Everything Flowers

By Lisa Espinosa

Illustrator: Illustration: Katherine Streeter

Illustration: Katherine Streeter

“Es la maestra!” Jasmine yells up the stairs of her apartment building as soon as she opens the door and sees me. I can hear little feet scurrying around on the top floor and marvel that I really am “la maestra,” the teacher. As I follow Jasmine up the dark, narrow staircase, I feel more like a tired and somewhat desperate student than someone who has come to teach. I am actually here hoping to learn.

Jasmine leads me into her family’s crowded apartment with a look of embarrassment and curiosity. In my classroom she is a tough, angry 7th grader; here she is suddenly transformed into a younger, softer self. The difference is startling. It’s hard for me to reconcile this shy, timid girl with the fearless child I’ve struggled with so much in my class.

I wonder again what I’m doing here. Jasmine’s family has a reputation in our school, and I’ve heard all the opinions and rumors from teachers, office personnel, and the parents of other students: “How could the mom let her daughters run around like that, fighting and doing no work?” “Y tienen una boca.” “I think there is another daughter who already has a baby.” “Do they even have a father? I’ve never seen a dad.” “If they were my daughters, I would . . .” No one ever seems to finish that thought, but it’s clear they all think they would do something different. They only have minimal interactions with Jasmine, though. I have her in my class all day, every day, along with 29 other students, and right now I am mostly feeling mentally and physically exhausted.

Inside Jasmine’s apartment, little kids seem to be coming from every direction. She has five brothers and sisters and a baby nephew who are all curious and excited about a teacher visiting them. I remember that I am carrying a bag of pan dulce I brought for Jasmine’s family and I offer it to them. A quick suspicious look crosses Jasmine’s face and I see the first sign of the girl I know: she detects B.S., bribery, and threats a mile away. Jasmine only respects honesty and openness, and even then you have to know her well to be able to spot her grudging respect. I can almost read her mind: If she thinks I’m going to be nice to her because she brought bread . . . No, Jasmine. I’ve learned. After four years of teaching I’ve learned that it’s not like in the movies. There’s no guarantee that things will get any better after this visit. They might, in fact, get worse.

When I started teaching I was eager to meet the challenges presented by students like Jasmine. I chose to work in a predominantly Latino community because I feel a strong connection to it. Like the majority of the families of the kids I teach, my parents immigrated from Mexico. I was born and raised in Chicago and attended public schools. My elementary and high school experiences were not good ones, however. I had mostly unremarkable teachers with a couple of awful ones mixed in. In grammar school I was a “successful” student by many measures-I excelled on standardized tests, I was placed in the one gifted class, and I was the only student from my school to attend a selective magnet high school. My teachers deposited information and I was able to spit it back out: no real thinking, just regurgitation.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I became aware of, and then angered by, the way I’d been taught. Several classes and books helped me begin to critically analyze my own schooling. I noted the biased curriculum, which offered only one side of every story, the absence of lessons on the Chicano movement or other aspects of my history and culture, the various attempts to make me less Mexican and more white. Even more upsetting to me, though, was the absence of any meaningful connections with my teachers. I suppose I was easy to ignore-unlike Jasmine, who screams and stomps in order to be heard, I was a lonely, quiet girl. In high school I was lost in every sense of the word. I couldn’t find my way around the immense school I attended, and I couldn’t find my identity or my voice. I felt like an outsider and became disengaged, cutting and failing classes. Still, no teacher made an attempt to reach out.

So yes, when I became a teacher I was determined to do things differently. I would teach my students to think critically. I would validate their voices and experiences and expose them to different perspectives. But most of all I would get to know them. I would be a meaningful presence in their lives. Looking back on it now, I see that I was somewhat naïve about the type of impact I might have with my students. I believed my personal experiences and passion would be enough. I underestimated the challenges I’d face working in city schools. My education classes hadn’t prepared me for the overcrowded classrooms and lack of resources. And my professors hadn’t told me that I would often feel shut out of the decision-making process in my school, that in meetings and mandated “professional development” I would be talked at, receiving information that too often made little, if any, educational sense.

By the time Jasmine entered my classroom in my fourth year of teaching, my idealism had been tempered by experience. I had learned that the results of my efforts with individual students were not going to be seen right away, or maybe at all. I had also begun to learn that I had overestimated my “natural connection” to this community. It was true that my students and I shared cultural connections and this provided me with important insights into their lives. But that didn’t mean I always saw the whole picture. Paulo Freire writes of “entering into communion” with those you are trying to serve, and I had assumed that as a Latina woman I was already in communion with my students. Jasmine helped me see that I had a lot to learn.

Jasmine’s mom welcomes me and we sit at the table. She looks tired. She spends a couple minutes unsuccessfully trying to get all the younger children to move to another room so we can talk. Finally, one of Jasmine’s older sisters, Marta, takes them all out. Jasmine sits close to her mom, their shoulders touching. It’s obvious that they love each other and are comfortable with physical closeness, and this surprises me. I realize suddenly the depth of my assumptions about this mother. I had pictured a woman who couldn’t connect with her daughter, who didn’t give her the affection and attention she needed. But watching them, I realized that there was so much that I didn’t understand.

