"Israel, I've repeated that word at least six times," I said. "You're making me crazy."
For five weeks, I had tried to teach him to read and he'd made no progress.
"Makin' you crazy? How 'bout me? At least you're gettin' paid to do this shit."
"That's true, but I'm not getting paid to bang my head against a wall. Come to think of it, maybe I am."
We both laughed. He was laughing, I'm sure, at the thought of me smashing my head--I laughed because crying was not an option.
Israel was just one of the many students stockpiled in warehouses called Educational Vocational Guidance Centers where I was assigned. If teens hadn't learned to read after a decade in the Chicago school system, and didn't have the courtesy to join the high-school dropout brigade of their own volition, they passed to the Educational Vocational Guidance Center where they got a lethal dose of shame and boredom and finally pulled the plug on themselves. For some reason, Israel refused to jump ship.
Day after day, this Mexican man-child, his legs bouncing like jackhammers, sat beside my desk as we slogged through an out-dated pre-primer designed to teach kindergartners. Who cared that black and brown teen-agers had little in common with Dick and Jane though, in this case, the lack of age-appropriate materials didn't explain, but only complicated, Israel's problems.
Long before Attention Deficit Disorder became the go to diagnosis for kids whose short attention spans and frenetic energy drove teachers crazy, Israel swaggered around the classroom, a roving ambassador of diplomacy, flirting, wisecracking and entertaining those easily amused. As the lone Hispanic in the cadre of black students, he fine-tuned his people skills and charmed even the most hostile competition. He hung out with the "baddest" of the gangbangers, but showed no allegiance to a particular gang, an astounding accomplishment.
Israel threw his lot in with any antisocial scheme which came his way, often cutting classes to head to the near-by Gold Coast to knock hipsters off their $2,000. Colnago bikes. He and Curtiss, his black amigo, would return to class, revved up and sweaty, spouting some cockamamie story about running to Curtiss' crib in the Projects to retrieve a forgotten math book, but the sleek Italian racer, parked in the gym for safe-keeping, announced another mission accomplished.
When cops showed up, Israel was never a suspect because the victim, too shaken to be precise, invariably told the cops he was robbed by a bunch of black kids. Since light brown-skinned Israel flew under the radar, he became the hood's Clarence Darrow, launching preemptive strikes to protect his posse.
"These guys didn't do nothin'. Leave 'em alone. We was all in gym class shootin' hoops."
The gym teacher, who never bothered taking roll-call, dittoed the explanation. Flimsy as it was, the alibi worked--the cops avoided reams of paperwork and the flash mob avoided the lock-up. Everybody was happy except for the injured party, but Israel said that the victim should've been happy too, happy that he didn't get killed.
Though he had just begun to sprout peach fuzz, Israel was a seasoned con man. He could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge and demand a tariff for the privilege of jumping off.
"You read good, Miss S, fast, like you got the words memorized," he'd say, "You're the smartest girl I know."
"Thanks, Israel. Now let's finish this chapter."
"I ain't doin' no more today. My brain's tired."
"Your brain would be fine if you'd use it. Let's finish this page."
"I use it, just not in school. Vowels? Come on, ya gotta be kiddin' me. Who gives a fuck?"
"You're right, Israel, this is a stone joke. I have a job to do, and I can't do it without your cooperation. We're wasting our time," I said, closing the book. "I'm done. You don't want to learn to read."
In a flash, his too-beautiful-to-be-wasted-on-a-boy eyelashes fluttered from a breeze of anger, but then, fast as Michael Jordan when he snatched a rebound, he reclaimed his bravado.
"You know, Miss S, you're smart, but you don't know everything. You don't have no clue about not bein' able to read. If you knew, you'd never say I don't wanna learn how to read."
"Well, what am I supposed to say? You come in here and clown around, you goof off, you entertain the class with your ridiculous behavior, and I'm supposed to think you care?"
"That's because I don't want nobody to think I care," he stage-whispered, the breeze of anger whirling into a tornado. "I don't want nobody to think I can't learn. Let 'em think I don't give a fuck. But you're smart, Miss S, you should know that's bullshit, you gotta' know not bein' able to read is a bitch."
"I can't imagine it," I said. "It's got to be a nightmare."
"A nightmare? Nightmare?  Really, ya think?" he sneered. 

"How'd you like to go out on a date and have to say I'll have whatever she's havin' cause you can't read the menu?  Do you have any idea what I do when I wanna'  take a girl to the movies and I don't know what's playin' cause I can't read the sign over the Rialto?
Well, Teach, let me tell you how I do it. I buy a newspaper and I fold it open to the movie part and I go home and I hope that my brother, Hector, is there so I can throw the paper in his lap. 'Find me a good movie,' I say, as I head to the bathroom.
'Find it yourself, asshole.'
'Come on, bro,' I yell from the bathroom. 'I'm in a hurry, I gotta take a shower. Just tell me what's playin'.'"
"Hector doesn't know you can't read?" I asked in amazement.
"Nobody knows," he seethed. "Nobody except you. Don't you get it?  I'm ashamed. Besides, it's nobody's fuckin' business."
"I had no idea. I'm sorry."
"Sorry? What are you sorry for? It ain't your fault," he said, settling down, as though coughing up his secret had halted the cement mixer in his gut. "You don't have nothin' to be sorry for."
Nothing to be sorry for, I wanted to scream, you've got to be kidding, but instead I said, "Israel, I promise we are going to learn to read if it's the last thing we do." 
