by Ros Lyn
Kevin and Devin were a set of identical twins I once knew. I met them the summer they turned eight, when I was a student teacher assigned to their school. That was many years ago, yet I have these memories imprinted. I’d like to believe I’ll have these memories and moments forever, but maybe they will cease to exist for me and I’ll forget that I’d forgotten the two of them, or some of their classmates. But right now, I remember Kevin and Devin arriving late for summer school one day, dressed alike and smiling because it was their birthday, and because they were always content in each other’s company.
I remember several of the students’ names. I can recite them like I’m taking attendance: Kevin, Devin, Nathaniel, Larry, and George. There was only one girl assigned to the classroom that summer; she too had a twin sister who was in the classroom next door with Kevin’s brother Devin. I remember certain things about the girls, such as they both wanted to be complemented on their appearances and they liked to tell people they were twins. I don’t think about them often. Since that summer, I recall the sisters, but unlike Kevin and Devin King, I don’t have many specific memories of them.
And then there’s the one whose name I can’t remember, who always seemed to be alone. He was seven or eight that summer, and he always needed something. Back then, I wasn’t sure what it was other than the obvious: a pencil, a paper, or something to eat. Now I think what he needed most was affection and attention from someone he could trust.
I didn’t know my students when they turned nine. I wasn’t around when they became old enough to drive or vote. I only knew them for a few months, one summer, when I still thought I’d be a teacher and that I could make a lasting impression on a child’s life.
“Boys will be boys” is a sentiment I grew up hearing from family members. It was uttered to excuse poor decisions and potentially poor behavioral characteristics. Some boys will grow up. Father children. Wed. Foster a new wealth of hope. Then there’s always that other truth, the uncomfortable truth about Black boys in America, that many of these boys will die—be killed—before they’re done with puberty, at a time in their lives when they should be starting to live.
I was waiting for a train once and watched as two young boys, brothers I presumed, pulled toy guys from their backpacks and pretended to shoot at the train on the opposite track. A panic arose in me that was too familiar. I thought selfishly of myself and how I didn’t want to witness the events if someone, particularly a police officer, mistook their toys for real guns. I can’t remember now, but perhaps this all happened around the aftermath of Tamir Rice: the 12-year-old from Cleveland, Ohio who was shot by a police officer for playing with a toy gun in a park. I’d reluctantly watched the video, even though I told myself I wouldn’t. But I watched it. I watched the squad car rush to the playground. The shot. The fall. The stillness of a child’s body. I closed the screen. I sat in the silence of a space, with its four walls that bared no comfort, and thought again of myself first. God, what would I do if that was someone in my family? And then of his mother, his poor mother. I know both sentiments offer nothing to the victim, nothing of the crime—yet they are somehow part of me, a memory that’s never too far to call upon.
Tamir will always be 12 in my mind, just as Kevin and his classmates will always be eight. I used to wonder just how much they’d changed. How tall they had grown. I don’t think about this as much anymore; it could be that too much time has passed, or I’m just growing tired of suppressing a memory that might be overdue for a release from my consciousness.
A lot of it has to do with my own guilt, along with the limitations I was confined to as a teacher’s assistant.
Ms. Bailey is a name I haven’t thought of in years, yet as I type her name she is as clear as that summer I spent as her assistant. I was cleared to work a week before school started, to help decorate, clean, and arrange the classroom. I didn’t know what grade I would be assigned or what teacher. Ms. Bailey came into the office and they asked her if she wanted an assistant that summer and she said yes. She seemed genuinely happy for the extra help, so I was told to report to her classroom.
I followed her down the hallway of the elementary school looking left-to-right, into the classrooms, at the decorations and checkered tile, then back to her. We walked slowly to her room. She didn’t say anything and I didn’t know what to say. Ms. Bailey was a veteran Chicago Public School teacher who no longer spent the hours, money, or time thinking about decorating her classroom. She had her reasons; we were only going to be occupants of the room for a short time and the students wouldn’t mind. They didn’t care. She had a seen-it-all attitude. The parents and the students couldn’t surprise her. She was unbothered and possibly ready to retire, no longer that interested in making a difference, or being a role model, or filling in for students’ mothers.
Ms. Bailey wore long skirts and long-sleeved silk blouses. Her feet were wide and long in her dress shoes. I can’t recall if she wore a wedding band but back then I had no interest in noticing such things. None of my friends were married, and none of us were thinking about marriage. She could have easily been a widow. Her husband could have fallen asleep one night in the bed they shared, only to have never woken up, leaving her alone to sort through his belongings. He could have left her childless and broken, living alone somewhere in the city. Or she could have easily just been a teacher who was too afraid to love her students because they would grow up and forget her. Perhaps she wanted to be forgotten, and maybe that was what I couldn’t understand then.
