Wednesday, May 1, 2013

On teachers

Last Saturday I was almost shot in the face. Ok. Slight exaggeration. Maybe the bullet would have hit me in the shoulder, the neck, the arm, or some other non-fatal extremity. Maybe it would have missed me completely and hit Luke instead. Maybe the shooter wouldn’t have shot at all and I’m just dramatizing things in my mind. All I know is that I had an M-16 rifle pointed at my face because we were driving through the favela after dark without an illuminated dome light and the traffickers couldn’t see who was inside the car. A violation to a standard code in the community. It wasn't until Luke jolted up with raised hands yelling “Calma! Calma!” did the shooter look in and lowered his firearm. Seeing Luke shook up was the one reason I knew the situation was somewhat serious.

I’m now one of the official event photographers and bloggers at Fight for Peace. When Luke said that was what he wanted me to do, I couldn’t believe it. 

“That’s like what I do in my spare time!” I exclaimed.

“Well, then you should be good at it,” he said.

At first I offered to teach English, but Luke shot down that option with a real quick “fuck English classes” type response. Actually, that was just what he said. Apparently it’s never worked out in the past. Either the teachers weren’t qualified or the kids weren’t interested. Probably a little of both. Most people think they can teach English just because they speak it, which is absolute horseshit. But the situation in Maré is that most of the kids are still trying to finish their official Brazilian classes whilst helping their family survive. Learning another language gets pushed down the list of priorities when you have nothing to eat at the dinner table. 

This past Saturday was my first assignment: a boxing and martial arts event in Marcilio Dantas, a satellite site located in another part of Maré. I was told to show up at 11, but Harry, Luke’s brother, whispered not to show up until half past as most things in Brazil tend to be delayed. I show up at 11:40 and wade through a crowded weekend market to arrive at an empty building. Apparently the one time I’m told to show up late, they actually start on time. I call Carol, a staff member at Fight for Peace, and the one person at the organization I secretly have a crush on. She tells me to wait outside the academy for the driver Samuel to come by in the official van.

I’m sitting outside waiting and this lumpy kid strolls in. He has chipmunk cheeks and a bit of an overbite. Overall he reminds me of a polar bear when he sports the white team shirt. His name is Alex and he used to box at Fight for Peace, but stopped for a reason I couldn’t understand because of the Maré accent. I ask him if he’s going to return. He say he wants to but it’s hard to get rid of the gut. He looks down and grabs the overhang of his belly. I ask him what he’d like to study. He tells me with a look of concern that he still doesn’t know, but he’d like to go to college one day. I tell him that I’m 29 and I still don’t really know what I want to do. The sad thing is that shit is kinda true, but at least I got a smile out of him.

Samuel pulls up and we hop in the front. Carol bursts out and struts towards the building.

“They're two hours behind!” she laughs. “We have plenty of time!” She disappears into the large blue building and emerges with a large plastic bag. The winner and runner-up medals, an essential component to competitive events. 

We start driving and Alex asks if I watch professional boxing.

“Of course,” I say. “Who is your favorite fighter?”

“Canelo Alvarez,” he replies.

I mention Alvarez’s last fight against Austin Trout. He knew about it. This fight happened only two weeks ago. He even knew about the controversial split decision. This kid is serious about boxing. I ask him who he thought won. 

“Well, I’m a fan of Alvarez so I don’t think I’ll give a fair answer, ” he says. Jesus. This kid is only 17. 

“Well, you're honest,” I chuckle. “And that’s what counts.” 

We pull up to the event and there is a large crowd of people already there, mostly kids. All of them are held back behind metal gates that come up to the abdomen, the type you have at a major celebrity event. Only the fighters and people working the event are allowed in.  Immediately you can see the difference between the kids that fight and the kids that don’t. The fighters carry themselves with an elevated sense of self, a greater self-confidence than most, like gladiators who understand the fragility of life. The other kids admire it. I can feel it.

