At the end of my job interview, I was taken into the classroom because Miss Tee thought it would be good for me to meet the students. I had just moved to Charlotte, NC, and was applying for the Teacher’s Assistant position in Miss Tee’s classroom. Meeting the students before being hired was, in theory, like living with someone before proposing marriage. It was a test drive. I politely introduced myself to the students in the class, and that’s when one skinny black kid with a small head came up to me and extended his hand.
“I’m Jermaine,” he said. “Will you be my homeboy?”
Of course I said yes; later Crestdale Middle School said ‘yes’ too and I was hired. Reporting to the classroom every day gave me ample opportunity to spend time with my new homie. Jermaine was a fetal alcohol baby. He was taken away from his mom when he was little and now lived with a foster dad named Mr. Whte (who, like his name implies, was an old white guy). Jermaine spent every waking moment outside of school watching BET. It didn’t matter what was on. He watched it. Always alone, because Mr. White wasn’t very interested in 106 and Park or Bobby Jones Gospel.
Jermaine had a social worker who picked him up from school two days a week. “You know what we do?” the social worker asked me once. “We go down to the used car dealership. He picks out a car he likes, and they open it and let him sit in it.”
“Do you sit in the car with him?” I asked, trying to envision this.
“No,” the social worker said. “He sits in it by himself. He’ll stay for a good twenty minutes too. He doesn’t touch anything. Just sits there in the driver’s seat.”
Since we were homeboys, Jermaine told me all about the shows on BET and the cars he’d “driven.” He also shared with me his obsession with the movie “You Got Served.” He had it on DVD and would bring it to school to show it off.
“I’m gonna make my own dance crew,” he told his classmates. “You all can be in it. Mr. P can join our dance crew too.”
Although the idea was ludicrous, Jermaine was dead serious. He tried to show me dance moves, and he reminded his classmates almost hourly about “the crew.” In a class of socially awkward EC kids, Jermaine was looked up to, and his peers would beam with pride when he’d talk about how they’d be just like the crew from “You Got Served” which, he was quick to point out in case anyone forgot, he owned on DVD.
There are two sides to most personalities, and my homeboy could be a terror in the classroom when he wanted to. On bad days he’d curse and threaten his petrified classmates. Sometimes he’d refuse to go with the social worker or even leave school. When he was in his rebellious mood, he always said the same thing:
“I’m a mean retarded boy,” he’d say. “I’m a mean retarded boy.”
Someone from his past must’ve called him that, I figured. On his good days, Jermaine could leave whatever nightmares happened to him and become the charming leader of the class. On his bad days, he burned with anger. Who could blame him? There had to be some part of him that wondered why he watched BET alone in a house with an old white man. Or that knew there would never be a dance crew, and as long as he could sit in the driver’s seat of a car, no one would ever hand him the keys.
If that part of him wondered if Mr. P was really his homeboy, he never let on. I did my best to fit the role. I talked to him, listened to him, hugged him on graduation and told him I was proud of him. He told me he would go to East Mecklenburg High, his smile large. Jermaine didn’t seem quite ready to move into his future, but he was happy to. Just like he probably saw the road in motion before him, even when he sat in a car that wasn’t moving.
(In Self-Containment: Memories of a Teacher’s Assistant is my ongoing serial about the year I spent as a TA in a self-contained special ed middle school classroom. The names of the students and teachers I talk about have been changed. “Homeboys” is Part One.)