In this installment of Believing in Boys, Suzanne Rosenwasser’s former student, who survived a rocky adolescence on his way to law school, returned to talk to the class.
I invited a young man, who I taught in 2001, to speak to the boys I team teach with the principal of our high school and a male counselor.
Allen James, in the two-name rhythm of Southerners, was first introduced to me by his mom when they stopped by my class room the week before school opened. I was teaching honors level literature at the time and Allen James was to be one of my students.
The boy was tall for his age and felt extremely awkward about his mother’s choice to bring him by before his first day of high school. His limp hand shook mine and quickly grasped his left elbow as he hunched over and dreaded whatever conversation followed.
His mother told me that she was a professor at a local university and Allen James’ father was a lawyer. She said they expected great things of Allen James and gave me her work number and her husband’s.
“We will always come to the phone or return your call. Do not hesitate to let us know if he’s not progressing well,” she added.
The boy who showed up on the first day of class was a different Allen James, however. He swaggered in with a cocky grin and his pants slung low wearing a baseball cap—a clear violation at our school. He sneered, audibly, when I asked him to remove it, but did so. Then he sauntered past me saying:
“I’m A.J. None of that other crap my mom said.”
He hooked his thumb in a belt loop and sloped off to the back seat in the farthest row to the right.
It took me awhile to realize this was the same kid, but I did so as the week wore on and I never got so much as a glance or a homework assignment from him. I had to remind him to remove his hat every day, filing a discipline report when I asked him for the third time.
I called home.
Allen James’ mom and dad came to see me the next morning.
After discussing the obvious, I spoke frankly: “Allen James is the only black male in my class. He just projects such resentment toward everyone else that I think it bothers him.”
Allen James’ mother, a tailored and statuesque woman, felt her husband slump into his three piece suit. Then he spoke with a quavering voice:
“Yes, that’s exactly right. Allen James is failing deliberately. The black boys are taunting him for being in here.”
A tear rolled down this proud man’s cheek, and he was sobbing when he spoke again:
“I raised myself up, Mrs. Rosenwasser. So now, here I am—a successful man watching his son emulate the ghetto I struggled so damn hard to get out of.”
We didn’t really resolve anything, but at least we acknowledged the truth and made a date to meet again after they’d spoken with their son at home.
Then the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked on 9/11 and school took on a sense of chaos for two days. Students had parents in Manhattan and Washington on business. Parents of Middle Eastern children feared reprisals against them. Special Needs kids were terrified about things that made no sense. Muslim students were getting into fights with Christian ones.
And on September 13, 2001 for reasons unknown to even himself, Allen James showed up at school wearing dark glasses, a towel on his head bound with a black hairband, and a belt of toy bullets strapped across his chest.
His parents and I met with him after Allen James had served his suspension for what his father said could only be explained as “massive, testosterone-fueled insensitivity.”
Our issue was with his literature grade, however, so his dad brought up our discussion about kids who weren’t in the class teasing him about his presence there.
Allen James just shrugged and said: “I don’t care about them.”
We went around and around, until I said: “You know, AJ, our brains are all the same color.”
We got through the year together somehow. He answered when called upon, dropped the attitude, did his homework and passed the tests.
2010: I received a letter from Allen James’ mother who wrote that our relationship with her son that first year of high school had led to his entrance into college with enough AP credits to be a sophomore. He’d graduated with honors and was a second year student in law school. Allen James had heard I was teaching a class of at-risk boys and wanted to “re-pay me a debt.” He’d like to come tell the boys his story of being one of them.
Allen James pulled up to the door outside my portable class room on a motorcycle which won the heart of every boy in the group without exception. When he took off his helmet, he sported a short haircut, far from the quasi-Afro he wore in his teens.
He gave me a huge hug, saying: “I still go as A.J., by the way … to everyone but my mom.”
A.J. told the boys the whole story that I’ve repeated here—even the part about the color of our brains. He told the boys:
“I was you. I know, I know. I had parents who cared. But it wasn’t until I cared, you know? Once I cared about me, I was okay.”
The boys asked A.J. questions, lastly, why he wanted to be a lawyer.
A.J. said it was because he wanted to help kids like him who didn’t make it past the huge temptation to “Fuck up.”
Yes, A.J. said “Fuck up” and looked at me with an enormous grin while all the boys laughed hysterically.
While escorting him out to his ride, his phone rang. He answered it and handed it to me: “Talk to my mom while I get my helmet on, Mrs. R. Tell her I’ll call her later.”
“He’s still terrifying me,” A.J.’s mother told me, “but he survived the tipping point, you know? And isn’t that what we all need to do?”