In the year 1987 a child was born. His birthday was December 25
and this child grew smart, strong and respectful. When he grew bigger he
knew how to multiply. This kid was Miguel. He was born in Ecuador and had
a lot of interest in writing, coloring, multiplying.
Then one day he wanted to try something new. His cousins Manuel and Tito
asked him Hey Junior. Want to play basketball? I said Sure but please try
to call me Miguel. I'm not pushing you, but just try.
We went to play basketball until Splash! Manuel fell in quicksand! He was
drowning. Then Tito fell in. I was the only one left. I couldn't just stand
there and look at them drown. So I grabbed them and we washed our selfs.
Then we headed to go play basketball. We played basketball for 7 days
without coming home but we did buy drinks and food. Then we slept in the
basketball stadium for 7 days.
I asked Miguel, "Were you really born on Christmas Day?"
He was surprised by my question and shook his head no.
"But the Miguel in your story was born on December 25th."
"Oh, that's a mistake," he said as he got out his eraser. "I was born on
That night, as I read through the children's stories, I was pleased Miguel
had written but was disappointed in his story. I didn't find it particularly
imaginative. I wrote in the margin: "Good work! I look forward to hearing
more about Miguel."
It wasn't until later, looking back, that I realized how this story drew
from Miguel's deepest well and showed how much my student, who had cast
himself as savior, wanted to be saved. But I anticipate.
That story was written in the fall of 1996. Miguel's class had 27 students
who were either immigrants or born to recent immigrants from 21 different
countries. Their K-5 public school was large-more than 1,700 students.
I'd come to their classroom through the Teachers and Writers Collaborative,
a New York nonprofit that sends professional writers into city schools. My
residency was scheduled for 10 days, but the children's diversity and
imaginative potential were so exciting, I stayed on through June. I wanted
to write about them.
I was in the class for several days each week, working alongside the
children's teacher, giving lessons to the class, or working with students
in small groups and individually.
I got to know Miguel Guerrero (which is not his real name) well. He was
unusually intelligent, sweet, and well-behaved. He was always respectful but
exasperatingly lazy, hopelessly disorganized, and a little overweight, hard
to get moving.
He loved the spotlight. We often acted out the students' stories in class.
This was, hands down, the children's favorite thing to do. I enjoyed it,
too. It was quick and easy, done on the spot without props or rehearsal,
and showed the children that the more vividly they wrote, the more their
words would come to life. The writers of the stories got to pick the cast,
and Miguel's hand was always in the air, begging to be chosen. It broke my
heart that he was rarely anyone's first choice. Miguel wasn't popular.
One day the district office, more often known for issuing maddening and
confusing mandates, sent the class a Polaroid camera and three packs of
film. The gift was puzzling, for it came without explanation or instruction.
"Any ideas?" the teacher asked me.
We had enough film for teams of students to shoot three photographs each,
illustrating the beginning, middle, and end of a story. This time around
we wanted to create stories, not perform something that had already been
written, so we got a little fancy. The kids dug through a box of costumes
and props, a treasure chest in which they found ideas for scenarios involving
masked robbers, giant birds, knife-wielding murderers, and an Easter bunny.
When the photos were finished, each team passed its pictures to another
team, whose members wrote stories from them. When these stories were read
aloud, Miguel wasn't pleased. "I didn't like the story told from our team's
pictures," he said. Then, softening his remark, he added, "I mean, I liked
it, but it was wrong."
"What do you mean 'wrong'?" I asked.
"Because it didn't tell the story the pictures said."
"There's never just one story," I explained. "Everyone looks at the same
set of pictures and finds something different."
"But the pictures are the pictures," he insisted, "and their story wasn't
the one we told."
"Since you feel so strongly about it," I said, "would you like to write
your own version?"
"Yes, but I want to write it with you."
This was an interesting request, and in the end, it led to many other
one-on-one collaborations with the kids that year. Miguel and I walked into
the hall and sat at a desk pushed up against the wall. We laid the photos
out and studied them.
"Who are these characters?" I asked.
"The girl with the beret is a famous artist named Kioshi," Miguel told me.
"The other is a movie star. That's why she's got a crown."
