We’ll call him Javan for the sake of this post. During my second year of teaching at an inner city school, Javan was a 15-year old boy in my 8th grade English class.
The assistant principal, Ms. Palmer, stopped by my classroom one day after school to tell me that she had seen Javan walking down Independence Boulevard over the weekend and had stopped to make sure he was okay. He was. He had a book slung under his arm. He told her that he was walking back to his “house” from the library. She quoted him: “Ms. Childs likes it when I read, and I like Ms. Childs. It makes her happy that I read, so I got me a book to read. I go to the library and read a lot.” I drank in her words and choked back a cry.
“That is amazing,” she said as she left my classroom. “Good job.”
My eyes teared up. I held no misperceptions that Javan might be some intellectual scholar, but to go out of his way to choose and check out a book meant that he was feeling a spark of hope about life. Something he may have never felt before.
Javan didn’t have a father or a home or a bed, and his mother, severely addicted to crack, was dying of AIDS. They would bounce around from friends’ homes or hotel rooms whenever they could. Javan was labeled as B.E.D, which is public school jargon meaning severely behavioral challenged. The label might as well have been B.A.D.. He had an explosive temper and a mouth far worse than any sailor could even fathom. The day he called one of our male assistant principals a “bald-headed mother fucker,” I knew two things about Javan: he used horrible language but he spoke the truth when he needed to.
My heart ached for Javan. Underneath that disturbed outer facade, I could so clearly see a sad, broken little boy who just wanted to feel safe and loved. So I loved him as best I could. I smiled at him often and hugged him when he needed it. I reassured him and calmed him down when he was pushed to anger – which was often.
One of the other teachers even commented to me, “Dana, you can’t always protect him.” But shouldn’t someone, I thought? Shouldn’t Javan know at least one person in his life who does always want to protect him, to look out for his well-being?
For Christmas, the teachers made a list of the students we knew wouldn’t be able to have any sort of food or celebration and divided them up so that we could provide what we could for them. I chose Javan. I so wanted him to have a bed to sleep in every night, so I settled on a sleeping bag that he could take with him from place to place as he cared for his ailing mom. I got him clothes to keep him warm, and shoes for his feet so that he could walk to the library as much as he wanted. And I bought him some books.
Javan’s comment to the assistant principal got him put in specialized classes, and I never saw him again. That was twelve years ago. I am ever grateful that my relationship with him inspired him to read. I wanted him to read not because it could make him smarter or get him into college. I wanted Javan to read so that he could escape his tumultuous life, even if for a brief period of time, for a page, for a chapter. I wanted Javan to read so that he could experience stories of human goodness, of love, of happiness. I wanted Javan to know hope.
I think of him often. And I always wish that I could have done more. But my showing him love and compassion is one of the few things in this life that I know I’ve done absolutely right. I conjure up the image of Javan walking down the side of Independence Boulevard all the time. And that book that he’s holding? That doesn’t look like a book; it becomes a box containing hope and love and all things good about humanity. I hope that he’s turning more and more pages of that book wherever he may be.