During the days we were supposed to prepare the room for summer school Ms. Bailey would stand fanning herself in the room. Sometimes, with her back facing me, she would tell me how to arrange the desks. Like a sandwich cut into four perfect little slices, several sets of four desks were grouped together. I would push and pull square-shaped desks that were sometimes filled with last semester’s trash. If I pushed too hard, life would emerge in jubilee—balled-up paper, wrappings from candy, gum stuck on paper, pencil shavings, and filth would fall onto the floor. I wanted to put fun and inviting things up on the walls, but instead I found myself dusting and sweeping.
This was summer school; students were required to attend because they had poor attendance, poor marks, or needed to make something up.
We soon established our routine. She would take one-half of the students, and I would take the other half. There were about 10-12 students that summer, yet I can only remember a few names and faces. These students were not my favorite students, and yet I want to remember them. I can remember Nathaniel’s missing front teeth, Larry’s squash-colored skin, and the first time Kevin lifted his shirt up slowly to show the class his four-pack.
I can’t believe these kids are now 27-or-maybe-28-years olds. I sometimes think of Kevin and Devin when I see their classmate whose name I can’t remember; my imagination feels limited when I try to give him a name.
Kevin and his brother, in their identicalness, were interesting-looking kids. They always seemed to be rubbing sleep out of droopy eyes. They were an ashy-colored caramel, nothing but skin placed neatly upon some bones, yet Kevin thought he was a muscle man. When school had finished for the day, Kevin would stand waiting for Devin. I always assumed Devin was the older twin, but looking at them you couldn’t tell. They seemed to be one, and I wonder if they kept that bond into adulthood. Are they still close? Do they still hug one another in public? I wonder if Kevin still waits somewhere for Devin to arrive.
I wonder too about the one whose name I can’t recall, who wanted to be liked—loved—and, more importantly, seen. He wanted to be noticed. He wanted us to notice when he was there and, perhaps, miss him when he wasn’t. I’m not sure I ever gave him that attention. When he was in class, I knew he was there, but I can’t remember him as clearly as the others. I don’t remember his innocence. I don’t remember relating to him or even thinking of him as a kid who needed guidance or assistance. He was just a body on many days, occupying a chair in a warm room, and sometimes it was unclear where he was exactly; even when he was there, sometimes it just felt like he wasn’t.
Ms. Bailey said he was a thief. She locked her belongings in a desk drawer that she never asked if I wanted to share. I kept my things in a bag on the floor that I often left alone in a corner and absently forgot a few times. I didn’t have a debit card then, carried little-to-no cash. My bus card usually acted as a placeholder in a book, and my house keys were just tossed in there. Perhaps one day he went into that bag, shook his head, and said let this foolish girl walk in peace.
He didn’t come to class every day. Kevin, Nathaniel, and Larry came every day and were usually early. I would walk to school and hear them before I actually saw them playing on the playground. Often Larry’s mom would be there, sitting on the school steps in shorts; she came to hold his hand and carry his papers or books at dismissal. I’m sure Larry doesn’t hold his mother’s hand like that anymore. I remember her being braless and how visible her flesh was in her tops. I was both embarrassed and afraid that she would catch me noticing her body, staring too long at places I shouldn’t have. I knew my mother would never wear such things, and yet I knew what Larry’s mom wore did not matter. She was always friendly to me; she greeted me warmly whenever she saw me and always kissed Larry on his head or on his cheek. I wonder if they continue that practice.
When the boy whose name I don’t remember did come to class he was usually late. Sometimes sleep would be in the corner of his eyes, his clothes wrinkled and lips dry. He would do things that would make Ms. Bailey have him stand in the corner. What he did I can’t recall, yet I remember the one and only time he cried in class. That day he came in late. He walked to the back of the room—Ms. Bailey’s eyes probably glued to his back—where I sat with my group of students. He made no effort to do whatever activity we were doing. We just continued the activity and no one looked directly at him. Maybe I looked up to check the time or to check-in with Ms. Bailey. Instead, I saw him staring at me. He had tears in his eyes, tears that seemed irregular, deep, and in need of something I had not learned to give. I told my group to go back to their desks and kept him at the back of the room to finish up the assignment.
Surely, I asked him if he was okay, but I don’t remember the answer. If he had said no, I probably would have patted him on the shoulder and said something meaningless like, “it’s going to be okay.”
