Teachers aren’t supposed to play favorites, but over the years we do. Mine was, and is, someone I’ll call Rojelio—Rolie for short. He recently sent me a letter, and not from a place a proud 5th grade teacher desires a return address from: Tracy, California.
Maybe you know what that means, maybe you don’t. It isn’t good.
Rolie is now 22. Eleven years ago he sat in my class, front row, third seat on the left. I’m amazed I can even remember. Rojelio Jose Garcia, nice kid, polite, big smile. He did his homework, great in math, loved to read, wanted to help me whenever he could. In fact, he’d correct my poor Spanish regularly. He’d wait until the other kids filed out the door to recess or lunch, and he’d linger. He’d glance around to make sure no kids spotted him.
“Mr. Karrer, you got to mix the n and y together. It makes a ‘nya’ sound, like in the first n in mañana. It’s got that funny mustache over it. Now you say it, Mr. Karrer.”
And I’d give it a shot. We’d both laugh.
“Not too bad,” he’d say, and then he’d slip off to recess.
On rainy days, when they couldn’t go outside, I taught the kids how to play chess. Rolie took to the game like a magnet clings to scrap metal. The sweet kid cornered me more than once hours after the class had gone home. Usually I’d have a bundle of papers under my left arm and teachers’ guides under my right as I headed out the door, intent on leaving before dark. But Rolie had other plans for me. He’d go home, bolt down a glass or two of milk and a cold burrito, and then return to school.
“Hey, Mr. Karrer, want to play just one game of chess?”
The first time it happened, I stared into his face and thought, The kid walked all the way back to school just to play chess with me. Is there really anything important I have to rush home for? So I’d turn around and put my junk on the floor, and he’d set up the board. We’d play two or three games, and he would lose 99 percent of the time.
Rolie’s family had some basic life challenges—like keeping his mom out of jail and monitoring her choice of men. I remember one year she barged into the school’s main office in a state of meltdown, screaming profanities to high heaven. Her brown hair was dyed an unnatural blond, and her eyelids, heavily laden with indigo-colored mascara, were offset by spiderlike artificial eyelashes. An open-necked blouse barely covered her breasts, and a boyfriend’s name—Rafael, I think—was tattooed across one of them. This was not wise, seeing as her then-current boyfriend, according to Rolie, answered to the name Alejandro.
Rolie lived in one of the small Latino hamlets north of Monterey, and by the time he’d reached middle school I heard he had to pick a gang—Norteños or Sureños. If you don’t pick one, you get the snot beat out of you by both gangs, and on a regular basis. He made his choice, and the other gang shot at him one day. They missed, but like he told me later, “Hey, Mr. Karrer, it’s a small town. I knew who it was.”
Conversely, after he poured a gallon of gas on the gang’s house and torched it, they knew who it was too. No one was hurt, by the way, but that act of arson was one of the reasons, 11 years later, that Rolie was doing time in Tracy.
His letter basically said, “Thanks for showing me how to play chess. It comes in handy in prison. Oh, I seen the letter to the editor you wrote in the paper, about that education proposition. It was pretty good.”
The rest of his letter was a repentant laundry list of how he’d taken every wrong turn in life’s intersections—drugs, tainted women, violence, alcohol. My Rolie tried to acquaint me with prison vernacular. “I’m 23-1,” he informed me, which meant solitary confinement for 23 hours and one hour maybe in the yard. He said he’d started writing his life story and had knocked out a hundred pages. What else could he do 23-1? He added, “I only got three more years to do here, and then I’m being sent to Pelican Bay or Folsom.”
Pelican Bay or Folsom! Even I knew about those. The maximum-security, hard-core last stops for convicts who’ve committed crimes while in prison, or are on the top of the food chain in the gang hierarchy. Possibly both. Rolie had written, “I’m kinda embarrassed to tell you why I’m going there. So, I won’t.”
I wrote back, of course, but first agonized over it. Dear God, what could I say or do? I asked if he’d mind if I visited him. And I did a teacher thing, something he used to be good at responding to: I gave him a homework assignment. I told him to revise what he’d written about his life story so far and send it to me.
I’m still waiting on that paper. I hope he earns an A on it.