I remember Andy as a spirited, warmhearted sixteen-year-old. He wasn’t the sharpest mind in class, but he never had trouble understanding anything, either. He was fine with hovering around the middle of the academic scale, instead, letting his human qualities carry him through life. He was witty and slightly more mature than his classmates. I liked this about him. Most teachers did. He never caused problems; he did his work; he was respectful. We don’t ask for too much more.
One other interesting fact about Andy was that he never missed school, and while he was in school, he was usually in a good mood, never adverse to being social or to having a conversation about literature or life, whichever subject made more sense at the time. He shared the class with thirty-eight other students, but Andy’s placidity and aura set him apart from the pack.
He was a big, chunky kid, too, clumsy even, his equally big persona doing its best to squeeze into his still evolving frame. This is was another part of his charm. He didn’t see himself as big. He was unaware that he was growing. He jiggled into the room with heavy steps and long strides, always hurrying to his desk for no reason other than to sit. He was child-like, and he seldom looked too deeply into the world around him.
Then, one day, Andy disappeared. He stopped coming to school and no one had heard from him. His absence on the first day was obvious. “Where’s Andy?” I asked to no one in particular. They all knew him. He was semi-popular. Students were still filing in when I asked. “He didn’t come today,” said Sal, one of Andy’s buddies. “Why?” I asked. “I dunna know,” said Sal. They day went on without Andy, his empty desk taking up space in the middle of the room like a prop in theater class. Andy was absent the next day…and the next…and the next. Two weeks had gone by before he emerged.
At first glance, on his return, it was obvious to me that Andy was reeling from something, perhaps a tragedy or mind-altering event. He had changed, and it wasn’t all good. He wasn’t the first one to his desk as he so often was, and he wasn’t buzzing with the same energy that propelled him from point A to point B. His face, too, had changed, altered by expressions of the depressed. “What happened,” I thought to myself.
I was happy to have him back in class, though, and I didn’t waste time in making the first joke. “What’s up, Andy? Where you been?” I asked. “I was sick,” he said. He was looking down when he answered, shamed it seemed, as he stood near his desk before sitting. There wasn’t even a chuckle with his response. Just stoicism. I laughed, anyway, and said, “Yeah, I bet. Sick in the head, huh?” Andy managed a, “Yeah, something like that.” I stared at him for a bit–he didn’t see me looking–and a tinge sympathy washed over me.
He was wounded. There was no doubt. It was in his voice. This is how I knew something was amiss. I couldn’t even get a smile from him. Gone was the personality I had grown to like, and even admire. His usual joviality and childlike innocence was absent, too.
His disposition occupied my mind for the remainder of the period. When the dismissal bell rang, I called out to him as he was walked out of the room. “Andy!” He slowed near the door. “What’s up?” I asked. “Ah, nothing,” he said as he turned back towards me. He wanted to talk. “I was sick. I was in the hospital.” “Oh, yeah. You alright?” I asked. “Well, not really. They say I have Leukemia. They did a bunch of tests. The doctor told me I have three-weeks to live.” “What? You gotta be kidding me!” I said. I was dumfounded by Andy’s revelation. “What do you mean you have three-weeks to live? What happened?” I asked.
Thinking back on that day, I realize that every word I uttered, every sentence I pieced together, must’ve sounded stupid on every level. What do you say when you hear a person you care about say something like this? What do you say to a kid who tells you he has three-weeks to live? I wasn’t trained for this. I wasn’t even trained to be a teacher. I was being forced into being human, and it was tough.
All I could muster was, “Damn, Andy. That’s gotta be tough. Could they be wrong? Is there anything they can do–like do they have a cure?” I was genuinely naive on the matter. I didn’t know then that Leukemia was a form of cancer. I had seen the commercials with the bald kid. I know there were people in stores asking for money for Leukemia awareness, but I never put much thought into it. Leukemia wasn’t something in the realm of my reality. “I don’t know,” said Andy. “I have to go back to the doctor.” It was clear from his tone that Andy was in a bad place. “We’ll if you need anything at all, just let me know, Andy. You know? Try to hang in there. You’ll be alright. Don’t worry about it.” I said. “Alright, Mr. C. Thanks. Later,” Andy said and we left it at that.
This had taken place on a Friday. I remember this because my girlfriend and I had reservations for Carmine’s in South Pasadena. All week I had been looking forward to the seafood pasta, but the news of Andy’s disease hit me on an emotional level.
The ride from Norwalk to Pasadena didn’t make things easier. Fridays are brutal, especially during rush hour. I jumped on the 605 and braced for a long, sweaty, hour-plus drive. It was the month of May, and the summer heat, as usual, came early.
