In the latest installment of ‘Believing in Boys,’ Suzanne ends the year with a fancy dinner and some holiday magic.
The holidays were here, and the team with whom I teach a class of at-risk boys wanted us all to experience the joy and camaraderie of the season.
The local Women’s Club is always very generous with donations to help high-school kids who may otherwise live uncelebrated lives. It was their grant that allowed us to take the class out to what they called a “sit-down” restaurant. We asked them to wear their Sunday best, and added that we’d have little surprises for the class each day before Winter Break to celebrate the holiday season.
We gathered in the principal’s conference room on the day of our luncheon. The boys looked great. Self-pride exuded from them. Even Jonathan, to whom toilette had to be taught earlier in the year, was wearing pants without stains on them.
Anel had on his “church shoes”—a huge step from the untied, broken Nikes that normally slopped off his feet. Eduordo and Estevan, whose hair was spiked to perfection, wore their soccer-team jackets. Fernando and Tony had donned argyle sweaters with collared shirts. Miguel and Sadique sported ill-fitting suits with black T-shirts beneath the jackets.
At the restaurant, the boys scrambled into their seats and then tried hard not to mock Miguel, who stood to hold a chair out for me. A silent moment passed as all looked around at the enormous television screens and neon signs adorning the restaurant.
Eleven of us sat at a round table, studying large menus that hid the boys’ faces. When the waiter appeared, the principal ordered appetizers of wings, cheese sticks, and queso. Then, pad in hand, the waiter pointed to Damontre, and asked, “What would you like?”
“A cheeseburger, fries, and a Coke, please and thank you,” Damontre said in a practiced response.
“How would you like it?” the waiter asked.
Damontre looked up at him and just stared.
We were focused on Damontre, until the waiter repeated the question:
“Your burger. How would you like it done?”
“Oh,” stammered Damontre, who’d never been asked that question at a fast-food counter. “Oh, well, uh. I’d like it … uh … cooked. You know. Like really cooked.”
As they wolfed down burgers and wings and more wings, we all reminisced about our first days together. They laughed at themselves and joked about us.
Estevan imitated the look on my face when Anel had said he stole $15 and bought lunch for the class, and Anel laughed about the look on the victim’s face when he had handed $15 back to her.
Tony said his uncle gave him an old guitar he’d had fixed up, and he could play the beginning of “Sunshine of Your Love” with more than one finger now.
Miguel told us he was passing PE, and Fernando prompted a challenge for games of HORSE on the basketball court in the new year.
Sadique asked if they could guess what their surprises were for the rest of the week.
I reminded them that they were little things. Little fun things.
So the next day, in cooperation with the Family Resource department, we mixed and baked holiday cookies—mostly stars because they were the easiest to cut out and decorate. We baked a batch to eat while each boy prepared and divided up a batch to share with a favorite teacher.
Another day we had a scavenger hunt, which involved the same school personnel the boys had met earlier in the year. On a more rousing day of fun, the boys donned Santa hats and became part of a holiday sing-a-long with the kids on the special-needs hall.
My heart leapt with Eduordo and Estevan when they jumped from their seats and began singing with a challenged youngster who was having trouble with the words to “Jingle Bells.” And we all laughed till our sides hurt when one of the kids stopped the dancing and loudly ordered Anel to tie his sneakers “before he tripped and killed himself, for heaven’s sake!”
Each day we spent together during our “Week of Surprises” was a gift. The boys were so full of hope and expectation, enriched by promises from people they trusted to deliver them.
So we decided that the last day had to be magical. We got in touch with a practitioner and teacher known as Charley, whom we knew to be a purveyor of awe.
I introduced this jolly British man with a big flourish, and he captured them one by one with a joke here and a little magic there. A Five of Clubs became a Jack of Diamonds before our eyes. One foam ball placed into my fist turned into eight pulled from it a second later. The speedy tricks stunned us.
Then, in a pause, I heard Eduordo say to Estevan, “Brujería, man. If he’s a witch doctor, I’m outta here.”
I knew the sound of Eduordo’s voice when he wasn’t joking, so I said, “Charley will assure you that he’s not a witch doctor.” I looked to the magician, who I felt certain had encountered similar situations in his years of practice.
In a cheery accent, Charley said, “Yes. Well, young man, magic is matter of perception, not reality,” and proceeded to pull a quarter out of Eduordo’s ear. “Now, you and I both know that wasn’t really in your ear, don’t we?”
We all roared and Estevan poked Eduordo in the ribs with his elbow and laughed the hardest of all.
Charley proceeded to change one boy’s single dollar bill into a 20 and quickly back to a one again. He rolled the boy’s dollar tightly and poked it right through the middle of a quarter I had fished out of my pocket.
The magician asked the principal for his school ring, talked about it, and fooled us, making it appear and disappear before our eyes—first, inexplicably in each other’s possession and then, finally, attached to a key ring inside a wallet in Charley’s back pocket.
I looked around and saw boys whose eyebrows were arched up to their hairlines. They were slapping their thighs with “Ooh!”s and pointing with awestruck chortles at one effect and then the next.
It really was magic.
We had seasoned them with joy, and when the week was over, they wrote Charley a thank you note in which Sadique said it best: “That was FUN.”
—Read Suzanne’s last installment, “I Wish We Could Be in This Class All Day.”
—Photo stevendepolo/via Flickr