Look what I have for you, Mr. McMahon.” I don’t want to look. It’s Uriel. He always has something he wants me to see: a Ninja star, an unusual bottle cap, a minor hurt. Sometimes I have time for him, more often I don’t. This spring morning, I’m trying to finish lesson plans for the day before my 3rd graders file into the classroom. But I’ve forgotten to lock the door, and my precious preparation time is now threatened. I try to concentrate on my planning, but something in Uriel’s voice tugs me away, and at last I look up into his 10-year-old face, all freckles and anticipation, gray-green eyes wide open, ever watchful for love or assault. Satisfied that he has my attention, he unzips his jacket halfway, peeks inside dramatically, and . . . pulls out a rose. Of course--this is May, when children bring their teachers not apples, but flowers.
The smile on Uriel’s face as he holds out his crimson joy is its own blossom. I rummage around in myself for a vase worthy of holding it. Meanwhile, I search under the washstand and find a Mason jar. As Uriel fills it with water, I clear a spot on my desk. We place it there, a splash of color among teachers’ manuals and unfinished plans, and he runs out to play for the remaining minutes before class. With pencil poised, I fall to musing over the gift and the giver.
Earlier in the spring, Uriel stole $25 from me. I’d naively left a jacket with money in it on my chair during lunch. I was devastated. Uriel is my favorite kid. After the storm of truth telling, the thunder of my indignation, and the tears of his shame, we came to a settlement. He would pay me back with earnings from recycling. With 10 weeks of school remaining until summer vacation, at a modest $3 a week, it seemed doable. We wrote out a contract, shook hands, and that was that. But as of this morning, I’d received only a single solitary dollar bill toward the debt.
When I’ve asked Uriel about our contract, his eyes widen with worry. When I’ve threatened to call his parents, he flinches. I suspect he has already been beaten. Our agreement, I realize now, was wishful thinking. If Uriel earns anything, it’s going to go for food or toilet paper or candy.
Kiss that money goodbye, I say to myself. The relevant currency here, after all, isn’t cash, but pain, and by that standard the debt was paid off long ago. I can let go of the whole affair--but can Uriel? To clear himself with himself, it seems he must give me something of value, however non-monetary. Can he clean my room every afternoon? Turn over his collection of bottle caps? The bell interrupts my thoughts. As I rise from my desk to meet another day, the flash of red on my desktop cuts through the knot of my moral dilemma.
Later that morning, I take Uriel aside. “Remember our deal about the money you took?” I pull out the contract, and the envelope containing its single bill. “Well, I want to change it a little.” I point to the rose: “Can you bring me more of these?”
He nods his head vigorously. Yes, his mother has roses, his neighbors have roses, the whole town is blooming with roses. “Well, how about if you bring me a rose instead of a dollar every day until the end of school?” I pull out my calendar, and we count the days. Nineteen. “Bring me a rose each day, and how much will you still owe me in the end?” Always the teacher, on the prowl for real-life math problems.
He counts on his fingers. “Six dollars?” he offers, then corrects himself. “No, five. Remember?” He points to the envelope with its one dollar. But then he lights up with an inspiration that blows away all petty calculations: “Mr. McMahon, I can bring you a BIG bag of roses.” He opens his hands to show me how big.
“A big bag, Uriel, and we’re even.” We write a new contract and shake. I watch as he bounces back to his seat. Just one problem remains: How am I going to find a vase big enough to hold them all?
Months later, while making back-to-school purchases in a teacher supply store, I notice a tray of tattoo decals on the checkout counter. In these last weeks of summer, I’m open to omens, and there, among the mix of hearts and dragons, I find something for me, something I’d put out of my mind now seeking shape. It’s a tattoo of a rose twining about a dagger. I have to have it, but not until I transfer the decal to my shoulder do I understand the reason.
Late last spring, with just a few weeks of school remaining, I’d found myself barred from my classroom, the latest episode in a years-long dispute with my principal. We see the means and ends of education differently, and in the politics of power, I’d lost. The personnel office informed me that my teaching credential had elapsed and that a substitute teacher had been ordered for the next day. I was told to clear my personal belongings from the room and then stay away “until you’ve rectified the situation.” When my heart stopped pounding, I saw my mistake: In neglecting the paperwork aspect of my job, I’d played right into the hands of my adversary. This was the opportunity for which she’d been waiting.
This news would have been upsetting under any circumstances, but with the year coming to an end I was wild at the prospect of not finishing with my students. The next day, I set my shoulder to the wheel of my dilemma, enough to see that it was going to take time to get things moving. So I returned to my classroom long enough to tell my students what I could. As I was leaving, Uriel raised his hand: “I have something to show you, Mr. McMahon.” Following his pointing finger, I spotted what, in my preoccupation with my own drama, I’d missed: his big bag of roses, which the substitute apparently had helped him transfer into a gallon jar.
I took the roses home. In the coming week, they confirmed again and again, even as they dropped their petals, that something in the whole mess was working, that in any conflict there is always an alternative to blame and punishment. “One mistake after another,” as Zen master Suzuki Shunryu said about his own life. One recovery after another. The roses gave me hope.
I fought my way back into the classroom with one week of the school year remaining. But where was Uriel? “He brought a knife to school and was suspended,” my students told me. I learned that during the weeks I’d been gone, Uriel was bullied by a bigger kid. This, of course, is the stuff of school life, but it’s stuff that I take seriously. I had put in place a conflict-resolution process that helped kids safely resolve these kinds of disputes. But in my absence, and in the absence of a similar schoolwide process, Uriel had been left to his own limited solutions.
Indeed, he had been suspended--and for the rest of the year. As a kid, he hadn’t had the benefit of my resources. That was the only difference in the outcomes of our suspensions. Worse, the police had been called in. Preoccupied with my own drama, I’d lost him to the System.
Fortunately, he stopped by the classroom one afternoon during the last week of school to retrieve something he’d left behind. His dark eyes, usually wide open to the next thing coming his way, were downcast. Yes, I thought to myself, I failed you. I thanked him again for the roses. “At least you and I are even now, aren’t we?” I asked hopefully. He looked at me quickly and rode off on his bike. I wasn’t fast enough to call after him, “You’re a good kid. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”
Now, nearly three months later, I’m starting the new school year with the scar of that memory on my shoulder, a rose- entwined dagger. But wait a minute: Wasn’t there a pair of rose-dagger tattoos in that package I’d bought? With any luck, Uriel will be back in school, starting 4th grade. He’ll love that tattoo.
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1999 edition of Teacher as Payback