she beckoned Osvaldo to come front and center, next to her. She handed him the dry erase marker, then announced that Osvaldo was now the official tally-keeper. Students all down the line audibly groaned or slapped their forehead in a pained expression of disbelief. Osvaldo looked at his shoes. He had no idea how to tally.

They began at the beginning, as you must. When a student would call out the correct answer Ms. Lady would tell Osvaldo to draw a straight line on the transparencies she now favored over chalk. On the fifth line, she showed him how to draw his tally mark diagonally, like a thumb stretching across his palm if he matched the lines to the fingers on his hand.

Each day during their game time, one or two kids would outright complain. “Why does Avocado always get to be the tally keeper? It’s not fair! We want a turn, too!” Ms. Lady would merely shrug them away, turning importantly to hand the marker to Avocado. “Life certainly is not fair,” she uttered privately. Publically she said, loudly and clearly, “Osvaldo is the tally keeper. He’s the best tally keeper in all the land!”

At most other times during the school day, there seemed to be an ever-widening chasm marooning Osvaldo. When she brought up Disneyland, asking the kids nonchalantly who had been to the theme park, every child waved their hand proudly over their heads except him. He merely slunk lower down into his chair. Another day a fellow classmate came running to Ms. Lady to tell her that Avocado had stolen his lizard. Ms. Lady questioned him. Immediately Osvaldo burst into tears before pulling a little two-inch lizard he’d caught down on the playground out of his jeans pocket, cupping the tiny reptile as if it were his best friend in all the world. Then he held out his hand, stoically offering it back to this classmate whose entire bedroom was outfitted with expensive reptiles bought at Pet Smart.

Repeatedly Ms. Lady noticed Avocado slunk down in his chair again and again…every time the other kids read a report, showed off a project, or answered a question correctly. This child did not belong in the fourth grade and everyone knew it, including him.

Yet Ms. Lady was not solely sympathetic. She was frequently angered by Osvaldo, often after witnessing his bullish behavior outside the classroom. Despite her lip-gloss and Maryjane’s, she wasn’t novice enough to think this overlooked child was going home and feverishly trying to catch up to his peers with reading and writing, adding and subtracting. Nor did she assume his parents would ever have the luxury of time or skill to help him, either. She guessed most of his non-school hours were spent with his brothers, and that a band of boys such as themselves, left to brave the world on their own with little-to-no luck and even less knowledge, were bound for trouble.

Towards the end of the school year, Ms. Lady went to another teacher for advice on how to qualify this child for some special education so that he would not move on to the fifth grade. The teacher told Ms. Lady because Osvaldo was a second-language learner she would have to fail him in every subject to have him held back.

Ms. Lady could not fathom failing this child. It went against everything the word Teacher stood for in her beating heart. She believed that a teacher lost all claim to use that title if a student failed under their leadership. “If he fails, so do I,” she thought achingly, repeatedly. She pictured her little Avocado, forced to see a bold-faced F in every single box clear down his report card. And his unknowable name scrawled across the top. She shuddered. Osvaldo knew enough to know what the world thought of him, to feel the weight of being labeled a complete and utter failure in every category, on every line.

It seemed so, so cruel. Ms. Lady cried big, wet tears as she filled in one letter F after the next, down the entire report card with Osvaldo’s name with a ‘v’ written along the top. Then she wrote a hand-written two page addendum which she stapled over the front, explaining how amazingly well this boy had learned to tally and count by 5’s, the few passages he had learned to read, the time he had willingly given up his most prized possession in all the world. She explained in intricate detail how on one of the last days of the school year, when she had asked if anyone wanted to share before they all went home, Avocado –  little, stone quiet Avocado – raised his hand and with his head held straight and tall walked to the front of her class. How, in the face of everyone’s amazed silence, he burst into a rousing rendition of the Bad Boys theme song from Cops, sung in its entirety in perfect English, until a wild whoop of applause thundered round the room from all thirty-one of his classmates. Ms. Lady detailed the small steps forward Osvaldo had taken that year, and made the case that although he had not met any of the state or grade-level standards, he was indeed the best tally keeper in all the land.

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Once upon a time there lived a teacher, and she was impossibly young and naïve and she was me. It was in my class that a small boy sat, known to one and all as Avocado. And she and I, we tended that child lovingly, as a Teacher does, wanting only the best for him, watching and wishing for him to grow and thrive under our care.

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Osvaldo is a grown man now, and I know very little about him. I don’t know if he ever made it to Disneyland. I don’t know if he learned how to read. I don’t know if anyone calls him Avocado anymore, but I think not.

I do know that he taught me more than I ever taught him. I know that he didn’t deserve to fail. Most importantly I know that a tree cannot bear fruit if it does not have plenty of sunshine, enough rain, well-drained soil, nutrient-rich fertilizer, helpful pollinators, a nearby friend….only then will it bear fruit.

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At night, in bed, I google his name. I learn Osvaldo was a witness to the murder of his friend when he was fourteen years old. That he was kicked out of high school for several years. That he seems to be married now, and covered in tattoos, and sadly, predictably, a member of a notorious and dangerous Southern California gang.

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Once upon a time there was a teacher, but that story seems a fairytale now….in a far-off land, amongst desert skies and chalkboard walls, in a place where once bright words scattered into infinitesimal particles raining down on sunken heads, floated wisps of muted letters swirling through the very air they breathed, burning tally marks across their souls.

1998

 

 

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