"OK," I said. "I think we've got enough for a first sentence. How's this,
'Once there was an artist named Kioshi'?"
"Good," said Miguel.
"Now let's show how famous Kioshi is. Finish this sentence: 'Kioshi was such
a famous artist that-'"
Miguel answered without hesitation "-that every single one of her drawings
were put in a gold frame and hung in the biggest and most important gallery
in the museum."
I looked at him, astonished and impressed. "You're good at this," I told
him. As I wrote down his words, Miguel leaned in close to watch.
"Mr. Swope," he said. "You forgot to write 'and most important' gallery."
"Sorry," I said, making the correction. "What's next?"
"One day, Kioshi got bored with drawing. She said: 'If I ever even see
another piece of drawing paper, I'll scream. I need a break.'"
"Good," I said.
"What are those?" he asked, pointing at the paper.
"Quotation marks," I answered. "You use them to show the words a character
is saying out loud."
"Cool!" said Miguel.
"What happens next?" I asked.
"So she got her special yellow feather-"
"From a magical bird," he said. "And then she went to play with her best
friend, the movie star, Estrella del Mundo—that's Spanish for 'star of
the world'—and she had the same feather as Kioshi."
"The exact same feather?" "Not the same. Look at the picture! Hers was red."
"I see. How did Estrella del Mundo get her feather?"
Miguel paused. His eyes turned inward, looking for the answer. Then he
looked at me again and said, "One day, Estrella del Mundo was watching one
of her movies, and the bird flew out of the screen and landed on top of
Estrella del Mundo's crown."
"So when Kioshi came to play, Estrella del Mundo was so happy, she couldn't
"Slow down. I can't write that fast."
But Miguel was on a roll. He spoke emphatically, like an orator, gesturing
with both hands. "So to make Estrella del Mundo feel better, Kioshi said,
'Hey, tickle me!' Then Estrella del Mundo tickled Kioshi until Kioshi
laughed. Then Kioshi said, 'Now it's my turn to tickle you.' And all that
tickling made them exhausted and hungry, so they ordered in food."
"No, cold lemonade and chocolate chip cookies. When they were finished
eating, they tickled each other again, and then they laughed until they
were 99 years old."
"And then they died."
"Not really," said Miguel. "They died laughing."
That made me laugh, and I said, "That's perfect."
We set about editing the story, moving sentences, changing verbs, adding
details. Miguel paid close attention. When I handed him the finished text,
he stared at it, amazed. "This is a great story," he declared.
Miguel was eager to read his story to the class. He stood at the front of
the room, holding the pages in both hands. As he read, his classmates
laughed along, his story tickling them like feathers. When he finished,
everyone applauded, and Miguel rocked from foot to foot, smiling shyly.
He declared that day that he would be a writer, and as the class was
packing up, the school day over, he threw his arms around my waist. I
tensed, lifting my hands in the air instinctively; it's dangerous for a
teacher, especially a male teacher, to hug a child. Miguel looked up at
me with happy eyes and said in a babyish voice: "Be my Papi. Papi!"
"I'm not your father, Miguel."
"Papi! Be my Papi!"
I gently pried him loose, saying, "I'll be your teacher and your friend,
but I can't be your Papi."
Miguel spoke lovingly of his father, a man I never really got to know
because he rarely visited the school, and anyway we didn't speak each
other's language. My sense of him was shadowy, spun from things my student
said, but I was never sure what to believe: a smart man, a great athlete,
a strict man, a man who read the Bible and who'd been married once before,
in Ecuador, where he had left behind two daughters years ago and come to
the United States, now working as a handyman but often unemployed because
his boss had been unfair, or because he'd hurt his knee, or because he was
too busy volunteering for the church, but always something, always a good
reason, just like all the reasons Miguel had when he came in without his
homework, which was often.
I got to know his mother better. Mrs. Guerrero was frequently in school
and spoke English. She adored her eldest son and once confessed she babied
him, a charge I easily believed. I first met her at a parent-teacher
conference. She'd made a vivid impression. Intelligent and young, in her
20s, Mrs. Guerrero was overweight but delicate, with a broad, round face
and haunted eyes. She wore no makeup and a simple dress. Her dark brown
hair was finely textured and strikingly long, below her waist and hanging
free, no ribbon or barrette holding it in place.
