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Funny thing happened today in English class. My Goth friend, who earlier this week literally needed to be woken up from a sound sleep, suddenly was acting oddly interested. I hadn’t planned on it but I told him I’d been thinking about him outside of class. I’d been talking about him to a friend, I told him, for no reason other than that he is a standout in class for having fallen asleep so often.

Now normally all I’ve ever seen of this guy is the crown of his head, and a glimpse of his pale skin glancing past his long black hair. He’s usually hunched over and usually withdrawn, and usually doesn’t talk,

I guess I felt so encouraged with him looking directly at me, in response to the revelation that I’d been thinking about him out of class, that I just kept going. I told him the whole story of my friend, the person I’d told about my sleeping Goth student. I guess I told them both about each other, actually. And I didn’t hold back. My friend, I told my student, surprised me by telling me about how he too once was an army boot and flak jacket wearing teen who was headed down the wrong path, getting arrested and doing drugs, not that I presumed to know what my Goth friend did outside of class.  But this had in hindsight been a kind of reaction to the long slow painful dismantling of his family over the course of many years. Turns out his dad left the family and his mom was so deeply grief-stricken as to appear mentally ill, and it dragged out for ten years before it felt like it ended.

Checking out, getting into trouble, these were ways to carry on in the face of disaster. My friend said he landed in a foster care situation and then his father did something unusual for fathers who leave their kids, he came back and got his wayward son into boarding school. From there he made it to college and onto a path that was healthier. I told all this to my student in a long exposition I hadn’t planned, and so I laughed at how us adults, this friend of mine and me too, project our experiences and understanding onto others. How he had suggested that maybe my Goth student was like him, reacting to issues at home. I had said, who knows, maybe.

By now my Goth student was quite present with me. I wrapped up my monologue and explained about the power of words and why we bother with the writing assignment before us. About how it’s hard to let kids know the value of learning, and how to communicate through writing, but this assignment is, unfortunately, how we do it. I told him no matter how crappy life is or what you do or do not have, communicating with words can get you all kinds of chances – jobs, college entrance, scholarships, girls, apologies, everything. So let’s humor the system, I proposed, and work on this essay together.

That’s when all of a sudden, he started talking, stringing whole sentences together, and looking right at me.

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