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A Thin Line and an Outstretched Hand

Sandy Merz Current Affairs, Life in the Classroom, Social Issues

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The hit series The Wire featured an addict and confidential informant named Bubbles. In an early episode, Detective Jimmy McNulty needs to meet with Bubbles but is running late for his own kid’s soccer game. He ends up driving Bubbles through his upper middle class neighborhood where they watch the game. Passing gabled roofs and immaculate lawns, Bubbles makes the required Leave it to Beaver crack. Later, when McNulty drops him off on a dark tenament-lined street, Bubbles turns to McNulty and says, “Thin line between heaven and here.”

The day after I watched that episode I was at a stop sign a couple of blocks from school. A homeless guy crossed in front of me. The lesson was not lost: But for maybe just one different decision or lucky break, he could be the one living a largely happy and meaningful life, and I could be the one stinking of urine,  pushing a stolen shopping cart full of rags to nowhere.

This year, I usually arrive at work a couple of hours before school starts. After ninety minutes working in my room, I take a break and go outside to watch our students. My favorite place to hang out is at the gate where parents drop off their children. I’ve met quite a few parents that way, and it’s pleasant to start school in a neutral space where friendliness is the norm. An added bonus is talking with Monica Kaminski, our restorative practices expert, who is always there greeting everyone. Whenever we talk, she helps me become a better teacher by offering ideas on how to rebuild broken relationships with students. Sometimes, she describes the hurricane of children suffering extreme trauma that daily surges through her office. Her value to the school and these poor souls is immeasurable.

Across the street is Amory Park. Every morning a group of homeless folks waits for the white van that brings breakfast, perhaps their only meal of the day. Before they eat, they circle up and say a prayer. I look at our students and at the homeless, think about choices, luck, and thin lines, and say a prayer of my own.

I’ll never know who among my students will end up on the sad side of the line. For some it seems written into their life script. One morning a mother dropped off her son, who gets into a lot of serious trouble and for whom the label “High Risk” is pathetically inadequate. She was chewing him out so loud I could hear it thirty feet away, and I won’t protect your sensibilities with asterisks or pound signs: “You’re fucked up!” Three, four, five times and more, she yelled. Each time louder than the last.

I know her story, and I can’t pass judgment.

I just wish I could resist the hopelessness I feel for children and parents who, as Jeremiah laments, have been deprived of peace and trampled into the dust. The prophet finds hope in the Lord, and normally I do, too, but confess my faith fell short the day I saw and heard what I saw and heard.

What did lift me up came another day from another extremely high-risk student and the Carl Sandburg poem, Choose:

The single clenched fist lifted and ready,

Or the open asking hand held out and waiting.


For we meet by one or the other.

The student came in tardy that day, as usual, but instead of disrupting the class, as usual, he walked behind my desk and dropped a note on my laptop. He then sat in silence for the rest of the period. Here’s what he wrote, without editing:

Dear Mr. Merz

            Mr. Merz me and you have had a past you know me very well and to be real your a pretty cool teacher you know but as coming from me I am gonna improve in your class ok


(Name Withheld)

The past he refers to includes many metaphorically clenched fists lifted and ready. But right now he’s the one with the open hand reaching out of the dust and seeking peace – and reaching as well, no doubt, for something solid to grasp onto as he fights against the unrelenting pull of the heavenless side of the thin line.

Later, I told Ms. Kaminski about the note, and she said that on his own initiative he had written all his teachers.

I hope enough reach back to make the difference.


I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after twenty-nine years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. I’ve been teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career. I also sponsored my school’s MESA program, which prepares members to enter college and major in a STEM career, for twenty-one years. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona and the Center for Teaching Quality, serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team, and serving on my school’s literacy council and as my school’s association representative. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education.

  • Austine Etcheverry

    Thank you! Your words are powerful and helped me to sit back and reflect on why as teachers what we do is so critically important.

    • Sandy Merz

      Thank you very much for this comment.

  • Mrs_Buzan

    This testimony hit me in the heart. The beauty of Student’s letter is that it’s possibly a product of all of the careful watching eyes on the sides– the ones in the classrooms and the ones on the curb. Hopefully he didn’t hear his parent’s screamed comment, but it seems he certainly heard your more tacit support. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Sandy Merz

      Thanks for this. It’s actually two different students. The first definitely heard his mother. It was really awkward when he got out and walked by me. Both of us pretending we didn’t know what had gone down.