She was so respectful of me as a teacher that I was embarrassed. She told
me: "I want Miguel to have what I didn't have. I want to be proud of him.
I tell him I want him to be intelligent, to go to college before he gets
married. I say to him, 'I want you to be in the math bee and the spelling
bee. I want you to be in everything.' He tells me, 'Mom, you're pushing me
too hard.' "
I liked her immediately.
Miguel lived two blocks from school in an apartment building on a run-down
block where occasional crack vials and beer bottles littered the gutter.
One day I went to visit. The elevator wasn't working, so I walked up the
stairs. The hallways were clean but dreary—institutional tile and
flickering fluorescent lights. The Guerreros' home was modest and tidy,
two small rooms for four boys and two adults. Miguel and his younger
brothers shared the bedroom; the parents slept behind a floral sheet that
divided the narrow living room.
Mr. Guerrero greeted me politely and offered me a folding chair at their
dinner table, which doubled as a desk. Miguel sat opposite. He was happy
to have me in his home, but both of us felt awkward. His little brothers
-ages 4, 2, and less than 1-were high-spirited and uninhibited, climbing
all over me until Mr. Guerrero, who was playful with his sons, took them
to the bedroom so Miguel, his mother, and I could talk.
As we spoke, Mrs. Guerrero cooked rice and beans. I asked her how she'd
ended up in the United States. She told me that when she was 2, her mother
left her behind in Ecuador and emigrated to New York City. Five years later,
when Mrs. Guerrero was 7, she was brought to the city to live in a basement
apartment with a mother she hardly knew, a new stepfather, and six siblings.
She was desperately unhappy. She had no friends, knew no English, and did
poorly in school. "I didn't have what Miguel has," Mrs. Guerrero said,
putting her arm around her son. "I didn't have no mother to sit with me and
encourage and to help me, and so that's why I don't recall nothing that I
learned." Then she smiled, trying to be positive, and said, "But now I'm
learning a lot with Junior, 'cause I help him with his homework."
Miguel nodded, pleased with himself.
Then Mrs. Guerrero told me that when she was in 10th grade, her stepfather
came home drunk at 2 a.m., bringing a fellow worker with him. "I was
watching TV, laying on the floor," she recalled. "And when I saw my
stepfather with somebody else, I ran inside the room because I was in my
undergown. And my stepfather goes to me, 'Oh, sweetheart, come out in the
living room.' And I go, 'No, I don't wanna go.' 'Well, come on, I brought
somebody for you to meet.' And I go, 'I don't wanna meet nobody!' So my
mother came, and she told me the same thing, to come in." In the end, she
did return to the living room, and so began a courtship. "Then everything
else happened," Mrs. Guerrero added, "and we had to get married."
Miguel said, "Mom, you picked the right man."
Because she was pregnant, Mrs. Guerrero had to leave school. The marriage
got off to a rocky start, and before Miguel was a year old, the fights had
gotten physical. Mrs. Guerrero was about to file for divorce when a friend
who'd heard of their trouble paid a visit. "He preached the word of God to
us," Mrs. Guerrero said. "And that day I accepted Jesus Christ as my savior,
and my husband reconciled to Jesus, too, and since then, we have been under
God's law. Seven years now." She smiled to show me what a miracle it was.
They'd become Pentecostals, which, Mrs. Guerrero explained, was why she
didn't wear makeup or cut her hair. At the time, I only knew that
Pentecostals were called "Holy Rollers" and spoke in tongues, practicing an
American version of Christianity as exotic and fascinating to me as if I'd
come across it in a far-off corner of a distant country.
The variety of religions represented at Miguel's school was impressive.
In his class alone, the students were Bahai, Buddhist, Catholic, Hindu,
Muslim, Presbyterian, Sikh, and Taoist. I, myself, am agnostic, despite
the fact that my parents tried to lead me in another direction. While I
was growing up, they took me to church each Sunday, but I found the
sermons dull and always fell asleep. I could see, however, how the passion
of a Pentecostal service might excite a child. Still, I was shocked to
learn that Miguel had been preaching in church since the age of 4. His
mother said, "Last week he preached, and everybody cried because the Holy
Spirit got him. Everybody felt, like, goose bumps, chills."
