At this point in the day, I’ve probably composed the following post in my mind at least a dozen times. There are so many details that I feel are important, but I’ll try not to overwhelm you with those. What you need to know first is that it begins with me reading the following headline in the morning paper: “Shooting victim identified” and then glancing over the one-paragraph story just long enough to recognize the name of the victim as one of my former middle school students.
I will be honest with you and tell you that I did not like this student very much. He often seemed downright mean: to teachers, to students, and — I have no doubt — to animals if left alone with them. He cursed, he was defiant, he got into fights, destroyed materials, refused to do work no matter how interesting, relevant, and achievable his teachers tried to make it.
He has a story and I know some of it. You see, by the time this boy got to middle school, I had already met his family. I coached his sister on the 8th grade girls basketball team. She was a good player, but not a good student; she came to study hall. The team raised money so that everyone could buy a jersey. Everyone.
A couple of years later I heard that she dropped out of high school to have a baby.
I also knew the boy’s brother. He arrived when I was still teaching Special Education, and this student’s disability was a medical one: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. You think your kid is bad when he/she has had too much sugar or caffeine? Multiply that by about one thousand and you had an average day for this kid. Wouldn’t medication help? Only if he’d take it. That’s when I really got to know the boy’s mother. She was completely overwhelmed. She had several children by several men, and I suspected from her appearance that she had a heroin addiction. She had very little education, and was missing most of her teeth. I worked with a team of the guidance counselor, Special Education chair, and Assistant Principal to ensure that he would have his medication, but more often than not, he showed up without it. One time when he was suspended, his mother called us to take him back. We explained he wasn’t allowed on campus — he’s been suspended. I will never forget her voice on the speakerphone: “What am I supposed to do with him? I can’t control him!”
And then came the boy. Everything had changed from the time when I had started teaching, and the boy was in a self-contained class for Emotionally Disabled. The only time these students — almost all boys — were in large classes was when they were suddenly dropped into “Special Area” classes such as the Computer Technology class I then taught, having left Special Education.
I have said I didn’t like him, but truth be told, my heart went out to him. I sit here now in my quiet home that’s full of books, with a supportive partner, a fridge full of healthy foods, a car out front, a college education, loving parents, and I think of the life the boy lived for 17 short years. Full of chaos, of parents who did not — could not — help him learn. A life full of substance abuse and violence. Noise. Chaos.
It is suspected that the boy was involved in a gang, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true because it would probably be the first time in his life he felt valued. We let the boy down when we threw him into the stew of NCLB political rhetoric. What did a mandated test mean to the boy? By the time he got to middle school, he was so far behind his classmates that he could not catch up. Maybe a very bright person could, but he was not very bright. We knew that, because we did the testing. And the boy had nothing at home to support him in the very tough battle he had every night in doing his homework. Most probably, he didn’t even have anywhere to do his homework. Nowhere that he could concentrate, at least.
So you would look at a picture of him today and see a thug. A punk. But I knew him when he was 12. And scared. He was a boy who needed extra help, but his schools were more concerned with meeting State and Federal mandates, and scoring well on school-wide testing. The boy was just … one boy. One boy who was left behind.