I start moving around the fights and I notice I’m using all of the sports I’ve practiced over the past decade of my life. Jiu-Jitsu and Capoeira have made my legs strong and now I'm virtually a human tripod. I move in and out during the action, reading their movements, adjusting them to my own. One of the spectators asks for my autograph.

“But I’m not doing anything,” I smile shyly.

“You move like you’re fighting,” she says back to me. 

I think about that connection for a minute. Fighting and telling stories. It makes perfect sense. 

Everyone is making a commotion about my shoes, I mean even more so than the Brazilian giant from a few weeks back. Moço! Moço! Onde comprou os sapatos?  When I tell them the US, there's a slight look of disappointment, but they always manage to throw a thumb-ups at the end of it all. Carol comes up to me in the middle of the event and laughs. “Nick! I think your shoes are the main attraction of the event!” I blush in return. 

Luke brings over this kid with a kind face holding a point-and-shoot. He has a cast wrapped around his right arm from a football accident that put him out of the boxing gym for a few months. I remember I met him the first day I showed up at the academy. Raynne is his name. 

Luke tells me that the kid loves photography and asks if I can show him the ropes. For the first time I feel I can offer legitimate advice on the subject. Strange that this kid coming up for pointers is the only thing that put confidence in my own abilities. Funny how the students sometimes make the teachers.

Raynne shifts around nervously in his sneakers. He looks hopeful. I ask him to show me some photos. Some of them are actually pretty good. I have my old D80 strapped around my shoulder, but haven’t really found much use for it through the event. I snap on a 24mm and wrap the camera around his neck. He gives me a look like a squire being promoted to a knight. I lean over and tell him that I need help taking photographs of the event. There are too many corners to cover. It’s actually quite true. I tell him to be careful with the camera. The way he nods tells me my gear is in good hands. He would care for it like his own.  

Raynne moves like a photographer, even with only one good arm. The look of concentration on his face, the quick trigger draw of pointing the lens and snapping the shutter is quintessential photography reflexes. We switch corners after each round as the fights go on. He gives me a fist bump as we pass each other during the breaks. 

I look over and I see Alex working the mitts. This kid has natural instincts to be a trainer. The “all-business-no-nonesense” look is plastered all across his face. The way he holds out his hands to redirect the fighter, the way he leans in and gives instruction. He could be a fabulous trainer. I tell him this. 

“Oh, it’s nothing. I just try to help out,” he says smiling.

One of the kids walk by and says something about his weight. It was meant to be a joke, but the slight quiver in his lips told me he took it to heart. I ask him if he would like to still be a fighter. He told he’d like to try but fears it would interfere with his studies. I tell him about the fighters in Bogotá that I trained with in the past. Most them studied nutrition and sports medicine at the same time because it helped their career as a boxer, and if things didn’t work out for them in the professional boxing realm (as it doesn't for most fighters), they have an education to fall back on. They usually become trainers. That way they can find a way to feed themselves and still be an integral part of the sport. Alex shines a brilliant grin and nods. He fills his chest with a deep inhale. I think he might start to believe it. 

One of the last things I did back in Seattle was present at Franklin High School’s “Power, Justice and Freedom through Education” seminar, an event targeted at underprivileged students of color where various presenters come in and share how education can change lives. I’ve done this for the past four years and am just starting to get the hang of it. I honestly don’t know how teachers are able to do this everyday. At the end of the event we always sat around with the keynote speaker to have a round table discussion. Usually, I’m pretty bored with it because it’s kind of a soapbox for teachers who don’t get a chance to voice their opinions. Teachers often feel that like they get shitted on because, well, for the most part, they are. 

This one woman got up and I’m expecting more ranting. Most of the first minute was just generic appreciation for teachers. I’m thinking this is going to be some real typical PC-Northwest-Seattle-we-love-the-entire-fucking-world-regardless-of-race-sex-class-gender-or-sexual-orientation type of after school speech. But what intrigued me about this woman was that she started by saying, “I never had the courage to become a teacher.” 