“How is this girl behaving?” Juanita, the mom, asks in Spanish. She speaks no English, and I am thankful that I am fluent in both languages.

“Well, she’s still having a lot of difficulties,” I say, thinking to myself what a gross understatement that was. “She gets very angry.”

“I know. I tell her that sometimes she looks like a crazy woman.”

Jasmine starts to laugh. I am again taken aback by how different she is here. Her laughter is so carefree-far different from the laughter I heard in my classroom earlier that day.

Illustration: Katherine Streeter

When Jasmine is in a certain mood her laughter sounds angry and violent. She sounds like her mom often says-“una loca,” a crazy woman. I had been in the middle of helping another student, Nayeli, with her reading when Jasmine’s loud laughter erupted. When I turned to look at her, she stopped laughing but shot me a defiant look. This is a game Jasmine and I have played many times before. Sometimes a look from me is enough to calm her down. Sometimes ignoring her works. Other times I threaten to call her mom or, as a last resort, send her to the office. It’s exhausting. Still, the most serious episodes happen when I’m not around: a fight entering the school building, another one in the classroom on a day I was absent, a shouting match on the playground after school.

This time I decided to ignore Jasmine and keep working with Nayeli. But a few seconds later I heard the explosive laughter again, and the look on Jasmine’s face told me that I had to give her my attention-she was going all out today.

“This is boring!” she yelled and threw her work on the floor. I told her to go with me into the hall, which doubles as my office, the place where I somehow manage to counsel students while half of my body-and one of my eyes-is still in the classroom monitoring the others. I knew I needed to get Jasmine there as quickly as possible before it got worse, but I made one fatal mistake: On the way out we passed Melvin’s desk. Melvin, whose dad has left his family again, who has his own pain and anger, and is particularly good at pushing Jasmine’s buttons.

“What?” Jasmine yelled at Melvin.

Melvin looked at me: “I didn’t do anything.”

Whatever he didn’t do, he apparently did again, and Jasmine yelled, “Oooh, I swear I’m gonna kick your fucking ass.”

“Jasmine-in the hall!” I said, placing my body in between her and Melvin. She looked at me, all the anger she has at the world contained in that one look, and finally left the room. “Jasmine, I’m going to call Mr. Simon,” I said. “We had an agreement and you are not following it.”

“Go ahead. I don’t care.”

I didn’t really want to call the school disciplinarian, because Mr. Simon’s main concern is following the system’s uniform discipline code-a small booklet that contains all the infractions students might commit along with “appropriate” consequences. They are all labeled in code: 1-2, 2-3. Mr. Simon has memorized a lot of them and often speaks in code, making it sound like he’s dealing with prisoners, not students. But as much as I didn’t want to bring him in, I knew Jasmine couldn’t go back into the room. Whatever had set her off, she wouldn’t be able to regain control. And my other options for dealing with the situation were limited: This school of 1,000 students (that was built for 700) has one counselor who spends almost all her time working on testing, not seeing kids, and one social worker who works with three different schools and is only available after you’ve completed the “necessary paperwork.” So my only resort was to call Mr. Simon.

“This is a four-dash-two,” he told Jasmine after he arrived. “You can be suspended. Do you understand that, princess?” Jasmine stayed quiet. “Answer me-I don’t have time for this. Do you want to be suspended?” At this point most kids would be crying or groveling but Jasmine is not like most kids. Mr. Simon understood this and began trying to back out of enforcing the suspension, probably because he realized he would be in charge of her. “Ms. Espinosa,” he said, “what do you think we should do?”

I answered in my head: I think there should be a safe place where she can go to calm down. And some regular counseling should be initiated to help her deal with all the issues she has. I also think I should have fewer students and more bilingual support and regular special education services. But I didn’t say any of that. Instead I said, “I think Jasmine needs to be taken out of the room and she needs to come back when she’s ready to learn.”

Jasmine looked at me as if I’d said the stupidest thing in the world, and Mr. Simon took her down to his office. I understood that it was just a small band-aid on a gushing wound, but I didn’t know what else to do. Later in the day, Jasmine returned. I tried to talk with her before she came into the classroom but she refused to make eye contact with me. She was quiet for the rest of the day, but I could see that she was hating me.

Now, in her apartment, she is sitting across from me and the anger seems far away. I consider relating the incident to her mom, but that’s not what I’m here for. Instead, I ask the mom again about counseling for Jasmine.

“Yes, teacher,” she says. “But Jasmine and Marta say they don’t need it. They gave us the name of a place but Jasmine doesn’t want to go.”

“Who first sent them to counseling?” I ask.

“In court-after what happened.”

I don’t know what she’s referring to, and I tell Juanita it might help if I did. She looks at Jasmine, who shrugs her shoulders and tells her mom it’s OK to tell me.

