I wish I had a second chance with Alex Cole. He was one of my first middle schoolers almost thirty years ago, when I didn’t know much about teaching. Looking back I see my mistakes, the biggest being that I didn’t like Alex Cole.
If he were my student now, I’d make myself learn to like him. I’d work at it until I could see that his hair tufted on his head like the straw in the windrow piles behind my grandpa’s combine. I’d keep looking at his face until I could find strength behind stubbornness when he set his jaw and spirit behind temper when his eyes blazed.
But I didn’t do this with Alex Cole. Instead, in an effort to help him be good, I collected evidence of his badness. I chastised his tone, filched the notes he passed, marked his tardiness, assigned detentions for defiance, and called his parents with complaints. When the school year ended, I was relieved I wouldn’t see Alex Cole again. And I didn’t, not for my whole teaching career.
A few days after I retired from teaching I took a walk and heard someone call, “Mrs. Swartz?”
A man pulled his greasy hands from a truck engine and said, “I’m Alex Cole.” As we chatted, he was friendlier than I deserved.
“Do you have kids?” I asked.
He pulled open his shirt to show me three kids, their portraits tattooed on his chest.
I planned to stop by Alex Cole’s yard on another walk, to maybe apologize for being a bad teacher. But I didn’t get a chance.
Two days later just as I drove by his house on an errand, two SWAT vans and three police cruisers pulled up in front. In my rear view mirror, I saw officers surround Alex’s house. The next day I read in the paper about drug dealing and the shoot-out. I sat there in sadness.
I wished I had liked Alex Cole when he was in seventh grade.