Marcus, I am sorry to say, was not cool.
I, being supremely uncool, am qualified to make that judgement.
I wore a biblically epic coat of many colors with argyle socks and sang to Taylor Swift.
Marcus wore a football helmet. In class. During a discussion.
I donned a shirt with a pug riding a unicorn over a rainbow.
Marcus began his rapping career in my classroom, by rhyming Marcus with Marcus.
Marcus was a special kid, in the way that most people would not appreciate being called special. Short and broad, he was reminiscent of a fire hydrant. Blind in one eye, he had a cloudy cataract that covered his cornea and left him an easy target for spitballs and the mimicry of cruel teens. He was in a new foster home–again–and the manic up and down of being fifteen, of being trapped in a fireplug body, and of only being able to see half of people’s reactions was taking its toll on him.
Then one day, Marcus didn’t have socks on underneath his beat Nikes. He wasn’t the only student to have a scuffed or hand-me-down pair, but his wincing walk was barely hidden by his rapper persona and angry squint.
He had nothing, no allowance or even access to clean clothing. Students noticed and confided in me.
“We have to do something.”
Bright and early, Marcus came into class. I filled a bag with supplies. I thought I was ready.
Jalin, fifteen-going-on-twenty, scouted by colleges and going pro as a lineman, grabbed Marcus’s elbow. He headed out the door; I could as much stop a train. With the swagger of a young person who is really, truly excellent at just a few things, he left a class he desperately needed.
Jalin read at a second-grade level and banged hard with family members when he wasn’t in class, and threw up signs to rivals at lunch and scuffling during break. The cement blocks of our classroom walls and our timid writing lessons were the only protection I could offer this man-child who had already had too many responsibilities placed on his shoulders that were currently walking out of my classroom.
In the zen that comes with accepting the inevitable, I acknowledged there might be a world where a young person might need to leave a classroom for a reason that isn’t entirely clear. There were times in the past when students would be ticketed for this kind of truancy. What can I say? I might be the Che Guevara of quiet hallway breaks.
In the magic that is teacher time, I knew Jalin and Marcus were ready. When I looked outside, I stumbled into an act of kindness so profound it buried me.
Jalin, the cool, was putting socks and shoes on Marcus. The socks? Not white tubes or ankles, but the achingly awesome mid-shin, printed with palm trees, fantastic socks that make fifteen worth living. The shoes? Black, blue laces, whole, simply neat.
Jalin, who could hardly read, told Marcus, who could hardly see, “I have lots of things. These are yours now.”
In truth, neither had much to spare.
In a perfect world, Marcus gains a lifelong friend who guides him through the halls and lets him cheer from the sidelines. Jalin gets tutoring from his classmates and reads his own college acceptance letters.
In reality, Marcus, after such neglect, was moved across town to a group home, a teen motel of sorts where adults are paid to keep him alive until he turns eighteen. Most kids become homeless shortly thereafter.
Jalin’s mom pulled him out of school after a gang-related fight left lockers broken and hallways bloody. He couldn’t have read the suspension notice if he’d wanted to anyways.
Marcus wore the cool socks every day. And that morning, he was happy. That’s all.
Alain LeRoy Locke College Prep