So this is a bit of a departure from the stories we share, but a story nonetheless. Nonfiction. A tragedy about a life cut short, about the way life boils down to choices, and the cost of making the wrong choices.
I used to be a teacher. I worked at an inner city school at a school designed for at-risk students. Most of the guys had fallen behind in school because of their gang affiliation, most of the girls were there because of pregnancies that left them a semester behind, and all were there because of a genuine disinterest. You go to school because you have to. You seldom realize the importance it can play in shaping you, especially when there are stronger outside influences at play.
Michael Cardona was one of the first students that I taught. I had him on A days during 4th block, the smallest class that I’ve ever instructed (there were 4 students). It was y first year teaching, and I first met Mr. Cardona at the end of a very hectic, eye-opening, panicked, can-I-make-it day. As opposed to my other blocks that day, 4th was easy, and we breezed through the introductory material. Since Day 1 is all about meet and greet, it allowed us a better chance to get to know each other, talk, and so forth. At the end of the day, Michael asked me if he could straighten my room, pick up my trash, and clean off my boards. It caught me completely off guard, and I was happy to let him. It was a task he dove eagerly into.
As I got my things straight at the end of my first day, I watched the earnestness displayed by this student. It amazed me. After a day that had largely felt hopeless, I found hope. I knew right off the bat that I liked him, and that he was a good seed. Every teacher knows that one of the keys to effective teaching is effective communicating with the parents, and you don’t always want to call home about the bad things. After the bell rang and my tiny class dismissed, I looked up Cardona’s information and called his dad. I wanted to start the year with good news to establish an ally in the event that things changed midyear.
I spoke with his father, and I told him what a delight Michael was. Day one and I already knew that he was smart and outgoing. His dad was somewhat taken aback, but very appreciative of the call. I told him I was looking forward to working with him the rest of the year, and the call ended
As the school year went on and Michael began to “find” himself and create a place for himself among his peers, I noticed a sinister shift in his overall attitude. He became sneakier, dodgier. He became the class clown (which is no problem…I was the class clown). He became lazy with his school work, and his attendance became virtually nonexistent. I began taking Michael out to the hall, just to have a one on one chat with him, ask him what’s going on, ask him if he’s ok. He’d tell me yes. I called his dad on several occasions and mentioned the change, and I got the classical parental response. “I’ll make sure it’s better.” I was doing everything I could. I could only hope his dad would do the same.
He was a smart kid, and scraped by the course with a D, doing just enough work to pass. He took his Standardized test at the end of the year (don’t even get me started) and passed, meaning he could move from World History to U.S History (I taught both) next year. I’d see him again.
Summer came and went, and fall arrived with a brand new set of students, and a much changed Michael Cardona. I could immediately tell by the way he carried himself and the overall swagger that he was doing things he shouldn’t be doing. His attitude had grown more disrespectful, and it was clear that he no longer cared about school, or about even pretending to care (most students will pretend for your benefit).
He wasn’t scheduled in US history, so I never got the chance to teach him during my second year. I’d see him wandering the halls, usually just long enough to be counted present before he’d dip. I watched as he began to form a little group of students who’d follow and mimic his behaviors. He was popular, but for all the wrong reasons.
Eventually he stopped coming to school entirely. He became a student that was constantly on the absent report. I’d hear the other students talk about him, and that was it.
One day he came to school and stopped by my class. He’d been working on his music (all my students were going to be rappers) and had just produced his first single. He played it for me, and I told him he did a great job. I didn’t tell him that I was disappointed in the subject matter – I didn’t want to stifle his creativity and passion, and besides, me telling him I was disappointed wouldn’t have meant much.
Weeks later he had another video ready to go. I watched it, and was horrified this time at its content. This time I told him that it was foolish to film a video where he’s carrying around a sawed-off shotgun. After all, it’s illegal to possess one; filming a video with one and putting it on YouTube is just lighting a signal fire for the authorities. He played it off, said it was just a prop.
Towards the end of the school year I learned from a student that he and Cardona had been jumped in a deal gone wrong. Their drugs had been stolen, Michael had been pistol-whipped across the head, and the other student had left him.
The next time I saw Cardona, I pulled him out of the hall and into my room. I asked him what he was doing, if he knew where he’d wind up. He laughed and played it off, and showed me the scar above his eye. I asked him if he knew how lucky he was, if he knew what could have happened. I could only hope he could see the genuine sincerity and concern in my eyes. He said it was just a misunderstanding. He told me that he was going to come back to school and finish, get his diploma, walk across the stage. Everything a teacher likes to hear.
I never saw Cardona again. That was 2014. Today is March 12, 2018. Back in January I stumbled across a headline in the local paper.
“Man’s Death Marks Year’s First Homicide in Roanoke.”
It was a picture of Michael. I was numb as I read, but also not surprised. It made me sad that I read the article and wasn’t more emotional. The Teacher side of me wondered what I could have done differently, how I could have helped change him, where I dropped the ball along the way. The rational side of me was saying “He made his choices, and those are the consequences.” As I finished the article I kept wondering when his last name had changed to Santamarina
It’s been on my mind a lot since it happened, and as with most things, writing about it today proved to be very cathartic. How many of Michael’s stories will remain un-wrriten? How many songs unsung? His tale ended at 22. At that age I was graduating college with a whole future ahead of me. What a tragedy. What a senseless waste. How sad to watch the transformation of this young kid into an adolescent into a premature adult. I regret for him the things he will never have a chance to experience, like the beautiful snow that is falling today. And that’s all that remains for Mr. Cardona now, regrets and memories. It’s the only way he can now live on. I wish he could be… or remember when?
None of you knew him, and none of you will have the opportunity to meet him. But today I’m going to share his music with you. It might not be to your taste, but that’s ok. Maybe you’ll listen. Maybe you’ll share. And in that way a small part of Cardona can live on.