Teaching about Aztlan isn’t easy. Neither is teaching writing. People tend to associate writing with mean teachers who couldn’t be pleased and so they tense up at just the thought. Plus. most people haven’t heard anything about the Chicano Movement or its concepts and so I have to teach about the historical Aztlan and then I have to teach about Aztlan as the source of power inside all of us. I called him the Bear-Man.
So, because of the challenges, certain classes and students have stuck in my head. One particular class really challenged me to frame my thoughts. One very large man simply didn’t want to learn about Aztlan nor did he want to write. One day, he really challenged me. It was the last time this class would meet and I was almost certain he wouldn’t get anything out of my class.
“Ok, Teach,” he started his assault. He was in the leaned back position with his arms folded. There was no way he was leaving without giving me one last go-round. “This Aztlan of yours works for you, but, damn, what about us? You’ve made us write all kinds of crap, but I believe it’s all complete bullshit. How in the hell is this crap supposed to help us recover? You say to move forward, but you tell us to reflect back—which is it gonna be with you? We can’t do both at the same time.”
My first instinct was to walk over to the Bear-Man and poke him in the eyeball. He had been more than a thorn in my side and his calling my entire program complete bullshit was an insult that I didn’t need or deserve. But, I didn’t react. I let the initial rush of anger pass. I had been learning a path of non-resistance and even though I believe that you can take the boy out of the Barrio, you can’t take the Barrio out the boy; I thought the path of non-resistance made a lot of sense. Though I wasn’t ready to teach that path, I felt this was a good opportunity to practice its teachings. So, I let the anger rise and fall, took a few subtle breaths, and said to the Bear-Man, “that’s a really good question, thank you for asking. Can I ask you to repeat what you said?” My initial anger clouded my thoughts and I needed to give myself a chance to focus on what he asked so that I could really understand what he was asking because on the surface, it seemed as though he had found a flaw in my argument.
“Well, Teach, it’s like this: How do you expect me to move forward but look back? That don’t seem right to me. So, how does this writing about the past supposed to help us recover? You’re a writer, so of course this crap works for you. But I ain’t no writer and I ain’t looking back.”
Hearing his question through a focused mind allowed me to hear and understand his difficulty. He had missed the point of my course, which meant I hadn’t delivered it well. To me, there aren’t bad students, just bad teachers. Still, I wanted him to hear what I was saying, so instead of outright explaining, I asked him and the group, “Did you simply wake up one day and decide that you would be an alcoholic?”
He was tentative; his arms loosened their grip a little. He was still resolute, but he sensed that somehow, he was about to walk into a trap, “I don’t know, Teach. I’ve always loved chasing my Wild Turkeys.” The whole group laughed at his attempt at a joke.
“Ok, well, why are you here?”
“Because,” He said and his crossed arms fell like limp tortilla dough to his sides. “I lost control and then I lost everything.”
“Did you lose control and everything all at once?”
He brushed his hair back with his fingers and his chest heaved with heavy breaths. He looked up at me and his eyes held pools. He then shook his head.
“You don’t have to answer if you’re not comfortable, but if you are, can you tell me and the group how this happened?”
A tear danced down his cheek. It seemed happy to me that it got out of its prison. A young woman in red high-tops looked at the Bear-Man and went to comfort him. She threw her arms around his wide shoulders. She looked like a little girl against the Bear-Man’s mass. “It’s ok,” she said to him and he leaned into her shoulder. Any machisimo that had carried him was gone: He let out sob after sob against her frail shoulders. I thought maybe she’d fall from the weight of his Bear sized tears. After a few minutes, he tapped her back and she reclaimed her seat. Once he had collected himself, he said, “it started with that damn car. It wasn’t what I wanted and I was pissed so I went out and got hammered. Pretty soon, no matter what pissed me off, I’d get me a pint of Wild Turkey: bad grades, some chick or another, really, just anything that pissed me off would send me right to the bottle. When I’m drunk, I’m an asshole. So then, after I’d be a drunk ass and then sober up, I’d feel like shit about what I did and so there I’d go, right back to my Wild Turkey. Then one day, I didn’t have a car, I didn’t have a job, and I woke up in a jail cell without knowing how the hell I got there. So, no, Teach, I didn’t just wake up one day and lose everything; I lost everything over time and now I’m losing my liver. It just decayed over time, just like me.”
The entire group nodded in concurrence with his story. I asked a general question, “Was it like this for everyone?”
The group nodded.
“Things like addiction and depression don’t just happen overnight,” I said. “They grow from all that happens around and inside of us. I don’t believe anyone can move forward until they know not only what those things are, but also, what those things mean. We have to know and understand our reality before we can change it. Otherwise, we have to hope for blind luck. I, for one, have never been that lucky. Many years ago, I decided that I would wrap myself inside those feelings that made me uncomfortable and learn what they meant. I came to understand that I need to create and what it is I doubt about myself in any given situation are the beginnings of growth. When I allowed them to be more than that, they overtook me and trapped me in hell. I believe everyone in this room had the ability to understand their own feelings and let them become signals towards action instead of end-points on their own. Once you do, I believe relapses won’t happen.”
“So, when we feel bad,” the girl in red-high tops had been scribbling as had become her way and was making connections. “We should let ourselves feel bad and then try to learn why we feel bad?”
“Exactly,” I said and looked at the Bear-Man. “Am I answering your question?”
He smiled and nodded.