Of all the remote corners of Texas considered difficult to reach—the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande, in Big Bend National Park; the center-field wall at Minute Maid Park, in Houston; the butcher block at Franklin Barbecue, in Austin—the single most challenging can actually be found in every big city and rural burg in the state: the mind of a seventh grader. It’s a destination with no clear path, the ground around it littered with hormonal land mines, the terrain ever shifting as growth spurts are endured or, even worse, anxiously awaited. In one of God’s great dirty tricks, an awareness of peer pressure presents itself during roughly the same week as zits. Soon come a new voice, a new shape, a new smell. Nothing about it is easy, not for the seventh graders and certainly not for the teachers charged with trying to get through to them.
This was distinctly evident on the second-to-last Thursday in May at Rockport-Fulton Middle School. One week of school to go. When the bell rang that morning to send the kids to first period, thirty of them drifted into Bobby Jackson’s Texas history class. The boys, mostly in T-shirts or hoodies but all with bed head, started fidgeting before they’d even found their desks; a couple forgot to take off their backpacks when they sat down, then leaned forward awkwardly for the rest of the hour. The girls were more awake. Most of them appeared to have spent more time on their hair that morning than the boys had all semester, and ponytails sprouted from their heads at purposefully odd angles. Two girls traded yearbooks, and two more put on eyeliner, alarming another girl in the back of the room. “Didn’t you see Facebook this morning?” she asked. “It’s ‘No Makeup Day.’ ” One of the primping girls shot a glare that you’d think would be reserved for her mother. But when the bell rang, their faces warmed and turned to Jackson, a 37-year teaching veteran who at that moment was standing by his desk making last-minute tweaks to the day’s lesson.
Every grade has a favorite teacher, and for Rockport-Fulton’s seventh, it’s Jackson. The first clue as to why is the classroom itself. It’s announced by a large state flag hanging just outside his door and Texas-shaped Christmas lights strung over the threshold. Inside, the walls are the same white cinder block as every other room in the building, but his are decked out like a state-line tourist trap, with pictures and doodads covering nearly every square inch. There is the expected, like the national flag of Mexico and the battle flag of the Confederacy. But a bulletin board entitled “Cattle Is King” has, in addition to images of cowboys and cows and the names of famous ranches, a barn-wood sign reading “Who let the cows out?” Along with portraits of the heroes of the Texas Revolution, there’s one of Napoleon Dynamite. Not far from Jackson’s collection of Alamo movie posters is another poster displaying a menu for something called the Roadkill Cafe. And next to that is a portion of wall dedicated to Aggie jokes. He’s got two “You Might Be a Redneck” calendars, one neon light shaped like Texas and another like a jalapeño, and six different-colored lava lamps, all under bunches of red, white, and blue ribbons and balloons that hang from the ceiling. “You should see it when he turns the lights off,” said one girl later. “It’s so cool.”
The desks are arranged so that they face an empty space in the center of the room that Jackson calls his stage, and as he stepped into it, all eyes widened and a few jaws dropped. Short, squat, and recently turned sixty, he’d traded his usual golf shirt for the period dress of a Tejano elder statesman circa 1900: a dark-brown suit, silk vest, and floppy brown string tie. His thin gray hair had been teased out and colored white, and the broad plain of his face—far-set hazel eyes; a wide, flat nose; and permanently pursed lips—had been darkened with layers of makeup.
The kids leaned forward for a better look. This was one of Jackson’s living-history portrayals, a foray back in time to conduct class in character as a figure from Texas history. The occasions are famous at the school, something that Rockport-Fulton sixth graders look forward to as a seventh-grade rite of passage. They are such an institution, in fact, that the school has isolated his classroom, sandwiching it between two storage rooms, so that the frequent spike in volume won’t bother other teachers. “You know, guys,” he began, “some students stopped me in the hallway just now and said, ‘I thought you were dressing up today.’ Needless to say, they’ve been taken care of.”
Today’s role is Jackson’s personal favorite: Enrique Esparza. Esparza was an eight-year-old Tejano boy who sneaked into the Alamo with his family on the day the siege began, and later saw his father, Gregorio, die during the battle. But Jackson plays the character with a twist, depicting Esparza as an old man. “Remember how I told you during the unit on the Texas Revolution that after Enrique left the Alamo he dedicated his life to sharing his memories with anyone who would listen, so that the world would know how these men sacrificed their lives for us?” The kids nodded their heads. “While I’m portraying him, I don’t want you just to listen. I want you to listen actively. Listen through the ears of a reporter. Because when I’m done, you’re going to interview him. So think about what you would want to know from someone who was actually there.
“And now I’d like to introduce”—Jackson pulled a flat-brimmed hat over his head and grabbed a cane leaning against his desk—“Enrique Esparza.”
He shuffled back to the center of the room and began to talk in a wheezy voice with a Mexican accent. “ Buenos días, niños y niñas. Mi nombre es … ahh … perdónenme. Sometimes