I will never name a child Dario.
The name reminds me of perfection, frustration, and lost hope. Dario was a desperate boy who is forever 14 years old to me.
He seemed small for his age. His face was cute and still resembled the features of a little boy. He was clean and parted his hair, but made sure it had the flip in the front. No scruff, no piercings. His physical appearance didn’t match his clothes.
I remember looking at him one day and thinking, “I bet his baby pictures were the kind people would stare at and ooh and goo over because of his perfectly shaped nose and big bright eyes”.
“I bet they would have no idea that he’d turn into a devil child,” was my next thought.
Dario and I both walked into room 21 as 8th grade virgins. He having never been to 8th grade, and I having never taught it. I would soon hear his lack of real virginity being discussed over a rousing session of vocabulary.
The first day of class Dario slurped into his chair. A talent and ability only students with the finest prowess and hatred for school can possess. His uniform, a red sports jersey with the number 5 on the front drowned his scrawny chest. The denim shorts, if you could call them that, sagged well below his tiny bum and were belted, from what I could discern, mid-crack. I rarely saw him in anything else, but the outfit was always clean ironed.
That first day of class I knew I had to be strict and firm. The agenda was ready, a get to know you game planned, and a silent prayer laid out on the desk before me.
“Hello class” I began and faked my way through experience and confidence.
I recognized myself in students, the shy eager girls ready to please, but lost my bearings with emo kids in black with safety pinned pants, and pierced faces.
“Get a grip” I told myself. You loved your high school students during student teaching. The roughest kids turned out to be great.
Mid-way through the never ending 47 minute period Dario was poking his neighbor with a newly sharpened pencil.
“Ouch” shouted the kid next to him.
“We’ll wait” I said like a robot. “Dario, what’s the problem?”
Idealistic- teacher -code –of- conduct -rule #1: never isolate and call out a kid in front of the class. Student: 1 Teacher: 0.
“This is why I didn’t go into elementary school teaching” I thought. “What. Is. Going. On.”
“Nothing. I didn’t do anything he …..” Dario rambled on defensively.
Cutting him off mid-sentence, “ok, ok, stop, we’re moving on”. “So, guys,” I continued, “two truths and lie,” I know you all have exciting stories to share”.
Hearing the sugar in my own voice wanted to make me puke. Or was it the thought running through my head, “is this what I signed up for? I’m stuck help help help 30 years!”
I repeated a mantra a college professor had told us to remember in times like this. Our professor in a room full of eager fulfilled college students just sure they were the answer to change classrooms of America, or , at least, Salt Lake: “misbehavior is a manifestation of an unfulfilled need…misbehavior is a manifestation of an unfulfilled need…”
Dario’s body continuously slid down his chair minute by minute until the front of the desk and his collar bone touched.
The bell rang.
Dario raced out crumbling his disclosure and other papers in the trash before exiting.
“I’m a freaking actor” I signed up to be an actor” I kept thinking over and over. “Put on your game face and rinse and repeat. The next batch is filing in.
I never understood why some teachers I encountered during school and student teaching were so negative. I always wondered why they kept coming day after day. I would be different. Kids would care about my class.
In one swift shift of 10 hours I began to understand. And yet, I had no idea the facets and layers hidden beneath the students, system, and classrooms yet to be unearthed in the following years. Some better, some gems, and some very ugly debris.
I was baptized into the elite club that year of teachers who would never, no, could never watch another heroic Erin Gruwell Freedom Writers or Michelle Pfeiffer save the day teacher movie again.
Dario and I had a turbulent relationship. I wanted to help him and by help him I meant switch him into a “good student” so class could actually go smoothly, and he had wanted, no needed something else.
The problem is, I knew he had more on his plate and was more undernourished in ways I would and will never experience, but I didn’t know how to help him while in a class of 35 other needs. So we danced and fought, and I ignored and confronted until one day a police officer came and took him to a youth detention center for the rest of the year. And I sighed a breath of sad relief.
For me it was a lesson in letting go and failed expectations. It revealed my silent need and desire for a sort of perfection. To snap my fingers and help the kid. I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea, this boy, and the cultural role of perfect women for some reason. I think I’m trying to work out and understand what is fair to expect out of life, relationships, jobs, and people in our stead. Elder Bednar’s conference talk also tugged at this memory when discussing the load we bear. How it gets us out of ruts, and strengthens us. Dario and I were both similar that year in that we were loaded down. But we thought each other so different.
When do you walk away from a person, a situation, and say, “well, I tried, it’s up to them now”? I have no perfect answer, but I know I’m aging when I say, I’m glad I went through that because it taught me to try. While I didn’t love Dario for who he was at the time, I hope I’ve learned in years since to try and meet people where they are. To allow them room to grow with maybe silently saying, here I am. I think Steinbeck sums it up best in East of Eden with the line, “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good”.