I am the principal at Laguna Beach High School. To better support the students at my school and to better understand the needs of my teachers, I teach a class each year. Some believe that students were fortunate to have me for their math teacher this year but I know that I’ve been the lucky one.
I had a boy in my math class, a young man really, who at the age of sixteen knows more about living than I might ever know even if I lived to be one hundred. My earliest impression of this boy came last September listening to his raspy voice insisting he was smarter than everyone else in the classroom. He called out throughout class, challenged my every move and when I told him in a firm voice to knock it off, he tilted his head, smiled a crooked grin, and told me “hey, I’m just jokin’ with you”.
Who was this noisy, rowdy, unable to sit still but deep down gentle soul? As the months went by, I began to understand. One year earlier when he lived with his mom, a nineteen year old new to the town lured him out to a remote area of the desert, stole his dirt bike, and stabbed him in the throat and ribs. My student ran from the attacker across the desert plateau, his feet were cut up, he needed water, and it seemed like he was having a bad dream that he’d been stabbed but he kept running. Fighting loss of blood and exhaustion he finally found an empty house, broke a window with an old lawn chair, climbed in, called the police and passed out on the floor. The police were having trouble finding the deserted house when by sheer luck, the caretaker came by and called the paramedics who rushed my student to the hospital where he had surgery to repair multiple abdominal and neck injuries. He was in a coma for a week.
“I was so strong,” my student told me hesitantly lifting his shirt to show me scars, jagged lines across his neck, a puncture wound in his side, the line down his torso crosshatched with suture marks across his chest. “The police said anyone else would have died. But I ran across the desert to get help. I think about going back, taking a video of where it happened, retracing my steps to show how far I ran. You couldn’t really know how bad it was. But I must be strong cause I made it to that house.”
And his strength continued to show itself long after the accident throughout the past school year. My student had come to the high school with no credits from 9th grade. He didn’t know anyone in town but his dad. He felt embarrassed that he’d trusted a stranger who turned around and tried to kill him. For many reasons he’d kept his accident a secret for most of the year. But he began to open up toward the end of sophomore year, talking about going back to live with his mom because he missed her, how he’d earned 60 units of credits, boasting about a 2.5 g.p.a., working in class with new friends and talking to me and others about his accident.
Throughout the last days of school in June, he’d still tell me every once in a while how much smarter he was than everyone else but more often he proved it when he did his homework or aced a test. Try as he might, he never was able to sit still and he still called out often enough that it made me want to go over and shake him. But whenever I looked over and heard that kid yacking away, he’d catch my eye and flash that smile, and I’d just put my finger to my lip to remind him to hush up wondering to myself how I could ever make math worth fighting for when he’d fought for and won back his life.
His voice is raspy because a disturbed person cut his vocal cords and there were plenty of days I wished he’d been a quieter kid but when I stood at the front of the classroom trying to teach and listened to what my student had to say, I found I was the one learning. Like most people, I’ve had ups and downs in my life, but my student had through no fault of his own nearly died at the hands of a murderer. Despite this experience, he is through and through a good kid, and I’ve got a feeling he’s going to be a great man. He is not bitter; he’s always smiling. He’s not angry; he’s always kind. He’s not cranky (except when he’s hungry); he’s got a winning sense of humor.
I will always hold the memory of this student in my heart. He fought for what he knew was important … his right to live, and every time he flashes that smile of his, I come just a little closer to understanding what’s really important in life.