Monday, January 5, 2009

The Sin Eater


10:37. The bell rings, announcing the start of lunch. It would be breakfast anywhere else, but LAUSD operates under a different sort of logic. Duran have just finished co-teaching a world history class; it is my favorite part of the day.

One of our students approaches to talk about his grades...he's missing four assignments and failing the class. He failed the class last year and has to retake it if he wants to graduate, and being a senior he's running out of chances to make it up. I shake my head and launch into my standard "You need to be more responsible routine if you want to graduate," routine.

The student is silent, his dark eyes full of pain. "I'm sorry Mr. Leiken. I know I have to make them up."

"Why didn't you do them?"

"My father was killed."

I blink, stupefied. It takes me a moment to recollect my senses. "What happened?" I ask.

"One of his friends lured him outside and a gang shot him."

I shake the student's hand, speechless, there are no words either adequate or capable of conveying my sympathy and shock. "I'm sorry." I finish lamely.


One of my former students comes up to shake my hand. It's part of our daily ritual, whenever we meet in the classroom he always holds his hand out for a firm shake. Most students prefer the more streetwise "pound it", but he takes pride in being praised, and to him there is no higher praise then having his hand clasped in a firm warm grip.

Today he walks up to me. I hold up my hand but he doesn't take it. "What's wrong?" I ask.

"My niece died." He chokes.

"I'm sorry." I reply lamely.

"We're having a fundraiser. A car wash."

"For what?"

"The funeral."

For the second time in two days, I'm speechless. I don't want to know the details.


"Mr. Leiken, can I call you Uncle?"

I squint at Jonathan, who is beaming at me with a smile that could light up the sun. Last week when I dressed up as a pirate he thought it was the "coolest" thing ever.

"You can call me Leiken."

"How about Uncle Leiken?"

"Leiken or Mr. Leiken, or if you prefer, Mister."

"But you're cool Leiken. You're like an Uncle. I can tell you anything!"

I chuckle ruefully. That's the problem. I'm not sure I want to know. Each year I feel less like a teacher and more like a priest, an eater of sins that takes on the student's trials and makes them my own. No matter how much I give, the students demand more, they are emotional black holes that suck dry every ounce of energy I have to give away. No, I am not their father, or their uncle, I'm just a teacher.

"Just Leiken, Jonathan. Just Leiken."

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