My close friend and colleague, Dr. John Rodriguez, died this week. He will be so dearly missed. R.I.P., JRez!
I met John, who I more affectionately called JRez, in my first year of teaching college composition in the Boogie Down Bronx, New York where John was born and raised, the birthplace he never betrayed. In those years, he was an undergraduate student who worked as my Teaching Assistant. When he wasn’t doing that, he was fulfilling the requirements of his English major, going back and forth to the homeless shelter where he lived, hanging out with his daughter, writing and performing poetry, and teaching poetry classes at a local community center where I often visited with him. After he graduated, I got the chance to serve on his dissertation committee, a study looking at the literacies of Bronx Puerto Rican teens in the context of community institutions and teen poetry. The young people were right there at the defense too where, and as John and I would laugh for years… it was the day that THAT university saw the most Puerto Ricans ever in its hallways!
It is difficult to imagine teaching in New York City knowing John is no longer here. Such a devastating loss!
Every fall, John wrote a poem about beginning the fall school year. Here is the last one he sent me called AT MY BEST. I will treasure it and all of the poems he wrote and the difference he made in this world:
At My Best
August is the cruelest month: never enough daylight, too much
heat, no holidays and nothing matters except September’s
dawning responsibilities, but the August of 1994 I was Holden
Caulfield, summer camp senior counselor for the junior trail
blazers, black and brown children two weeks shy of first, second,
and third grade. Nothing is as positive, as motivating a force within
one’s life as a schoolbus full of kids singing along to the local
radio station blazing hip hop and R&B. (Imagine this cherubic
chorus riding upstate to Ini Kamoze’s “Here Comes the Hotstepper”
[“Muuur-derah!”]) My workday is filled with hazards like chocolate
melted sticky swimtrunk pockets, insistent sunburn, and the assorted
rah rah of parental unsupervision, but those bus rides back from
upstate water parks and pools were my favorite times working.
Have you ever ridden in a cheesebus with ashy children asleep
against you, staring at sudden trees–more numerous than project
windows–blurring along the highways like confusion giving way
to doubt, the heady smell of dried chlorine and musty towels
lulling you into the soft timbre of a Midwest falsetto? Tell me
what it is to fall in love with a lightskin girl covering the Isley
Brothers. I was not two weeks into 21 years old, I had yet
to wear a box cutter in my fifth pocket, or see a semiautomatic
aimed at my center mass, to feel its dumbness against my spine.
My life was uncertain, save for its unlikely length under my control,
like the pilot who falls short of what he says, what he says
he’s all about, all about. All my homeboys were still alive, just
like Aaliyah Dana Haughton, not yet an angel of the cruelest August,
begging a boy who may not be in the mood to learn what he thinks
he knows, to look beyond his world and try to find a place for her.