It turns out she wasn't a teacher at all, just recounted old memories of watching her mother hunched over the dining room table grading papers into the late hours after making dinner and finishing other household chores. Her mother had changed countless lives, in fact many of the teachers in the room had her as their high school Spanish teacher. They said she was strict, real military type demeanor, but you could always tell she cared. I think it gave the daughter some ease, especially since her mother had recently passed. But at the same time it also seemed to dig at her guilt; her admitted shame of being part of a society that treated teachers the way they do. 

“Our country has done you a great disservice and I am so very sorry how you have been treated.” 

I will never forget those words.

She was crying by the end of it. Most people in the room were. Shit, I’m actually tearing up writing this and I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s because teachers saved my life. My senior high writing teacher is the only reason you’re reading this now. She made me promise to take a writing course in college because she said I had talent. My Chicano studies professor scribbled on the back of an essay that I should apply to be a tutor at the writing center. I ended up working there for three years and discovered there through a co-worker about the fellowship that funded my first boxing excursion. Even my writing teacher today still emails me after every blog post, kindly saying, “I know you wrote this, which kinda makes sense, but did you really mean this?” Of course I always meant the second "this"

I think about all that teachers do in society and how little of it is ever noticed, how much they give of themselves for the sole purpose of keeping the world alive. I think about the teachers in Sandy Hook that pushed their students aside and acted as human body shields so their students could have a chance. A fucking chance. That's all that anybody really wants.

I’ve been thinking about my most recent near-death experience and what it all means. I keep telling myself that I’m exaggerating the story in my head, something for the blog, something that sounds violent, something sexy, exciting. But it wasn’t an exaggeration. The way that kid held his gun, the way he hopped up off the curb and drew it. That crazed look in his eyes. He was ready to go to war.

At first I thought the whole incident on Saturday was kind of funny, in fact, both Luke and I looked at each other and started laughing right after it happened. Then I thought it was a cool story and I wanted to be on the phone with all my friends to tell them about it. I wanted to make it a racy adventure story, something people would admire. I’ve done that with all my posts. I try to make what I’m doing sound cool. But it’s not cool anymore. It never was. This how people have to live everyday and it's not a cool fucking adventure story.

It makes me angry that people think that this shit is cool, that people want me to take them to the community to see the poor. It makes me angry that tourists ride around in fucking safari jeeps through the favelas to have this adventure story to “wow” their friends. It makes me angry because that’s how I used to be. 

When I think about what happened now, I just feel sad and I’m not sure why. I realize that I kept trying to tell people because I’m having trouble being alone. I just can't sit that close to death by myself. I also haven’t slept well since the incident happened. I average maybe 3 hours a night, and since I was out partying the nights beforehand, it has, to say lightly, been a rough week. I guess it’s the brevity of it all, life, how most of the shit we worry about has no bearing at the end of it and you start to see what’s really important.

I went into the gym on Monday because I could no longer stand staying in the apartment by myself. I had to do something. I had to box. I trained harder than I ever had in my life. I went two hours on almost no sleep and exerted just about every ounce of water out of my being. As I wound down my workout I looked at myself in the mirror and felt a stillness, a complete and utter bliss. It’s funny that I was doing the same thing during the my semi-meltdown in the park a couple weeks back. But this time the breath flowed calmly through my body. This time I felt at peace. Being around these kids put my soul at ease. They returned to me my humanity.

Fighting. Teaching. At this point, it’s the only things I have to keep me alive. 

I hope I can find a role as a teacher somewhere in this community. I hope I can give back what they’ve already given me. A sense of purpose, a reason to be decent. I tell this story to people and they say I need to stop for my safety, but I can’t. I can’t leave behind the promises I made. I can’t abandon these fighters. And if I’m to be shot in the face for that, well, there aren't many worthier things to die for in this world.

*To see photos of the event, please visit here.

No comments: