My arms were sore. I squeezed past the bodies of half asleep commuters blocking the subway door. It was my first day teaching at a charter school in Chicago’s West Garfield neighborhood.
I balanced my laptop bag over my right arm, clasping the camera bag with my left hand and ran down the stairs onto the busy street. I walked past empty lots, an abandoned building, a man sweeping the sidewalk, and a mother running to catch the CTA bus with her two kids in tow.
A woman whistled from across the street. I looked up, she was walking out of the alley as a man grabbed her waist and she shrugged him off. She laughed, pulling up the straps of her pink tank top and straightening her skirt. I watched her as she walked the street, pulling up her short black skirt as she passed two men standing at the bus stop. She turned and laughed at them, motioning for them to follow her.
She whistled again, waving at a man walking beside me. She crossed the street, as a car pulled up. An old man rolled down his window and whistled at her as she leaned against the door.
I walked faster, struggling to carry my laptop, the camera and tripod. I was two blocks from the school when the car pulled away, down an alley with her in it.
My classroom walls were filled with illustrations of previous presidents. Students filled the room and I scrambled to review my lesson plan before the first period started.
I looked at my roster of students and called out their names before starting class with an icebreaker. Students trickled in fifteen-thirty minutes late.
“Why are you late?” I asked as the room filled with laughter after each outrageous excuse.
During the icebreaker I learned about my students’ favorite shows and their desire to make music videos.
“Why are you late?” I asked as I wrote the homework on the board, noticing a figure enter the class from the corner of my eye.
“She’s been working!” A student yelled, the classroom erupting in laughter.
I turned around, looking down at the pink top, the black skirt and flats.
I realized the woman was just a teenager. A teenager that would spend the year in and out of class. That would hide many mornings as I saw her working the streets. A teenager that was often forced to leave the classroom because her clothes were inappropriate or her attitude disruptive.
This week I was reminded of this teenager because of the recently released video of the traumatic arrest by Officer Ben Fields of a teenage girl at Spring Valley High School. I was reminded of how we criminalize those that we are not willing to help. How we as a society refuse to accept responsibility for our teenagers. How we take the easy route when it comes to disciplining our youth.
Much like the teenager from Spring Valley High School, my student was dealing with problems outside of the classroom. But, I knew that the men that used her were preying on her weakness.
There were many times that my student was removed from class, and as a result she barely came. As someone that lacked stability at home, she also lacked stability at school.
I wondered how we could justify removing a student from class when this was her only escape.
Today I am left asking our society, “Why are you late?”