Miguel tried not to smile, but he was proud. He told me: "Pentecostals have
to be fishers of men. We have to preach the word of God."
I asked him what he'd told the congregation.
"I said: 'I thank God because I didn't want to preach today, but my father
pushed me, and if it wasn't because of my father, I wouldn't be here
preaching because that's what Satan wants. He doesn't want me to preach!'"
I remember thinking what an extraordinary experience this was for a child,
especially for one who loved an audience, like Miguel.
He went off to do his homework, and I mentioned to his mother my concern
about his lack of friends. Her answer sent a chill down my spine. She said:
"I tell my son, 'The only friends that you have is your father, your mother,
God, and your brothers. 'Cause the other people, you may think they're your
friend, but one day they'll get you in trouble.' So I go, 'You don't have no
That fall, the class performed Peter Pan, that great love song to the Anglo-
Saxon ideal of childhood and imagination. The production was a big deal,
done in the auditorium with sets and costumes and in front of an audience
of several hundred children, teachers, and parents.
Miguel had asked for and received the title role, the boy who won't grow
up. He was thrilled to be the star and made a confident if unlikely Peter
Pan, his performance a little lumbering and leaden, not a lot of boyish
sprightliness. But still, he knew his lines, his voice projected loud and
clear, and we were proud of him.
My favorite part of his performance took place during the scene in which
the fairy Tinkerbell lay dying. Because the only thing that can save her is
the knowledge that boys and girls believe in fairies, Miguel turned to the
audience and, like the preacher that he was, begged his fellow students to
clap their hands and shout: "We do! We do believe!" And, sure enough,
because they did, Tinkerbell regained her strength and was healed—a
miracle made possible by faith in the imagination.
The production was a great success, and after it was over parents hugged
their children, and photographs were taken. As the last of the guests were
leaving, Miguel and I helped put away the cardboard pirate ship.
"Were your parents proud of you?" I asked.
He shook his head. "They said I'd be punished."
"Because I was in the play."
I was astonished. "What's wrong with that?"
"Fairies are against my religion," he said.
I wanted to cry, "But that's ridiculous!" Instead, I stretched the truth and
said, "Well, I thought you were great!"
At Christmastime, I gave my students words for gifts, words I'd written in
calligraphy on cards, big fancy words the children didn't know. Miguel got
"thespian" and "troglodyte" and "stalwart." Stalwart was the one that stuck,
the adjective he'd later use for heroes in his stories.
It's not surprising that "teach" and "preach" come from the same root. In a
sense, I am a preacher in the classroom, my gospel, the Imagination. From
my pulpit at the blackboard I charge my congregation: "Be brave! Go wild!
Take chances!" I issue commandments, though I never call them that. "No
Ninjas and no Freddy Krueger!" I intone. "Nix to Pokémon! And if you
must have slashing eyeball aliens, please make up your own!"
Miguel was an eager disciple, more willing than most children to take
chances in his writing and to run with offbeat ideas. There were, however,
assignments he was not allowed to do. When we studied myths, Miguel could
not participate, telling me they were "stories from the devil." This wasn't
such an awful loss, I thought, for in their place Miguel was learning all
the Bible's wise, strange, and marvelous stories—a powerful foundation
for any artist.
Then one day I wrote the word "obsession" on the board, and for homework I
told the kids to create a character who is obsessed with something. "The
obsession could be ice cream or basketball or books," I said, "but whatever
the obsession is, it must be reflected in every aspect of your character's
life—their home, their clothes, their job, everything." The other
children had lots of fun and wrote lively stories, but Miguel returned to
class without his homework. His mother told me why: Anyone obsessed is in
"I see," I said. "Then what if his character is just very, very interested
"Oh, yes," Mrs. Guerrero said, relieved. "He could do that."
