Friday, February 21, 2014

Remembering Joaquin...

Today I was going to take on one of the expat blog posts I skipped this week and write about the trait I possess that most equipped me for life abroad. I'd probably write about my general independence or adventurous spirit. Instead, I find myself reflecting on my life as a teacher.

I write this with a heavy heart today, as a "shout-out" (of sorts) to the memory of Joaquin Mendoza Jr. I taught Joaquin when he was a 4th grader in Liberty. Earlier this week, he was killed in a car crash. He was only 20 years old. Many times you hear these stories of kids who had 'everything going for them', only to have their life cut short. Teachers like myself mourn for the future that they will never get to have - no happy marriage, great career, money, happiness, etc.

But that's not necessarily why I mourn for Joaquin, although those things might have still been on the horizon for him.  In truth, he was a troubled kid. He had flunked some classes in jr. high and high school and ended up at the alternative high school. He had gotten into drugs and had even spent some time in jail. I'm not sure if his future was one that many people were optimistic about. Being an optimist, and learning that he was working at a couple of restaurants in the Liberty area since getting out of jail, I'd like to think he was turning the corner and on the verge of figuring things out. Sadly, we no longer get to find out what was to become of Joaquin.

I want to write about the Joaquin I knew over a span of 7 years or so (? hard to keep track of the time/years that go by). I have spent the better part of today thinking about him. While I hadn't seen him in probably 4 or 5 years, I have thought of him more than once during that time. Granted, I think of lots of former students on occasion - when they pop up on my facebook feed, or when I hear word of them through their parents or other friends. But Joaquin was different. I wasn't friends with him on facebook, and the only thing I'd heard about him in the past 4-5 years was that he had been arrested and was in jail. But that doesn't tell all there is to know about Joaquin, certainly not the Joaquin that I knew.

I smile as I sit here and picture his crooked smile and that cute voice he had as a 4th grader. I don't think I'd call it a lisp, but his voice sounded a bit of that of a little boy, and it melted my heart. He was well liked by his classmates, as his natural personality and sense of humor were ones to gravitate to. He wasn't the brightest kid in class, but he was smart enough and he worked at learning and being a good student. It was during his 4th grade year (or just before) that his brother and sister (twins) were born. Sometimes Joaquin didn't do his homework or have his agenda signed- which were whole class expectations. I remember there was one time when it had been a few days in a row of this occurring so I chatted with him to see what was going on. He looked at me with those big brown eyes of his and talked to me about how he was trying to help out at home with the twins, because his mom was really tired and would sleep when he got home. He loved his baby brother and sister and was such a proud big brother.

Joaquin was an at-risk kid from the get-go. I was well aware of this. His dad was in prison during his 4th grade year, and I already knew it was going to be tough for Joaquin to break the cycle and stay on a  positive path. I knew he would be OK while still in elementary school at Doniphan, but I was already worrying about him for what lied beyond.  After 4th grade, I still got to see him every day. He walked down my hallway to get to his 5th grade room. And every day, I would smile when I saw him coming because I knew what else was coming - a hug for his 4th grade teacher. Even as the year wore on and many of the 5th graders became "too cool" to stop and talk to their 4th grade teacher (it happens, I get it - no hurt feelings former students, if you are reading this), not only would Joaquin still stop to say hello, he would always sidle up for a 'side hug'. It was our thing. And even today, I cherish those hugs.

Students often gave teachers one of their school pictures when they were passing them out at school to their friends. I remember I kept some of them beyond the year they were in my class. Joaquin had given me a picture of his from 4th grade and when he was in 5th grade. They stayed taped to the file cabinet behind my desk until I cleaned out my room to move to Morocco. I liked taking a moment to look at those pictures of students and remember what they had brought to my life as a teacher. I also remember looking at Joaquin's pictures with 'a hope and a prayer', as I had started to hear that he was falling into the wrong crowd and wrong decisions in middle school. My fears for him during his last years at Doniphan were becoming reality and it made me sad. Looking back, I wish I'd reached out more and tried to help. No one can know if it would have made a difference long-term, but I wish I'd have tried.