The 605 was a parking lot. I had the windows down and the radio on. I couldn’t tell you what was playing. It was peripheral, all conscious thought taking a backseat to Andy. As I sat in traffic, I figured I had time to give Andy a call and see how he was doing. It had been about three-hours since I last saw him, but I wanted to check-in and talk a bit, mostly just to make myself feel better. I reached into the backseat for my briefcase. I had my roll sheets in it, and these sheets contained my students’ contact info. I brought the case to the front seat and rummaged through ungraded essays and tests, looking for my roll book. I opened it to Sixth Period and found Andy’s home number. I called.
The A.C. didn’t work, but I had to roll up the windows in order hear clearly. Andy’s mom answered. “Hi, Mrs. Torres,” I said. “This is Mr. Cisneros, Andy’s English teacher at Norwalk.” “Oh, Hi, Mr. Cisneros. How are you?” she asked. She was a nice Mexican lady with a sweet, mom voice. I had met her once before. She seemed pleased with the call, probably knowing that it couldn’t be anything too bad. Andy was a good kid. I answered, “I’m good. How are you doing?” “We’re all good. Thank you, Mr. Cisneros” she said. “Oh, good. Well, I’m just calling to see how Andy is doing. He was absent for a while. He said he was sick.” “Oh, yeah, he was sick, but he’s ok right now. He’s better,” she said. There wasn’t anything odd in her voice. She seemed in good spirits, pleased with Andy’s progress.
“Oh, that’s good,” I said. “Well, I was just calling because I was worried about Andy. I mean it must be tough receiving that type of news.” I began feeling awkward for some reason, and I kind of regretted making the call. “What news are you talking about?” Andy’s mom asked. “Well, you know how the doctor told Andy that he has Leukemia and how he has three-weeks to live.” I was now stammering, the sweat intensifying. “Andy? Andy Torres? My son?” I had set off the alarm. “Yeah, Mrs. Torres! Andy Torres from Norwalk. He’s in my eleventh grade English class. He came to school today. He told me that he has Leukemia and that he has three-weeks to live. This is what the doctor told him.”
“Huh? No, no, no! Andy doesn’t have Leukemia,” she said with an uncomfortable laugh. “The doctor didn’t tell him this. We went to the doctor, but he doesn’t have Leukemia. He’s not sick,” she said. “What?” I thought to myself. Then I said, “Well, Andy told me this today. He told me after class. I asked where he had been, and he told me that he was sick. I don’t know what’s going on, but this is what he told me.” “No, he’s not sick, and I’m going to have a talk with him.” I could tell Mrs. Torres was angry. It was in her hurried voice. The “Mexican” mom in her had been awakened, and experience has taught me that when a Mexican mom gets angry, nalgas are going to get slapped.
“Mrs. Torres, I think you should first talk to Andy. You know be careful. I think maybe Andy is asking for attention or something. Try not to be too mad at him. There’s probably a reason why he said all this. I don’t think you should hit him or punish him right now. I think talking to him is the best thing right now,” I said. I was scrambling to do my best to protect Andy from getting the belt or chancla. His dad was an old-school Mexican dude with a big-ass belt buckle and a cowboy hat and a big-ass mustache and pointy boots. An ass beating was in Andy’s very near future. I knew it.
“Ok, Mr. Cisneros. I’m going to talk to Andy. I’ll wait until my husband comes home,” Mrs. Torres said. “Ok, well, I’m sorry about this. I think Andy just needs a talk. He should be ok,” I said. “Ok, Mr. Cisneros. Thank you for checking on him. Gracias por la llamada,” she said. “Ok, bye, Mrs. Torres.” “Bye,” she said, and that was it.
I wish I could tell you what happened after all of this, but I can’t. I don’t know. I made a follow up call, but I didn’t get an answer. I made the call because Andy never returned to school. There were only a few weeks left in the school-year, but Andy never came back.
I guess I could speculate, as I have, as to why Andy would make up a story about having Leukemia and having three-weeks to live. The classic, armchair psychologist explanation says that this was Andy’s way of asking for attention. This could be true, but Andy came from a pretty good home. He had parents who were present, not that these things alone prevent such things from happening, but on the surface, he wasn’t starved from attention. I saw a change in Andy.
Another reason could be that Andy had a break. Maybe this is why he missed two-weeks of school. Maybe he was an undiagnosed bipolar and maybe he finally had an episode, the psychotic break that forced him to see a doctor and finally get diagnosed and prescribed proper medication? I don’t know. I do know that there are a lot of students with undiagnosed mental issues. I see it a lot. They themselves don’t even know they’re sick.
I’m sure there are reasons why Andy did what he did. I’m just a teacher, though. I do what I can with what I have. Diagnosing my students’ issues is challenging. They all have issues, each one of them, and I would go crazy if I tried to cater to all their emotional and psychological needs. It wouldn’t be a healthy endeavor. So I do what I can. I am human with them. I praise them. I discipline them. I love them…at least the ones that are open to love. There are some students that have never experienced the spirit of love, just as there are students that have never seen the ocean. Dealing with kids is part of what it means to be a teacher.