“Yo Mista… why this place really called the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop? Do they really mean gay?”
I recently took two of some of my closest students out for ice cream to tell them I wasn’t coming back to teach this school year. I’ve known David and Ken for three years now. I’ve written about Ken before; I think of him as my second younger brother. These young men are slated to graduate this upcoming winter, but more importantly, I have witnessed them grow up right before my eyes. Both of them are turning 19 soon, so we’re at a weird place where we can’t figure out if I’m their teacher, an older sibling, a friend, or some kind of hybrid. These are often the best relationships I forge teaching high school because they’re built upon real connections and blurred lines. I know we’ll stay in touch long after they graduate.
I had mixed feelings as I walked out of the subway to meet them. I was really excited to see them again, but I knew telling them I wasn’t coming back would be tough. Both David and Ken have their math credits, so they wouldn’t have had me this year anyway. That’s me trying to rationalize the situation. The reality is, when you teach at-risk students and develop a mentorship, you just know you need to be around physically whether or not they’re even on your roster. David and Ken are best friends, but unfortunately, they don’t have many adults in their lives to guide them positively. These guys ask me all kinds of things via text, from questions about a job posting to fashion advice. No joke, last week Ken texted me a picture of a bearded hipster wearing flannel and an oversized knit cap asking, “Hey Mista, know where I could get one of these hats?”
I met the David and Ken at a Starbucks near a subway entranced and we proceeded to walk a few more blocks east to the ice cream shop. David looked tired and for good reason: him and his girlfriend had recently welcomed a baby boy in their lives. He looked like he hadn’t been sleeping well. Ken looked about as fidgety as ever, using every hand gesture known to man to explain how many hours he spent playing and conquering some new video game that just came out. Man, I sound old as hell saying that, don’t I? Anyway, these guys were doing well and hadn’t changed a bit, which made me very happy.
After the kids got over the shock effect of the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop’s name, we ordered our desserts and walked to a nearby park. After more small talk, I finally mustered up the courage to tell them I wasn’t coming back to teach. David seemed to take it well and asked probing questions. “So, like what will you do? How did you even find it?” He can be very practical when he’s not trying to be the class clown.
Ken, who has already gone through so much, fell silent. “I knew you wasn’t coming back. I knew it. Nobody wanna buy me stuff unless it’s doing good in school, or if it’s bad they wanna say.” Ken is not only very observant, he’s also incredibly experienced with loss. He has experienced more trauma than most people I know will ever experience in the course of their lives. He turned to David, “I told you it was going to be bad. I told you!” This kid limited this own excitement for free ice cream based on prior experiences being taken out to eat. Damn.
We spent a good hour afterwards just talking and catching up. There were periods of insane, teenage laughter followed by short, awkward moments of silence. One thing was clear: no matter how many poop jokes were made, Ken’s feelings were hurt. Three years ago, Ken was a very angry young boy who couldn’t keep his trauma from seeping out of his skin during the school day. Now he was calm and somewhat himself. It made me feel so happy to see how much more resilience he’d developed in three years.
I promised David and Ken I would stay in touch and be responsive via text, Facebook messenger, or whatever else the kids end up using this year. Since meeting them weeks ago, I’ve gotten messages from them already. David asked me to help him sign up as a tasker on TaskRabbit, and Ken sent me more pictures of clothes followed up with questions on where to purchase them. “Ken, you’re going to look like one of those hipsters that try to look like they haven’t showered.”
“Would you rather I look like a thug? ;-)”