I can't remember exactly when it was that Joaquin and my paths crossed by chance after his elementary years were over. Or maybe it wasn't chance. I have a feeling he came by Doniphan hoping to find me. I think it was when he was still in Jr. High. I was standing outside at the end of the school day helping out with car-rider duty (making sure our students got safely into vehicles for parents to take them home). I looked off to the right and saw a young man walking towards me. I think his hair might have been spiked and colored? If not colored, it was an interesting hairstyle. He was pierced and tattooed, pants hanging down, looking rough/tough - the kind of kid I would usually avoid. And then this young man got closer and I saw that face - the one I had been looking at for so many years on my file cabinet. It was Joaquin. What did I do? I gave him a hug. I saw that smile that I loved from so many years before. And I smiled as well. He stood there with me while I finished up my duty. His mom actually drove by picking up his little brother and sister and asked if he wanted a ride home - he said he would walk home after a bit.  I can picture the whole scenario as if it were yesterday. I probably gave him a hard time about his piercings and tattoos, and I asked him how he was doing. He was so honest and up-front with me. He told me he hadn't been doing so well. That he had failed too many classes and was now having to repeat them to try to get the credits earned to pass (?) grade. I asked him what was going on, and I think I asked him if he had gotten into drinking and/or drugs. He admitted to both, saying he did them to make his problems go away. I distinctly remember looking at him and asking him "Did it work? Did you problems go away?" And he just hung his head and said "No." We talked more about how the problems will still be there, and maybe even multiply. The only way to work through a problem is to face it head on - to go through it. He agreed, and said that he was going to turn things around. We talked a bit more about his family, his little brother and sister, etc. He was the same sweet, kind, respectful boy I taught in 4th grade - but with a different look and now some baggage to add to the mix. We talked a bit more about his school work and I told him that if he ever needed help or just a place to sit and work, he was always welcome to come to my classroom after school. He said that he might do that. I reminded him that he was smart and that he could still accomplish good things if he stayed on the right path. We hugged again, and he eventually went on his way. That was the last time I ever saw him.   Not long after that talk we had outside of Doniphan, his mom had made a point to tell me how much that meant to Joaquin and to her; that I had always been his favorite teacher and that he knew I cared about him.

It was while I was teaching in Morocco that a friend told me he had been arrested and was going to jail. I tried to get in contact with his mother thinking I could maybe be a pen pal (if that would even be possible) while he was incarcerated. But I don't know if she ever got the email, as I never heard anything back. It didn't stop me from thinking of him though, hoping he was OK. Even as recently as a week ago, he popped into my head - making me wonder if he was still in jail or how he was doing. I don't know what made me think of him the times that I did over these past years. It would always be random. But I made a point to stop and go with the thought for a moment whenever they came - always sending a mental message of "I hope you are OK. I care about you."

I knew school and life in general were going to be an uphill battle for Joaquin, but I always held out hope that he would win that war. That his love for his family and their love for him would help him figure things out. It wasn't meant to be in his case.

As teachers, we inevitably have students who stick in our hearts and/or minds more than others. Sometimes it's the really good, smart kids. Sometimes it's those really naughty kids who give you stories (and gray hairs) to tell for years to come. And sometimes it's those kids like Joaquin who you know aren't going to have an easy path in life. I know there are probably a lot of other teachers who had Joaquin in class that might not have good things to say about him. I understand that. But when we get them as children, I believe we see their hearts more clearly. We get to see who they really are. At age 9 or 10, they haven't yet been tainted by the ways of the world, or tempted into the trouble that potentially awaits. We are lucky to get them in their 'purest form' in a sense.

I believed in Joaquin because he had potential and I think he deserved a chance. Whether he knew it or not, I was always in his corner, rooting for him to win. I wish I had those pictures of him that I looked at for so many years so that I could include them here. I know they are tucked away in a folder of other letters, pictures, thank-you cards, etc. from that year's class in a box at my parents' house. I know I'll have a look through them this summer when I'm home.

In thinking about my life as a teacher, I think the trait I possessed that most equipped me to be a teacher is that I care. So many of these kids work their way into my heart, probably more than they even know. They are my 'kids'. Loving them is what we are supposed to do, right?

Rest in Peace, Joaquin. You are gone, but will not be forgotten.   - Ms. Junge


  1. This makes me sad & I didn't know Joaquin but I remember you talking about his cute voice (lisp). You're a special teacher and person and daughter....

  2. Wow... what a story. I am glad to hear that you still cherish those memories. Tuck them away somewhere special so that when you meet another Joaquin, you can do for him what you wished you would have done for your 4th grade student. You are completely right about teaching kids when they are still pure and that is why I wouldnt change teaching 4 and 5 year olds for the world. I love my kids and I know through their hugs and kisses that they love me too. Teaching is not just a job for some of us. We do keep our kids in our hearts and pray that the stresses in life dont wear and tear them down. Either way you are right...keep loving your kids and follow your heart. RIP Joaquin...