"We're going to learn?" he said, flipping back to his cocky persona. "Miss S," he laughed, "you already know how to read. Just teach me, okay?"
"Deal. Tonight I'm going to write a story about this and tomorrow you're going to read it. We'll make a book about you, your stories."
"Cool. We'll call it Israel and Miss S--forget Dick and Jane. Dick. Can you believe that? Dick. I mean, what kind of fuckin' name is Dick?"
"I'm not going there, Israel. Here's a pass for Social Studies. You're late."
"I ain't goin' to Social. I'm meetin' Curtiss."
"Go to Social. Mr. A. will be mad if you ditch."
"Get real. Mr. A don't even know who's in his class plus he hates me. He says Israel is not a person's name--it's the name of a country. 'From now on, I'll call you Jew,' he said. I told him 'Hey, no problema, man, I'll call you Fuckin' Idiot.'"
Over the next couple of months we turned dozens of conversations into stories. We wrote and read about his family--his brother Hector's new car, his sister Rosita's son, getting busted, his father's accident, Lupe's brutal husband and the first time he read a menu. He wrote a poem about his brother Oscar and a song for his girlfriend. We wrote and he read, stumbling and stuttering, but he was reading. "Hey, Miss S," he crowed one day, "do you believe I just read that story about my ma's cooking, and I didn't fuck up one word?"
There was no stopping him now.
When we finished our Israel and Miss S spiral notebook, Israel announced he was going to write his life story. "I'm starting it with the day I was born even though I don't remember that much. I'll get my Ma to help with the details."
Mark Twain said when angry, count to four, when very angry, swear. That Wednesday morning, I was in swear mode. I discovered that some brainiac used a ballpoint pen to draw Gilligan's Island on the long-awaited globe that'd been delivered only two days earlier. I stood there disgusted over the fucked up world I was holding when Curtiss and Leotis charged through the door.
"Miss S, Miss S, Israel shot in the back las' night. He dead."
"Dead? Who? What are you talking about?"
"Israel, Israel Hernandez, he dead. He gone."
"They be washin' his blood right now by the alley on Division Street," Leotis added
I don't remember much more about the day--clusters of kids in the halls, girls crying, boys talking revenge, teachers saying "...what could you was only a matter of time..."
The following day, a note was scotch-taped next to the teachers' sign-in sheet.
Mr. A was signing in too.
"Are you going to the wake?" I asked.
"What the hell for?'" He went over to check his mailbox.
Curtiss was in a reflective mood as we walked over to Israel's house after school.
"Where you think he be now, Miss S?"
"Some place good, I hope. Maybe with his father."
"I'm thinkin' he be in heaven. I'm thinkin' God be sayin', "What the fuck you doin' up here, Lil' Man? Who tol' you you could come here?"
"Yeah, and he probably told God 'You can't tell me where to go,'" I said remembering his arrogant, defiant side.
"Yeah, I bet Jesus jus' be crackin' up."
The smell of flowers and the food heaped on the kitchen table lent a combination funeral parlor/restaurant air to the space. The hushed quiet of the packed basement apartment was interrupted by sobs as friends joined the crowd. All eyes darted to the entryway, the arrival of a white woman and a black teen-ager stirred whispers. I spotted Hector, an Israel clone right down to the thick eyelashes that had always reminded me of awnings.
"I am so sorry, Hector," I said. "This should never have happened."
For once, Curtiss put his swaggering self on hold as he extended his hand. "Israel be my frien'," he said.
Suddenly, from another room, I heard shrieks of La maestra! La maestra! and a little rotund woman, straight out of a Botero painting, shuffled toward me. "La maestra," she kept wailing, as though she was seeing an apparition.
Alternating between sobs and smiles, we spoke through Hector.
"My mother cannot believe a teacher would come to our house," he translated. "She is honored that you come here. She says that Israel told her you were the smartest woman he ever met."
I stood there, unable to cope with the attention and awe, fixated on the drain tile at her feet. "Tell your Mother Israel was a very smart and beautiful boy."
"Si, si," she sobbed. "Muy bonito."
"Tell her he wrote a story about what a good mother she is and he says she's the best cook in the world."
She took my hand and guided me to the wooden coffin which rested on the dining room table and contained the youngest of her children. Standing guard over their baby brother were Lupe, Raul, Juan, Rosita, Oscar, Sergio and Rico. We had written about them all.
Israel lay there, in a sort of mariachi suit--a dark jacket with huge lapels, a narrow string of black leather tied around the collar of a white ruffled-neck shirt, a red satin cummerbund and black pants. Someone had painted a little mustache on his upper lip with eyebrow pencil. His chalky hands held a rosary and his First Communion prayer book. I remembered the story about his First Confession when he'd asked the priest, "So why do I gotta' tell you all this shit?" He was seven years old.
"Let's go, Miss S, come on," I heard Curtiss mumble. "You can't make him come back to school wit us."
I handed Hector an envelope as we exchanged good-bye handshakes. "You know, Miss S, Israel had stopped throwing newspapers at me," he said, the tears slipping past the awnings.
"Dang, Miss S," Curtiss said as we walked back to school, "Israel be pissed off if he see that Maybelline thing they drawed on his face. He be too cool to look the fool. Why they do that?"
"I guess they wanted him to look like a man--maybe it's easier for them to pretend that he wasn't just a kid."
"Well, he be ashamed if he saw hisself."
"I don't think so, Curtiss," I said, "I know only one thing that Israel was ashamed of, and we were working on that."