He was that student.
You know the type. He talked when the teacher said quiet. He stood up when the teacher said sit down. When it was time to work, he asked to go to the bathroom. When it was time to hand in homework, his rarely if ever made it into the collection pile.
On the bright side, he had a winning smile. He could make the teacher laugh on those days she wasn’t driven to want to cry. He had some great insights when novels were discussed, though he was loathe to write them down.
The difference was that his English teacher one year had just arrived at that suburban school from teaching in some of the roughest neighborhoods in the country. She didn’t buy his tough guy talk that he was from the “ghetto”, for she had seen the ghetto and that town didn’t have one. His shenanigans didn’t even shake her, for she had come from places where kids fought and cursed and came to school fueled with the kind of anger that drove third graders to throw over desks…sometimes at her.
When he brought a book to class to read, he claimed it was a great story. She recognized it as a piece of adult urban erotica she had seen in other places. She brought it to the teachers’ room and a colleague commented, “Well I bet that’s all your kids in Newark read, right?” His joke wasn’t funny. And it wasn’t funny when she asked the guidance counselor to schedule a meeting, and she said his mother probably wouldn’t come anyway. And it wasn’t funny when she did come and showed no parenting skills at all.
He was that student.
Back in 7th grade that year, he was crying out for help and probably had been for years. He couldn’t read well. He acted up to cover up for it, like so many other kids like him.
But back then he was just a pain in the neck to his teachers. It wasn’t until high school that he started really disrupting classes and making his teachers cry out to the administrators to “do something” with the kid.
An administrator had the sense and heart to go back and ask that 7th grade teacher what she had done to reach him. How had she handled his behavior? What advice could she give?
What could she say? Sure she remembered him. She remembered all of her students.
The one who she walked home from school down the dangerous drug-infested streets of Baltimore to tell her parents about her disrespectful, disruptive behavior. They didn’t have a phone and she couldn’t bear to have her ruin another day. The one whose father answered the door strung out on drugs and offered to beat her right there in the street.
The one who was 14 years old with a mustache in the 6th grade. The one whose father abused him and called him stupid. The one who was a gang member and whose mother admitted to being one too. The one who had rival gang members try to break into her classroom to jump him, while she was teaching. The one who she would walk the streets on her lunch break to find and convince to come back to school. The one who came back to hug her when he heard she was moving, despite getting expelled days before she would get approval for skipping him ahead to the high school based on a portfolio she worked with him to create. An approval that was revoked when he set off fireworks in a school hallway.
The one on her basketball team who was barred from playing because the switchblade she carried to protect herself, on her ride home in the dark on the subway, fell out of her backpack in math class. The one who cried that basketball was her life and that she would never hurt anyone unless she had to.
What could she have said that would have saved him? What could have been done so that a few short years later she didn’t read his name in a police report, telling he was accused of drug distribution to a minor and the illegal possession of a weapon.
The drugs that are choking our society will never go away, if schools don’t step up and start trying to reach those kids. Teachers like her are flailing. pressured to show achievement in a system that is failing so many.
That student was failed by us all, even the teacher who cared so much.
She should have kept pushing. We all should.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
-Martin Luther King Jr.