In my third year of teaching one of my students, Jorge Cruz, drew something amazing for me (while serving a detention I assigned him). With just a pencil, on an oddly shaped piece of poster paper, he detailed a brilliant close up of the face of an Aztec Warrior. There are so many amazing things in this piece. The face is at once uncomfortably close, like a camera just off the tip of someone’s nose, and still distant with dark, pupil-less eyes, that stare past you no matter where you stand. It is a face both incredibly bold and proud, but deeply sad, that seems to peer into the certain tragedy of his people’s past, and their uncertain future. I felt instantly overwhelmed by the power of his art, art he created quietly as he waited out the clock in penitence for an offence I can’t even remember.
Perhaps it’s not true that he made it for me, but when I expressed how deeply impressed I was with it he shrugged and said, “Keep it,” as if it was some spare change that had fallen out of his pocket and would not be missed.
This piece of art hangs in my house today (my wife had it neatly framed), nearly two decades later, and, in a way I hadn’t anticipated, it informs my teaching. It keeps me grounded, if you will. Jorge was the most talented artist that has ever graced my classroom, at least that I know of. Now, I’m an English teacher, so that assessment may not mean much, since I don’t see much of their art and it’s not my bailiwick, but when Jorge stopped showing up to school, I didn’t think much of it. I taught at a continuation school at the time, and students frequently decided they were done playing school. He did poorly in my class, but it never seemed to impact his ego. He held himself with plenty of esteem, and the amount of effort it would have taken him to do well, I imagine, he had deemed not worth the payoff. He was probably right. Anyway, I was honestly less worried about Jorge than many of the others because he had a talent that I was sure would serve him well.
He stopped by to see me again three years later. I fully expected him to be running his own studio with people paying hundreds if not thousands of dollars for his work. Multiple visitors to my home had asked if he was selling anything, but sadly, I didn’t know how to find him.
The first thing out of my mouth, after greeting him, was “how’s your art going?”
He shrugged. “I don’t really draw anymore.”
My stunned silence brought an explanation. A couple of things I knew from before. He was the oldest of four, and the family was very poor. Furniture in their house was mostly pilfered milk crates. To make sure that his younger brothers and sister could focus on school, he decided to help his father bring in more money by keeping his dad’s truck–a commercial vehicle smaller than the UHauls my family moved with when I was a kid–in near constant motion. Between the two of them they drove the truck twenty-four hours a day, six days a week. Some days they managed two round trips from the port of Long Beach or LA Harbor to Oakland and back. One drove while the other slept. They often ate in the truck while driving.
He finished the story by saying he just didn’t feel like drawing anymore. I couldn’t have been more devastated than he was, but I sure felt like it. His studied indifference left me unsure what to say, and the conversation was not a comfortable one. He knew that I knew what he had given up.
How many Jorges are out there? How much brilliance never finds a space? This century’s greatest scientist will never get an education because she’s been born in the slums of New Delhi. This century’s greatest poet will live like an artist’s unopened pot of paint in the favelas of Sao Paulo. This century’s greatest writer will die of cholera in Bangledesh, never having picked up a pen.
The squandering of humanity goes on.
But deep, under the muck this society steeps us in, lies a better world, and Jorge’s art, hanging on my wall all these years, reminds me that what we could be is worth working for. It’s informed what I do in the classroom, as well as much of what I do out of it.