That spring, the class performed a folk dance at the Multicultural Festival,
an all-day extravaganza thrown by the school for the community. It was a
wonderful event. The children brought in food from their homelands, dressed
in native clothing, and marched in a parade, cheered on by bearded fathers
in turbans, Chinese grandmas in Mao jackets, high-heeled Dominican women
with painted nails, Indian mothers wearing saris, and Cuban uncles in
baseball caps. We were all excited when the big day came, and I was crushed
to see Miguel was absent. Didn't he get any breaks?
The next day I told him I hoped he was feeling better, and he told me he
hadn't been sick. "I couldn't come to school because dancing is against my
religion," he said.
"You're kidding," I said. "Why is dancing bad?"
"In my religion," he explained, "there is a good way to dance, when you
got the feeling of the Holy Spirit and your eyes are always closed, and
you're waving your hands. But other dancing, you're dancing to the devil,
and then later when you die he's gonna tell you: 'You had fun dancing for
me on earth. Now, dance for me here in the fire!' "
"But you practiced the dance with your classmates."
He nodded, saying: "I was ashamed of myself. I should have just sat down
and remembered that I can't do this. But I felt bad 'cause it's, like, fun,
'cause there is almost nothing that is good in this world, almost nothing.
So sometimes I feel that my religion is bad, 'cause it makes me mad that
other religions, they can play with Batman, they can play with Power
Rangers, and all this stuff."
I met with Miguel often, more than with most other kids. I felt sorry
for him, to be sure, but I also enjoyed our conferences. In spite of his
troubles, he was always lively, full of interesting information about
animals he'd seen in documentaries and eager to tell bad jokes so I would
roll my eyes and groan. I pushed him to write a lot, hoping that Miguel's
imagination might help him in his struggles with his faith. I also hoped
that writing stories might be a way for him to have some fun.
As time went on, however, his narratives grew long and rambling, a mess of
threads so tangled I couldn't find a simple plot, as if his imagination
were a panicked rabbit darting through the woods, at every turn encountering
danger, then dashing off another way. During conferences, I'd try to pin him
down, but that would only make things worse. He'd babble on and on until I'd
bury my head in my hands and beg for mercy. "Stop, Miguel, please! Cut to
the chase!" And then he'd giggle. It was a joke between us.
From the beginning, saviors often appeared in Miguel's stories, but as
winter melted into spring, his saviors turned violent. In one story, an evil
man named Reymundo lived in a cave because "he felt like nobody liked him
anymore, so he wanted to get out of the world and make everybody pay, so he
got mean." Reymundo lured people into his cave with promises of riches, then
locked them up in a box that "could contain the whole world."
Once, while Reymundo was away, a "stalwart boy" found the box, broke the
golden chains that bound it, and freed "everyone in the world." When
Reymundo returned, there was a fight: "The boy hit Reymundo in the nose,
and he started bleeding, and then he punched him again, and his whole head
like burst up, and his brain fell out."
This story echoed a frightening description Miguel had given me of hell,
saying: "God right now he's videotaping what I'm saying to you, so when
it's time at the great tribulation, when God is showing us all our movies,
first he'll show the good part, then the bad part. While that's happening,
the devil gets prepared with his monsters to come out, 'cause the monsters
are locked up. They're, like, chained. And I've heard that in the Bible it
says the monsters of the devil's gonna scratch your face and cut your head
off and make you into a monster, and you're not gonna ever die when they
try to eat you."
"Who goes to heaven?"
"Most people that die go to hell 'cause there's tons and tons of Muslims,
Catholics, and other stuff," Miguel said, "but there's only a few
Christians in the world."
"Do you ever preach to your classmates?" I asked.
He looked down, ashamed, and said, "I try, but there's a fear of God that
comes out from hell and says, like, 'Don't do it!'"
Preaching in church, to the converted, is one thing. Preaching in school,
to other kids, who would be sure to tease you, required a level of courage
Miguel couldn't muster.
Life, imagination, religion, and popular culture sometimes mixed together
in his mind. Once, his mother told me she was concerned because Miguel said
he'd been getting into fistfights in the lunchroom, especially with Syed.