That memory has combined itself into another. One day I was humming Biggie’s “Going Back to Cali” and he heard me and instantly started rapping the lyrics. He smiled at me and I was surprised that he knew the song. I didn’t think it was one of Biggie’s popular songs, yet here he was smiling and rapping the lyrics. None of the other students seemed to know the song, and maybe he shouldn’t have known it either.
I usually hugged the students. I hugged the girls. I hugged the boys too. Perhaps this was wrong. Times have changed. Adults are suspect. If I find myself hugging a child now, I do it differently. I speak loudly announcing the hug, or I make sure there’s enough space to play London bridge between us. I don’t remember hugging the boy whose name I don’t remember on the last day of summer school. I’m not even sure if he was there. With my own child now, I cringe when they want to hug a stranger, when they overshare, when they’re asked follow-up questions, and when they answer them. It’s odd how I’ll find myself standing beside my little person and listening to them as they engage and converse with an adult stranger. When did this shift occur? Why am I so sensitive now? Why, after all these years, do I regret not doing more for a child who was distraught? I think often of adults/strangers who are out of their boundaries when it comes to my child, and yet I still wonder if my role in those students’ lives in the summer of 2001 could have been more responsive. Could I have done more?
Years later he saw me waiting for a bus and I regret that I didn’t ask him his name then. We were the same height and, after a few moments of not remembering who he was, I was excited to recognize him. I hugged him and asked about the other students and even about Ms. Bailey. I was probably talking really fast because I was so excited to have found him, and I guess a piece of that long-ago summer, in front of me. There was a lot of nodding and shaking of our heads; we might have even shared a laugh. I could see the changes in him, how he’d grown taller since the last time I’d seen him but was also still so meek. He didn’t have facial hair, but he was different, visibly older. So was I. I think now that I probably should have asked him about school, or asked quite simply “how is everything?” At this point I wasn’t his teacher’s assistant. Now I was just a woman at a bus stop, waiting on a bus. It soon felt as if he was growing tired of our conversation. I could sense his boredom. He had just wanted to say hi and he had.
He seemed to be in a hurry or perhaps a little uncomfortable with the conversation—or me—when a man on a bike rode up and stopped beside us. Then he was leaving, waving bye, one hand lifted high in the air, fingers spread slightly apart. And he was gone.
The next time I spoke to him it looked as if he was studying my face. Some seasons had gone and come again since I’d last talked with or seen him. The crowfeet at my eyes were becoming more and more visible. He waved again parting his mouth slightly as if he remembered me and wanted to say hello but couldn’t find a reason to release the words. Since then, whenever I’ve seen him and made an attempt to wave, he’ll turn his head away. He now wears locs; I remember when they were just a bunch a twists lying limp on his head. I’ve always wondered—similar to how I try to warn my young child about strangers and am slowly teaching them that everyone is not their friend—if the man on the bike did the same for him that day. Asked him who I was and maybe told him he shouldn’t be talking to me.
One day I was waiting for the Pulaski bus during rush hour, talking to another lady who has the same route as me. Patience is a virtue when waiting on that bus during that time. We could have been talking about a range of things: the city potholes, the lateness of the bus, how the bus probably would have no standing room, or when it did come there would be three busses in a row. This particular day I pointed him out to her. He was the one on the bike now. I told her how I was once a teacher’s aide for summer school and he was a student in my class.
She noted the obvious. The kind of bike he rode. His hair. The group of men he was standing around with. Her observations were fair, and yet I didn’t like the way she said what she said. We stood together. Both of us looking south for a bus but were really looking at the men, and maybe we were frowning. And just like that I decided to dislike her. I stared at her gold-rimmed glasses and her slicked back bun, and thought she was wrong, she didn’t know him.
I can’t remember his name, but I remember him crying in class about something that I imagine had to do with his home or the route he took to school. I too cry over things I can’t control, but at the impressionable age of eight one can only imagine what words his tears had to replace because he wasn’t able to verbally express whatever problems surrounded him.
I cry when I feel completely lost, abandoned, and unable to express my frustration and disappointment. Sometimes I cry because I can’t yell, because yelling would make me crazy, so I’ll ball up my fist and grind and grind my teeth until it passes. We’ve all done this. We all have this inside of us, so I was surprised at how easy it was to dislike this woman’s honest and possibly factual opinion. However, if I were to be honest with myself, I would admit that she was speaking the things I was thinking subconsciously and wanted to unsee, but couldn’t. I wanted to be an optimist. I wanted to save his child-like innocence.
I think the boy—now the man—whose name I don’t recall has been to jail. There’s no one to ask, so I ask myself if it’s any of my business. If that lady had said then what I now think, I would have put in my earbuds. So why is it safe for me to assume that the kid I have so few memories of is now a drug dealer? Who may or may not have dropped out of high school. Who may or may not have a record.
