Rural New Zealand, 2003. An excerpt from Ryan Chin’s book about the importance of role models.
Rural New Zealand…2003
One of the older boys, a twelve-year-old named Kahu, reminds me of some of the boys I had in San Francisco. I can tell he wants to like me and to do well in school, but something is stopping him. I can practically see the potential leaking out of his pores.
Someone’s got to let the kid know there’s more than Raupunga and that he’s meant to be more than simply a gang member. I’m purposefully not using the word better. There’s just so much more. Is it possible for a person to be a responsible and emotionally aware gang member? Kahu is an incredible illustrator. Couldn’t he be a gang member and go to a university to study art? I would love to know the answers to these questions.
Out of curiosity, I do a Web search one evening. I find dozens of articles on Black Power and the Mongrel Mob, both of which are predominantly Maori. There are stories on their histories—and on their extensive record of violence. The Mongrel Mob was born when a judge called a bunch of incarcerated men a pack of mongrels. Or so the legend goes. For its part, Black Power was formed as a sort of self-defense group, in response to the Mongrel Mob’s habit of kidnapping and raping women. One story sticks with me: when a huge fight erupted in the middle of a town square, it got so out of hand that people thought it was staged, some kind of theatrical show. I’m still wondering about Black Power’s name, though: there isn’t a single black man for hundreds of miles…
One morning on the way to work, as I near the winding driveway leading to the school, I run into Kahu. He looks lost. Not literally lost—he’s walking in a straight line, and he’s obviously on his way to school—but figuratively lost.
Kahu is thirteen and has a light complexion and curly black hair. He’s not a big kid by any means—at least not as big as he acts and surely not as big as he’d like to be. I’ve heard his brother is a serious Black Power prospect and will probably be patched soon. Undoubtedly, Kahu must look up to his older brother. I’m not sure where Kahu’s dad is, or if he’s a significant person in his kids’ lives. Kahu, it seems, has no one cheering for him. As we trudge up the driveway, the rugby field with its rusting goal posts reminds me how much I owe to my parents. Rain or shine, I can always look to them for support.
About the time my voice started to change, I began to appreciate the efforts of my parents and to take their well-being into account. On a rainy Saturday morning, I peeked through my parents’ bedroom door. The pile of sheets lifted and dropped in rhythm with a grizzly-like snore. Dad told me to wake him for my soccer game, but he looked so comfortable that I decided to let him be. My game was close enough to ride my bike, so I wrote a note and slipped out feeling good about the decision. Dad had worked long hours all week; he deserved to sleep.
Mist and fog blanketed the field almost to the point that the game should have been canceled. I remember feeling grown-up: learning to treat your parents with compassion will do that to a kid. My game reflected those newfound feelings as all theother kids seemed really slow compared to me. As I streaked down the sidelines toward the goal, I heard someone yell, “Go Ryan!” Through the mist, and beyond the netting of the goal, I could make out the figure of a man standing with an umbrella—my dad. Nothing could stop me from scoring that goal. As the net kicked back from the force of the ball, Dad let out a roar that I can still hear to this day. Now, I can share that roar with my students. Although I can’t replace what Kahu is missing, I can cheer from the sidelines, be a fan of his.
Kahu kicks a stone, and we both watch it rattle along the road and into a ditch. My interaction and understanding of Kahu is growing since I began teaching science to the older kids. We have a funny relationship: one second, he’s going to great lengths to piss me off; the next, I’m filling a gaping hole in his spirit and he couldn’t be happier. Today, though, we’re simply two people headed to the same place, both caught in an early morning haze.
“Kahu. Howzit goin’?”
His face is blank during this exchange. I’m sure it’ll be just as blank at the end of the day. He’ll still look as if he’s missing something. This is different from looking for something, because when you’re searching there is anticipation and expectation. Kahu isn’t looking for anything, though, which worries me. Maybe he needs to know what’s missing before he goes looking. Can I help him discover what is missing? Can anyone?
It makes me wonder how much difference a teacher can ultimately make. If children are shaped by genetics, parents, extended family, media, and the communities in which they live, what can a single teacher do? Kahu may be the unreachable kind of kid who haunts the dreams of teachers. In my short career, I’ve had many.
There was six-year-old Dean, who had been molested. His young mom had alcohol and drug abuse problems, and she locked Dean in the closet repeatedly while she had sex. He had apparently seen his mom raped and beaten many times as well. By the time I met him, Dean lived with his grandma, who had gotten a restraining order against Dean’s mom—her own daughter. I spent a year teaching Dean, and one image kept coming back to me: He’s two or three years old, in a dark place; long coattails brush his back. The floor is dusty with a scattering of shoes. One side of his face is pressed to the floor, and the dust sticks to his curly hair. His position gives him a one-eyed view through the crack under the closet door. He’s shaking but doesn’t know to cry or to be scared. There are no questions in his mind. His mom’s screams, the man’s loud voice—these are normal. Right? Dean’s world was so foreign to me, but I wanted to help. It was my first year of teaching and my energy was boundless, so I kept him after school for bonding time. His therapist and I had extensive conversations about his behavior, and we were hopeful about his future. On the last day of school, I knelt down in front of him with tears in my eyes and told him I tried my best to be a good teacher and friend, but I wouldn’t be able to be there for him all the time. The years passed. Right before I left for New Zealand, I heard he had been admitted to an institution. I wonder if he’s still got his face to the floor, looking through that crack under the door.
Then there was Audrey. At six years old, she was riding the city bus by herself to school. She would stuff her face and pockets with whatever food she could find, including sandwiches that belonged to other kids. During journal time one morning, she drew a picture of a bullet flying over a sleeping girl. It was a self-portrait. How could she possibly learn anything, I wondered, while she was worrying about gathering her next meal and staying alive? She was eventually placed in special education, though I don’t know if she was really a slow learner. Maybe she just had survival on her mind.
So I wonder about Kahu too as we make our speechless walk up the hill, past a grassy hill that leads down to a rugby field and a crumbling netball court. Across from the rugby field sit a handful of houses, one of which is Big Head’s home. I’m not keeping track of his whereabouts nor do I look for him, but when he comes my way, it makes my day and crushes me all at the same time. Once we arrive at school, Kahu asks to use my skateboard, which I keep in the classroom. I hand him the scuffed board along with a bike helmet and resist the urge to join him…
An excerpt from Without Rain There Can Be No Rainbows