Education Reform? Here’s one child who was left behind long ago

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.

And yet.

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.



  1. Oh my. I couldn’t help but think of The Wire as I read this post. What I loved about that show was how absolutely real those stories are. As much as certain individuals care and as hard as they try, the system is so overwhelmed and mismanaged that these kids don’t get the help and support they need.

  2. beautifully written. very powerful. this would be a great submission to the NYT’s Opinion section.

  3. thanks for that very powerful piece! it is so easy to read a report in the newspaper and not feel any attachment, or even empathy, for someone that has gone astray. we can all be doing more in our communities, by helping, instead of pointing fingers and thinking that everyone one of us can be packaged in a neat little box!

  4. I worked for a while at a runaway shelter. kids that were so far beyond the systems ability to help. I can’t tell you how many ended up dead because I stopped reading the news after one that was such a sweet boy was killed in a random shooting.

    the bullet was meant for anyone. he was trying so hard to clean up his life.

    I did the work for two years and had to leave. the stories ate away at my heart. drugs, violence, pregnancy, all the time, in massive doses. I wanted to take them all home.

    thank you for the reminder. it is painful and important to read.

  5. Hugs to you.

    I am at a loss for words beyond that.

    (BTW – very well written, very moving. I second the thought to submit it.)

  6. The troubled kids don’t get left behind — left behind makes it sound innocuous, a sad twist of fate — when the truth is they get actively shoved out, jettisoned, kicked to the curb, suspended and expelled on the flimsiest of reasons so they won’t drag the schools’ overall test scores down.

    Ditto on the submit it to an opinion page suggestion.

  7. My husband works as a substitute teacher and some of the schools he goes to have, I suspect, many children with complicated lives like this boy’s. He (my husband) taught in a middle school classroom the other day that was full of chaos. Students cursing, threatening, groping, falling asleep….it’s breaks my heart that by that age these children are “lost” in the system. NCLB ensures that the schools pass these kids and/or tacitly encourage them to drop out to keep funding .

  8. As a fellow teacher, I know exactly what you’re talking about. I worked in elementary and saw the little guys that needed help. I was at the jr. high and saw the same kids, 5-6 years later. Same issues, same problems, multiplied ten-fold. NCLB has done nothing but leave children behind, with counseling services cut and high-stakes testing as the emphasis for funding and punitive measures. Thanks for the eloquent way you have spelled out the story of so many kids I’ve known as well.
    I’m new to your blog, but quicky have become a fan. Thanks for being out there in the blogosphere!

  9. Awesome Post.

    This story is a small reminder to us all how important support is, even to other adults.
    Reach out to one another- especially now during these hard times….
    And if you don’t submit this to somewhere I’ll do it for you.!

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