I once watched a police officer pat him down. The officer pushed his face hard against a patrol car as the young man I used to know whispered and tried to converse with his friends. At the bus stop we all stared. I felt nothing for him as I watched a police officer pat him down. I didn’t think about the times I’d hugged him or even about him singing Biggie one summer day. I just stared. Stared at him, until, I guess, I stopped.
Maybe one day I’ll make him remember.
One day, I’ll walk over and start up a conversation. Tell him that a billion years ago I was Ms. Bailey’s teacher aide. I’ll ask him if he remembers that summer of 2001—it was a long time ago. I’ll ask him about school, about life, and I’ll listen for a while. This time, a man on a bike will not interrupt us. I’ll tell him about him rapping Biggie in the classroom. How I was surprised he knew the lyrics. I’ll ask if he knew that I was probably just as afraid of Ms. Bailey as they all were. I’ll ask if he remembers how Kevin King always wanted to show his chest to the class. I’ll admit that I worry about his lifestyle. At first, I’ll pretend as though I’m looking for the bus before giving my attention to him, to his eyes, which are still—in my opinion—the same eyes that wept for a few minutes in Ms. Bailey’s class.
Maybe he’ll tell me what we have often heard: that times are difficult, that they’re just out here making money. I’ve had friends smile and tell me I think like an old woman, and perhaps I’m just an old woman. But I’ve also had friends die, proving to me just how short and unfair life can be. It makes social media feel unnecessary because what am I truly trying to document? What are these posts preserving? How unfair time and circumstances can be?
I shouldn’t think about him. I shouldn’t think about him the way I do. I have no right to want him to grow tired of that bike; I have no right to wish to see him again, or remember how he walked, his hair swaying from side to sided, as if he had somewhere urgent to be; but also moving as if he had nowhere he had to be. I want him to want more for himself, but I don’t know how to say that because I have no right. I’m on the outside of his life looking in. I’m at a bus stop, looking south most times, catching a glimpse, not of setting suns, but of regret that forever registers in my mind.
When the bus does come, late and overcrowded, and I haven’t seen him dart out of a store or speed by on the bike in a while, I wonder if he’s died. If he dies or goes to jail, I won’t know. He’s not in my circle. He’s not my friend. I’m perhaps just a nosey old woman who can’t help but think we’re failing our children.
Larry, the one who held his mother’s hand, came to school for breakfast and lunch; his mother, with all her love and kisses, was only able to feed him one meal a day. That is what she told me. I know Larry loved his mother and I think she loved her son. Nathaniel lost his front teeth that summer. I have an uncle named Nathaniel and I imagine, for whatever reason, nothing but excellence when I think of him. I have often thought about Kevin and Devin and have even recounted stories to friends about their personalities. I never saw their mother, but they too had someone who dropped them off and someone that took them away at the end of the day. I think they were loved too. I keep thinking about the warmth of guidance and love and what lasting effects it has on a child. It’s probably wrong for me to judge the boy whose name I don’t know, but when I think of him, and of that summer, I think of a little person made to mature too soon.
I’d like to always remember the summer of 2001 because that fall so much changed, not only for me but—after the events of 9/11—for the country as well. I changed majors and decided I didn’t want to teach anymore. I would eventually stop thinking about the profession in its entirety until my child became school-aged and I had to familiarize myself with schools again. During long phone conversations with my mother, complaining about a school or a teacher, she’ll say something like, “Aren’t you glad you’re not a teacher?” To which I always feel the need to get defensive: “I think I would have made a great teacher.”
Sometimes, I wonder if that’s true. I don’t know what it takes to be a great teacher. I don’t know if any teacher is great enough to provide or give a child everything they need, especially if they’re lacking those essential temperaments that ideally should come from home.
That summer seems so long ago, and yet I can see the classroom, the students, their youth as well as my own so clearly. Could I have done more in those students’ lives, especially the one whose name has long escaped my memory? If he knew that there was someone that cared or saw his tears in a summer classroom would his life have been different?
At some point, I need to stop myself from wondering and worrying. A large part of my concern of that summer has been replaced with a larger fear of how I’m raising and possibly failing my own children. I’m a believer that the mother is the first teacher, yet I’m unable to compare or substitute the quality of support and comfort that a classroom and teacher can provide a student. But here I am, here it seems I always am; worrying and regretting that I didn’t do enough when I was given the chance; worrying I’m not doing enough for my own.
Ros Lyn was born in Chicago. She studied Creative Nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago.
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 9 · May 2023
Header image by TheeErin.