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Nick Ross


Photo of reading at celebrationSquare Peg

“Isidro Figueroa drew a picture of a naked woman with her legs spread open, defecating on people below her.” This was how the school’s 10th grade English teacher, Mrs. Anderson, greeted me as I walked into work early one morning. She went on to explain, “It’s as if he’s saying, ‘I’m shitting all over this assignment.’” My eyes rolled back in my head, and I let out a defeated sigh. I remembered the cup of coffee I’d meant to take with me. By now it’d be lukewarm, idling on the counter in the kitchen. “Can you be at a meeting with Isidro, his mom, and me later today so we can talk about it?” she asked. “I think it would help to have a male perspective.” And so it has gone for Isidro, the school staff, and me this year. Seven months into my work with him as a mentor and school counselor, Isidro is failing three core classes, missing more of our meetings than he attends, and drawing the frequent ire of his teachers.

Mrs. Anderson gave me a copy of the picture in question. The illustration was part of a visual literacy assignment. Each student was responsible for creating a series of images that explained their perspective on the media’s relationship with the public. When I took the picture back to my office, I noticed some details Mrs. Anderson had left out of her initial description. There was indeed a naked woman with her legs spread open, defecating on the word “people” clearly written out below. The word “media” was adjacent the woman, with an arrow pointing her way. Isidro’s picture lacked tact and was not school appropriate. But it did forcefully communicate his perception of the media’s relationship with the public. In that respect it fulfilled the purpose of the assignment.

At the end of the school day, Isidro, his mother, Mrs. Anderson, and I convened in my office. Mrs. Anderson began the meeting by presenting Mrs. Figueroa with the picture in question. With me serving as translator, she gave some context to it and explained that this was inappropriate for school. She went on to ask Isidro whether or not he agreed with her assessment.  Isidro, focused intently on his cell phone, didn’t respond. Mrs. Anderson, leaning and lowering in toward Isidro in an attempt to enter his view plane, asked him to put the phone away, sit up, and look at her when she was speaking. His mom echoed those sentiments in Spanish. After an awkward pause Isidro slowly turned off his phone and put it in his pocket. His gaze remained fixed on his lap, staring into the void where his phone had been a moment ago. Mrs. Anderson looked to his mother for support. Mrs. Figueroa shrugged. Losing patience, Mrs. Anderson turned to me. This was when I was to share my male perspective, but what was that? All I could think was that Isidro should’ve had the woman in his image reading a novel while she defaced the public. Maybe Catcher in the Rye. Perhaps his English teacher would’ve found some silver lining in such a scholarly detail. But I said nothing. No relief in sight, Mrs. Anderson tersely thanked Isidro's mother for coming and left the office.

With only Isidro, Mrs. Figueroa, and me in the room, I hoped he would be more receptive to conversation. I asked if he could commit to respecting Mrs. Anderson, noting that would not mean he’d have to like her. When he said he couldn’t, I turned to his mother. “He doesn’t like that teacher,” she explained in Spanish, trailing off as if to indicate it was a lost cause. When I lowered my head, she went on, “He’s a good son. He goes to school, comes home for dinner when I ask him to, helps me around the house. A good son.” Like Mrs. Anderson, I was left not knowing where else to go. I thanked her for coming in, high fived with Isidro, and told him I’d see him at our next appointment. Alone in my office, I looked at Isidro’s drawing on top of a pile of paperwork I still had to complete that night, then walked out to get a cup of coffee from the 7-Elevan adjacent to school.

The following week Isidro made his lunchtime appointment with me, helped by my promise to buy him orange chicken from Panda Express. While he ate, I asked him to tell me his story, how he got to where he was that day. I had gleaned bits and pieces of his background throughout my time working with him, but this would be the first time I heard it directly from him.

As he told it, Isidro was born in Portland, Oregon, to a family of two older brothers, three younger sisters, and parents who were still married but not living together. A few years back, his father went to prison. Isidro claimed not to know the exact reason for this, or how long his father would be away. He suspected it had something to do with dealing drugs or guns, as he heard his uncles partook in the former and remembered his father’s collection of the latter. His oldest brother took Isidro under his wing and introduced him to the North Portland gang of which he was a member. The violent side of the lifestyle did not sit well with Isidro; “I’m peaceful—kinda hippy like that,” he said with a grin. He was attracted to one aspect of gang life: graffiti writing. Armed with a backpack full of Sharpies and paint markers, Isidro began developing his craft on the walls and buildings of the city. “I get so juiced,” he explained, “bombing and running, with cops on us. It’s what I do best.” Moving from middle school into high school, a hobby became a passion, and a passion became an identity. “I’m a writer,” Isidro stated frankly, referring to his graffiti works, not school essays.

With his story in mind, I asked Isidro how his identity fit into school. “It doesn’t. I’m bored,” adding for emphasis, “ALL… THE… TIME.” Ironically, he said he came to school because his oldest brother—a high school dropout—told him to. I wondered aloud why his brother would want him at school. Isidro paused to think for a moment, then dismissed my question with the wave of his hand, his answer disappearing down his throat like so much orange chicken. As a result of his boredom, he was physically present in class, but mentally absent. I’d sat in on a few of them. Isidro drew intently throughout, adding to an already impressive sketchbook of graffiti designs. When I pointed out to him that engaging in school would allow him to pursue his goals later on in life, he bristled at the notion. Isidro’s dream was to become a professional graffiti artist. His idol was Mr. Cartoon, a successful graffiti artist whose illustrations are featured in advertisements for Nike, Toyota, and T-Mobile, as well as in tattoos on the skins of many celebrities. Mr. Cartoon, as Isidro noted, did not do well in school. Isidro saw himself following a similar, albeit vague, path to success. I looked at the clock and realized I’d have Isidro back to school late for his English class. Perfect.

And so this is where we found ourselves, me driving the car wondering what to do next, and Isidro picking chicken out from his teeth with a sharp pencil. I knew he needed to reengage in school. But engagement is a street that runs both ways. Isidro’s school had to reengage in him. He would be best served by an academic institution that held values similar to his own. His illustration of the media’s relationship with the public would be taken up in an earnest discussion at such a school, not dismissed at face value like it was in Mrs. Anderson’s class. Provocative pieces like Isidro’s, those that drew on a rich history of graffiti aesthetics, would not only be considered school appropriate, but school essential. The curriculum he needed was one that, like himself, was centered around creative expression. But where was this school? Not in North Portland. While these thoughts ran through my mind, I was reminded of Mrs. Anderson's comment that “It’s as if he’s saying, ‘I’m shitting all over this assignment.’” As it stood at that moment, Isidro identified more with the “people” in his picture, his school passing on him, his identity, and his dreams.