|Here I am teaching my Sophomore class. Note jazzy, stress-relieving stripes painted on the walls. Note lack of dais. Note chalk tray, level with the top of my shoulder. The chair I would leap onto is just out of the frame.|
|Home sweet home|
So, Michal got in a fight. Well, it happens. That must have been a Friday night, because I didn't see him again until Sunday morning, when he knocked on my apartment door. I was still in the long johns I usually slept in, and was washing my face, so I reached to open the door with one hand, toweling water out of my eyes with the other. Michal was standing there holding my neatly folded sweater. "Oh, hi." I was a little embarrassed that one of my student was seeing me in my long johns, but, whatever. "Thanks for this." "You're welcome." I reached to take it, but he wouldn't relinquish it. He sucked on his (still bad-looking) lip for a second, then said, "Can I talk to you?"
Yeah, the first of a thousand times that I have heard this sentence.
"Um, yeah. Come in." I didn't have a sofa - I had two beds. One I treated like a sofa, so we sat facing each other cross-legged on this sofa-bed, and I began my education about organized crime in Poland. This was one of the most difficult conversations I have ever had: he couldn't tell me much in English; I struggled to understand in Polish. Lots of hand-waving and sketching. And the more I understood, the more frightened I got, because I realized that he was in deep shit.
In a nutshell, if possible... Years before, he had been befriended by a man in his apartment complex. The guy was nice, and since Michal had no dad, he got pretty attached to this guy. Well, the guy taught Michal how to rip off cars and Michal started working for him. Because Michal as a juvenile... yeah, are you thinking, "Fagin?" That's pretty much what it was like, except this guy had another guy that he answered to. As Michal got older he was doing well in school and was accepted to a high school for university-bound students. He wanted to get out of the stereo theft business, but when he would complain about it or threaten to tell anybody, they would hurt him. He was going to be 18 soon, but before that happened, they had a plan they wanted him to carry out: to break into an office at the local police station where there were materials for making identity papers. No way did he want to do this. Juvenile or not, this was a whole different level of crime. He was worried less about prison (although he was very worried about it) than he was in a panic that the whole story would come out and that he would lose his place at university.
What should he do?
He was asking me?!?
"You need to tell someone!" "I AM telling someone. I'm telling you." "No, like a real, Polish someone. You need to go to the police! Tell them you're being coerced! You need to tell your mom! How can she not know?" "It's dangerous to tell her. I think she guesses, but she's afraid to say anything. She just cries a lot. I can't tell other people. Miss P., just tell me: should I do the police station break-in?" Wha-? Oy. What was I supposed to say? "I have to tell you that you shouldn't. Anyway, it's a stupid idea. Bound to fail! Maybe if you say you won't do it, they will just abandon the plan." He agreed that he would tell them, "No".
Just in case anyone thinks that I am a font of wisdom...
Michal was absent on Monday and on Tuesday afternoon, he was late for English class. It was warmer that day and I had the windows open. I remember that when he opened the classroom door, the cross-breeze billowed the long net curtains in across the desks. He eased the door shut and slid into a seat in the back while I continued explaining something to the class. Then I glanced up at him and our eyes locked. My vision narrowed - I thought I was going to pass out. He had a cut that went all the way from his forehead, curving down the side of his face to his chin. It was expertly done: like a deep scratch. Not so deep that it needed stitches, but deep enough to leave a scar. I'm sure it couldn't have been the case, but I felt like I did the entire presentation of "if-then" conditionals while staring into that boy's eyes.
Naturally, he was waiting by the front gate when I got off work that afternoon. I marched up to him and got in his face. Well, not really, because he was much taller than I. You know what I mean, though. "Michal, we need help! I don't know about Polish criminal law! I'm going to make things worse for you." "NO! You can't tell!" [light bulb!] "What about Jolanda, the new guidance counselor?" "No way! No teachers!" "She's not really a teacher. What if... What if I asked her for advice, but I didn't tell her your name?" It took me two days to wear him down and get him to agree.
Jolanda was delighted when I asked her if we could talk. She was completely distrusted at the school, and the kids wouldn't confide in her about anything. But, hey! I come from America: a therapist-friendly culture! I told her the whole story (again, complete with language barrier), leaving out identifying characteristics. And...she knew a lawyer! "Awesome!" (Well, I didn't say, "awesome". I must've said something like, "wspynjala".) "So, we simply have to have your student come to the office of-" Uh-oh. Here we go again. "Michal, how can the lawyer help you if you won't-" "No way!" "What about a phone call?" Etc... etc... Finally, he agreed to call the lawyer from a phone booth. No names. Confidential. "For now. Sooner or later, you have to meet him, OK?"
At this point, the story left my orbit a little. It was out of my hands, happening in Polish legalese; too difficult to explain with hand-waving or sketches. I understood the important part. Michal was meeting with the lawyer. The lawyer was helping Michal report the criminals, protecting him from repercussions and working to get him off the hook.
June came and the weather got hot. It was almost time for me to go, so I was busy: returning borrowed items; eating and drinking too much vodka at different peoples' houses; packing.
|I did this a lot. Note quantities of booze on table.|