That Student

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.


Baltimore Memoir: Excerpt #1

The blurb of a bio that I wrote, describes a list of my experiences in black and white. But those experiences are etched in my memory in a vivid rainbow of colors. But those early years I spent in Teach for America in Baltimore , changed me the most.  Once you know the truth about poverty in America , it is not something easily forgotten.

Teach for America has been in the spotlight lately, most recently with an huge piece on NPR , which I will most likely read once I finish this post.

But whether you love what TFA does or hate it, those who have done it will tell you that it was one of the most influential experiences in their lives. Part of understanding me and the drive behind this blog is understanding what I have seen. Back in 2003 when I completed my 2 year service, I started writing a memoir about it. I never finished, because now my memories are tainted by who I am and what I think as a 35 year old experienced teacher and mother.

This is one in a series of posts that I will share from that memoir. The names have been changed, but the stories are true. They are told by me at age 22 or 23.

(This first piece I have been reading to my middle school students for years. It still gives me chills to read it aloud. I think of “Calik” often.)


Squinting into the bright May Baltimore sun, I stood ringing my little bell.  It was time to go in; across the street I saw a crowd of classes waiting to cross the street to the playground.  My goal was to get my class off of the playground before it turned into a mob scene making it impossible to extract my sneaky ones from the melee of arms and legs. Today was a good day, most of my children lined up except for three boys who clung to the swings.  I was too tired to argue so I yelled, “We’re leaving without you. I’ll just report you missing.” I began to lead the class towards the crosswalk when I heard the heavy footsteps of two of the boys running to catch up.  When we reached the crosswalk, I heard the voice of the final boy shouting, “Look at me.”  My head turned in sync with the rest of my class to find Calik standing on the top bar of the swing set.

My first thought was of motherly panic, to run and coax him down like a kitten from a tree.  However, 8 months in Baltimore had numbed me.  Instead I shouted back, “You got yourself up there, now it’s up to you to get yourself down.”  He smiled at me a wide sinister smile then, jumped gracefully -arcing into a forward flip.  It seemed like an image shot in slow motion, for my heart leapt into the arms of my brain, which was churning out images of carnage and gory headlines.  Luckily, Calik landed on his feet with the skill of a professional gymnast and ran to get on line. The children all cheered.  After a quiet sigh of relief, I turned to glare at him with my best teacher look and simply stated, “I will be calling your mother.”  (That night I did call her to inform her about her son’s dangerous stunt.  She promptly informed me that he does them backwards too.  I had no choice but to suggest that she look into gymnastics camp for him.)

*             *              *                *              *

I never believed in giving my students candy as a reward, even before America formally acknowledged its obesity problem. I know that all of the horror stories that I have about that first year teaching, would scare any novice teacher into becoming something less agonizing. However, I loved them instantaneously and it didn’t matter that I yelled at them every day. At the time, all of that seemed normal to me, because I was surrounded by it.

Anyway, on one occasion, I bought the class apples as a reward.  I had enough for every student and two or three leftover.  At the end of the day, Calik hung back, which was weird because he usually sprinted out of class before I could yell at him to slow down.  What wasn’t unusual was the fact that Darnell, his inseparable best friend, was hanging at the door screaming, “Calik, I’m leaving without you.”

“Ms. Washington, can I get another apple?”

“No, Calik, I don’t have enough for everyone to get another one. So, I am going to take these three home.”

“But, I never get to eat apples at home, and I really want another one.”

“I said no.”

“Please, I do good tomorrow.”

There was something about the urgency in his eyes that softened my weary soul, and I handed him the apple. “Just don’t tell anyone,” I said but he was already off and running before the sentence left my lips.  I went back to straightening up my room thinking about how badly he wanted the apple. Not more than five minutes passed when Calik came tearing back into the room.

“I thought you guys went home.  I am busy, and I’m not giving you any more so don’t even ask.”

“There are rocks in this apple,” he said in a muffled voice.

“Rocks? Boy you really done lost ya mind… go home, okay, I am tired.”

” Rocks, Ms. Washington, look. See? Rocks!”

Calik spit something into his hand and shoved it toward me in a jerking motion, now he was yelling, “Look! Look!”  I looked at his hand and sure enough there were five small rocks in his hand covered in blood.  Only, they weren’t rocks.  I leaned forward and he shoved his hand up closer to my face. Squinting at the crimson colored lumps, understanding sunk my heart into the pit of my stomach. Rocks would’ve made more sense.  Instead, I was eye to eye with pieces of his rotten teeth that had shattered on the firm flesh of the apple.  The healthy apple, I thought, in morbid dismay.

I remember my second phone call to Calik’s mom.  I informed her of the apple incident, awkwardly apologizing for my role in the final demise of his teeth.  I stammered to explain my logic in giving the kids apples, suddenly unsure of even that simple gesture.  His mother took the news in stride, not nearly the reaction I expected.  “That boy does nothin’ but eat that candy all day. No wonder the boy teeth done dropped out of his head.” I grasped the phone with numb fingers as I urged her to take him to the dentist.  She laughed and said they didn’t go to the dentist and that he’d get over it.  She thanked me for calling and that was that.

I went to bed that night with Calik’s words echoing in my head.  “Rocks!”