One day a new kid strolled into 9th grade health class and sat behind me. A plain white t-shirt, faded Wranglers, boots – this kid looked like he’d just stepped out of “The Outsiders.”
There I sat. Ninth grade me. Permed hair. Braces. Probably wearing a sweatshirt that said “My foot is on the ROCK & my name is on the ROLL.” I turned to introduce myself and welcome the new guy.
“Hi. I’m Jennifer. Are you new here?”
He introduced himself and confirmed that it was his first day. Cheerily, I asked follow-up questions that would have made my journalism teacher proud. That’s how I found out that he was not new to the area, just new to our school. He’d been in juvie, then in the alternative school, and was finally coming to regular high school. At some point in his young, pre-driver’s-license life, he’d stolen a car and taken it for a joyride. Obviously, I’d never known anyone who’d stolen a car before. I had so many questions!
Each day in health class, I’d chat with the new guy for a minute or two before class began. He was tough, giving off an aura of “Don’t mess with me,” yet he didn’t seem to mind my constant ignoring of his STOP sign body language, my exuberant invasion into his distant coolness.
One random afternoon, the guys one row to my left were joking around with me. These guys were in my wide circle of friends – the kids from my honors-level English class, athletes, the boys from town whose parents had college degrees, the guys who would go on to receive multiple awards at Senior Awards Night. In other words, they were the Socs to this Greaser with a criminal record sitting behind me. Joking and laughing, one of the boys cussed. Not a big deal, really – it was public high school. Kids cussed all the time.
But suddenly, a voice behind me said, “Guys, c’mon. Don’t do that.”
I turned around in time to see the guy in the white t-shirt gesture toward me. “You don’t cuss in front of a lady. Have some respect.”
Abrupt record scratch. What? Huh? Mr. Grand Theft Auto just schooled the Homecoming Princes on moral standards? My little, tidy world shifted on its axis.
Over 30 years later, I remember that moment – the moment I realized not everyone neatly fits into a category. We are all a complicated mixture of good and bad, holy and vulgar, soft and rough. The honor roll athletes whose faces filled the yearbook pages laughed about taking a five-finger discount at the local department store and teasingly disrespected girls, and the cigarette-smoking, car-stealing tough guy from juvie had more chivalry in his hitchhiking thumb than all of those good kids combined.
Perhaps this moment in 9th grade health class was a prophetic foreshadowing or a crucial steppingstone on the way to the life I have now teaching kids in a juvenile detention center. My students have allegedly done horrible things — stealing cars, stabbing people, sexually assaulting girls, threatening to kill family members, cooking meth. But they’re fiercely loyal to their people – and often, to me. A student once told me he’d catch a charge for me – weirdly one of the sweetest things a student has ever said. On a regular basis, they thank me for teaching them and thoughtfully ask how my day is or wish me a happy weekend as they file out of my classroom on a Friday afternoon in their matching clothes with their hands behind their backs.
Daily, my students remind me that we all have the capacity within us for good and evil. Our dark corners can consume us and our broken pieces can shred and destroy us. Or the tiny flame of goodness inside us can be nurtured and tended into a full blazing fire – lighting our lives, warming ourselves and others, shining light and life into the world. And some days, we’ll feel consumed by the darkness, sliced by our brokenness. Other days, we’ll burn brightly, our flames dancing and sparkling.
None of us are all good. None of us are all bad. Being human means being a beautiful, puzzling dichotomy – a contrast of light and dark. This knowledge is freeing! It frees us to give ourselves a break – weak moments, bad days, hard years don’t define us or determine our worth. It also frees others from labels and categories. We can see the good in others — which, I believe, begets more goodness. Which, ultimately, makes the world a better place.