“Well, it was after Jasmine was in 5th grade,” Juanita begins. “Her and Marta were going to summer school. They would walk there with another girl. I didn’t know that some guys-“

“How old?” I say, interrupting.

Twenties,” Jasmine says. “One was older, like in his thirties.”

Juanita continues. “Well, these guys had offered Marta and this other girl money if they would go to their house to wash clothes.”

At this point I start to feel sick and selfishly wish I had never asked.

“I didn’t know, they didn’t tell me anything.” Jasmine’s mom says emphatically. I nod that I am hearing her. “So Jasmine, Marta and this other girl went to these guys’ basement apartment on their way to school.”

I look at Jasmine and she is staring into space. I wonder if she is seeing this play out in her head or if, in her mind, she is far away.

“Well, two guys took Marta and the other girl and they raped them,” Juanita says. “They kept Jasmine in the main room with the older guy. He didn’t rape her-he only touched her but he didn’t rape her. But she could hear everything they were doing to Marta and the other girl.”

I listen to her mom finish the story. For the first time since I’ve known Jasmine, I’m glad she is angry.

That first visit to Jasmine’s apartment led to many more throughout that school year. Trying to get Jasmine counseling was a recurring theme in my conversations with her mother. Although she wasn’t against her daughters going to counseling, she was also certain that with enough discipline and motivation they could get past what happened.

“They don’t need to let what happened to them ruin their lives,” she would often say. “They aren’t little kids anymore. They need to take responsibility.” I was always careful not to sound like I was judging her but I kept insisting that what happened had long-term effects. The girls needed some help. However, short of driving Jasmine to counseling myself, I couldn’t figure out how to make it happen.

In school I asked about the possibility of Jasmine seeing the social worker. I was relieved to discover that she had been referred previously, but my hopes were dashed when I received a memo that outlined Jasmine’s new schedule with the social worker: she would be seen for 20 minutes per month.

I understood that, as a social worker for such a large system who split her time among three schools, Mrs. Hurtado was overwhelmed. But it was frustrating and disappointing to see how little she was able to help-and sometimes I felt she actually made things worse. Once, in a meeting with Jasmine, her mother, and me, Mrs. Hurtado suggested that what Jasmine really needed was medication since counseling obviously was not helping.

“Medication?” I practically shouted. “She hasn’t received any consistent counseling since this began. You can’t suggest medication if counseling hasn’t been given a chance.”

Mrs. Hurtado then turned to Jasmine. “A lot of girls go through what happened to you and they keep going,” she said. “They don’t start doing bad things. If you got hit by a car, you wouldn’t let that stop you and use it as an excuse to be a failure.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and I spoke up: “Jasmine, Mrs. Hurtado is right that many girls go through what you went through and heal from it. But they need help to do it. You need help and it needs to be consistent.” I turned to her mom. “In my opinion, looking at medication doesn’t make sense. We don’t know that counseling hasn’t worked because it hasn’t been given a fair chance.”

Jasmine’s mom agreed. She told Mrs. Hurtado she wanted her to continue meeting with Jasmine. It was the smallest of victories.

My year with Jasmine was filled with moments where I felt powerless. I’m sure she did, too. So many obstacles were beyond my control. And finding the time to devote to Jasmine-with my other students, my own children, and a master’s class also needing my attention-was extremely challenging. Still, I did what I could, though it always seemed insufficient. I knew that providing a safe place for Jasmine in my classroom was important. I also began picking her up once a week before school to have breakfast at a local coffee shop. Jasmine was intimidated by the menu at first, but she soon found her favorite combination: “Café mocha, and a scone please,” she would always say.

One morning toward the end of the summer, I asked her about a program she had been involved with the previous year.

“It’s a lot of fun,” she said. “They take us to the Botanic Gardens, and teach us about plants and stuff.”

I wish everybody could see Jasmine like this, I thought. Happy. Carefree.

“Teacher, I don’t want to go to 8th grade,” she said suddenly. “It’s going to be so hard.”

“You won’t be alone, Jasmine. I’ll still be close by, just a couple of rooms down. And Mr. MacDonald is a great teacher. You’ll like him.” I had already begun arranging for her to be in his classroom, but with the end of the year approaching, I couldn’t help wondering how much I had really helped her, how much of an impact I’d had.

Again I thought of my own journey. I knew that one of the most powerful lessons anyone had taught me was to remind me of my innate goodness. It’s like the words of a poem I read recently: “Everything flowers, from within, though sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness.”

Reteach a thing its loveliness. Those words articulate so perfectly what I believe we as teachers are sometimes called to do. For Jasmine, and all the other students like her whose experiences have made it hard for them to see their goodness, we must be that constant reminder: you are lovely, you are lovely, you are lovely.

Lisa Espinosa teaches 7th grade at Ruiz School in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. She has five beautiful children. This essay is taken from City Kids, City Schools, which will be published in August by The New Press.