An essay by O.M. Balla
Miguel never participated in class and he never turned in an assignment. He missed more classes than he attended. On the rare occasions I saw him in the hall during passing period, he walked alone, his eyes slightly downcast, looking neither to the left nor to the right. Tall and lanky, his thin rounded shoulders seemed to strain under an enormous weight.
Miguel’s background was typical of my rural New Mexico high school students. Of predominantly Hispanic and Native American origins, the majority of them lived at some level of poverty. Many lived in what can only be described as utter poverty.
This was not the kind of poverty that merely restricts its victims to live on a budget of boxed macaroni and cheese or ramen for dinner every night. This was the mind-deadening, soul-shriveling kind of poverty that means going home to an apartment or trailer house in which there is nothing to fill a growling, perpetually-empty teenaged stomach. It is the kind of poverty that means not enough money to pay the water bill, so there is no running water to drink or in which to bathe. The kind of poverty that compels a family to live in a car for several weeks, until mom gets the first paycheck from her new job.
Unlike the middle class students I’d taught in other states, my Los Lunas students rarely had adequate school supplies. Many regularly had to borrow pencils and paper from me or their classmates. Two girls in one class wore fuzzy pink and blue house slippers of the type I’d seen in the local dollar store. They wore them every day – even in winter weather. In several of my classes I had at least one student required to wear the ankle bracelet that came with being caught up in the juvenile justice system. Each semester at least one or two of my students got pregnant.
In December I typically taught my Child Development class a unit on positive reinforcement. I set up a token economy where students would receive one play money Buck every day they came to class on time. Extra Bucks were given for completed assignments and for good classroom behavior. The goal was to accumulate as many Bucks as possible by the last day of class before Winter Break, when students would be allowed to spend their savings at my Bazaar.
The Bazaar was an auction held in my classroom. A few items to be auctioned, such as candy bars, would have been donated by one or two class parents, but I purchased most things in volume from dollar stores. Pop tarts, microwave popcorn, and macaroni and cheese were the most popular items, followed by star-shaped sun glasses, stretchy bracelets made of plastic beads, glitter-laden lotions, and assorted party favors.
As usual, tardiness and absenteeism lessened during this unit. But I was surprised and inordinately pleased when Miguel not only began showing up to class, but was on time.
Every day for those two weeks Miguel walked through the door just before the tardy bell rang. He would catch my eye, nod once, and then make his way to his desk. There he sat with his head bowed, his clasped hands resting on the desk.
As was my custom, I handed out the day’s attendance Bucks at the beginning of each class. Miguel would take the Buck from my hand, say “Thank you Miss,” and stuff the play money into the pocket of his too-large jacket.
On the day of the auction, students were allowed to view the items laid out on a long table at the front of the classroom. The excitement always ran high. Kids stood around the table chattering with one another about which things caught their fancy. They pointed at the trinkets on which they wanted to bid. Some would playfully threaten anyone who might plan to over-bid them. Others would count out their Bucks and compare their pretend wealth with that of their friends. I overheard one student proudly tell another that this would be his Christmas shopping for his younger siblings.
As usual, I began the auction by first offering the smaller items, and then moving on to the larger things. I held each item up as students began their frenzied bidding.
A few of the students, especially those who had accumulated thick wads of Bucks, quickly jumped in with high bids. Others waited patiently for a specific item to be offered. Still others hooted and egged the bidders on in an effort to get them to spend all their money before the larger or more desirable items came up for bid.
At first, Miguel sat quietly at his desk. He wore the same faded blue workout pants and hooded jacket he’d worn for the past several days, the stretched-out cuffs frayed and stained. His hair hung in greasy ropes around his thin face, and his ragged fingernails were rimed in black.
At some point during the auction, Miguel took his wadded-up Bucks out of his jacket. He carefully straightened the bills on his desk, then sat with his head bent slightly forward and eyes downcast as item after item went up for bid. He didn’t speak, even though I’d seen him looking over the auction table before class.
The final item up for bid was a miniature flower pot made of terra cotta, the packaging of which proclaimed it to contain soil and the seeds of a lavender plant. I mentally prepared myself for the typical bidding frenzy that always took place when those who had inexplicably held onto their fistful of Bucks realized it would soon become worthless colored paper.
I held up the flower pot. “What am I bid for—”
“Five Bucks,” Miguel said in a soft voice before anyone else could speak.
Instantly the rowdy, boisterous chatter fell silent. A couple of students murmured things like, “Go for it Miguel,” and “All right Miguel.”
“Five Bucks going once,” I said. The wall clock behind my desk ticked off its second-to-second cadence. No one spoke.
Still no other bids.
“Going three times, and sold for five Bucks.”
As Miguel walked to the front of the room to claim his prize, pandemonium broke out. Students hooted their congratulations and support. I struggled to maintain what my Marine Corps son calls bearing as my chest filled with awe and pride at what these young people had just done.
Because tonight a much-loved mother, sister, aunt, grandma, or maybe even sweetheart would be the recipient of a very special gift.
And after today, Miguel would never again be so completely alone.