This was a surprise. Like Miguel, Syed was sweet and well-behaved, a model
kid. When I asked Miguel what happened, he said it wasn't his fault; Syed
threw the first punch, but he'd fought back, the way his father taught him,
the way that God would want. Then he added: "And I saw this movie Back to
the Future. I saw this kid when he was in a fight, and so I hit Syed back,
like, POW! And he started bleeding."
I didn't believe him. If they'd used fists and Syed had been injured, his
teacher would have known, and his parents would have been summoned to
school. In fact, Miguel was less macho, less action-hero glorious, less
warrior of God than he imagined himself to be.
On the last day of school, I borrowed an office for my goodbye conferences.
When it was Miguel's turn, he flew down the hall, arriving at my door
winded and happy. He'd brought a little gift for me, a thank-you from his
mother with a card that said, "God bless you!"
Not long before, I'd given all my students a gift, a copy of a picture book
I'd written called The Araboolies of Liberty Street, and Miguel had something
to say about it. "My mom read your book," he told me. "She said: 'It's good
but your father's gonna be mad if he sees that book. You hide it. I think
he's going to tear it apart.' So I prayed to God, and then my dad said I
could keep it, but with God's permission. He said, 'Mr. Swope is not the
boss of God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit.'"
This confused me. The Araboolies of Liberty Street is about a fun-loving
immigrant family whose skin comes in all the colors of the rainbow and
changes hue daily. I asked Miguel why it was bad. He said: "Stories are bad
if you put witches or fairy godmothers, magic, in it 'cause when Jesus
healed the sick, raised Lazarus from the dead, let Pedro go through the
water without drowning, that wasn't magic, that was a miracle. So The
Araboolies of Liberty Street is only half bad because it's just imaginative,
not like with magic."
I was shocked to think my book could be considered sinful. What craziness
was this? By this standard, all the stories I had helped Miguel write were
"half bad" or worse, for some had magic. Did this mean that, somewhere in
his mind, he felt I had been leading him astray?
"The other night I had a dream," he said. "And in the dream I lost my
father. Then I saw two people that looked like my father, and I said:
'Whoa! Oh, my God! Who am I going to pick? Who am I going to pick? Who's
my father?' One man, he had chocolate, right? Hershey's. The other one had
an ice cream cone, like strawberry. So I went to that man that had
chocolate, and he said: 'Oh, you think I'm your father? Well, bye-bye!' He
was tricking me! And so I went to the other man, and he said: 'Why didn't
you come to me, son? I'm your real father.' But I didn't know!"
Miguel was sitting on his hands and rocking. He was looking at me, but he
was lost in his dream. "I wanted to take that dream out of my mind," he
said. "I didn't want to feel the continue of my dream. So I said a prayer,
but as I was trying to say it, the devil was saying these words like,
What an impossible choice, the man with chocolate or the man with ice
cream, as difficult as choosing between the heart's desire and salvation,
between imaginative writing and the word of God, between a teacher and a
father. Poor Miguel, is it possible I'd done more harm than good?
"Finally, I said the prayer," Miguel continued. "And then I was with God,
and I saw everybody going to heaven, everybody that I didn't even know was
going to go to heaven, like my teachers and all this stuff."
I couldn't tell if he had actually dreamed this happy ending or had made it
up right then and there. When he tried to sum things up, he got confused
and stumbled on his words until he found familiar ground and ended with a
sermon, saying, "And I really do think that it's a proper belief to be a
Pentecostal 'cause that way Jesus and all the other angels are with you."
This conclusion felt pat, regurgitated. But what else could he say? The
only way Miguel's happy ending could come true, the only way his teachers
could be with him in heaven was for them to say: "We do! We do believe!"
But he and I knew that wouldn't happen. I was touched, however, that he had
tried, that he had preached to me.
It was time for our conference to end. There were other students I had to
see. Miguel smiled and wiped his nose with his forearm. I thanked him for
sharing his dream and for the stories he had written and for being a great
kid. I told him he was stalwart. Then I shook his hand and said goodbye.
Sam Swope is a writer-in-residence in New York City public
schools. His most recent picture book for children is Gotta Go! Gotta Go!
©Copyright 2001, Editorial Projects in Education Vol. 12; number 08;
Page last updated/revised 111401
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