At nineteen my former student jacks a car
with a toy gun. Give me the keys!
he says, but he carries her groceries in,
unlocks her door—can’t leave her
alone in the cold, she looks so scared.
Not even an hour later he’s in handcuffs.
He’ll get fifteen. Ten if they go easy,
a soft judge. I can still see him
in detention, another heart-to-heart
on follow-through, some shit story,
yes ma’am, yes ma’am. Bless him, he cares
more about failing me than flunking Lit.
Says he’s loved every book since freshman year
and swears he doesn’t even like to read
and tells me I’m his favorite teacher ever—
as if he fears I’ll bear his failures
as my own. How this boy does this?
His mother can’t find words to tell me why.
She mimes a toy gun he once played with
like she’s sifting through hand-me-downs
she can’t give up. Her last hope’s
my letter to show the judge her son’s
good heart. To be mother, she says.
It is so hard. You have child?
He has her face, delicate Ethiopian bones
cut clean as a cameo. His mug shot
could be the tender boy I taught at fourteen
the year my own son was born, baby skin
smooth and unblemished, heavy lashes,
dark wet eyes that welled up in disbelief
when Maycomb killed Tom anyway,
when even Atticus could not save him.