One of my students this year came from another school. He arrived in January. And immediately, he was trouble. When I say he 'was' trouble, I mean that he embodied trouble; he sought it out; he raced towards it like moths to flame; and he loved it, he loved it, he loved it. he loved the rep it gave him, the status it gave him, the circle of like-minded friends it gave him. If I described him to another student they knew who I was talking about without my even having to say his name, he was that good at building his rep for being trouble, being disrespectful, being that student who just didn't give a shit. And he was proud of it.
Every day he would come into the classroom late. He wouldn't slide in quietly. No, that wasn't good enough for his rep. He would strut in, loudly announcing to another kid in the class the highlights of his day, such as, "Oh, I just got my helmet today!" referring to the day he was introduced to the football team (probably as a last resort. I've never heard of a student carrying a 30% average being allowed to play on a school team) or the day some other kid stepped up to him, or the day he said he was going to throw down outside the school. All kinds of stuff, announced loudly across the room.
Every day that he walked in like that I sent him out with a do-over: "you can come back in respectfully, not disturbing the lesson, or anyone in the class."
And nearly every day, that's the game we played.
Miraculously, this kid could miss half the classes, screw around during class time, never crack a book, fall asleep (which is what he did when he had no one in the class to talk to) but when it came time to take a test on the topic, he would easily score in the 80's and sometimes higher.
I pulled him aside. I told him how smart he was. "You hear things. You are an auditorial learner."
"Huh?" he asked.
"You learn and take in information primarily through what you hear."
"Oh. Yeah," he said, and he kept looking at me. I had his attention. I understood how he learned. Here was a kid who needed to move around and do other things while in the meantime, listen to what was going on and what others were talking about.
"You're certainly not looking at the information. And you never crack a book. You barely pick up a pencil, but you get 80's or higher. Because you learn through what you hear." he was engaged. he was listening. This time, to me.
I designed lessons to provide additional access to the learning through audio. Audible and pre-recorded you tube recordings of books on tape are a great resource. The kid learned. During class discussion his hand shot up. he called out. He didn't understand the etiquette of classroom behavior and respect - didn't get the idea of taking turns - but the kid knew his stuff and didn't have the patience for someone else to come up with it.
But, peer pressure and a school rep is strong when you're 16. His behavior spiraled downward again towards the end of the year, when most kids lose interest. But this guy, he could lose interest in special ways. One day I had to talk to him privately.
"You stopped coming to class."
"And your being disruptive and not doing anything again."
"School's whack, yo. It's stupid. I ain't learning nothin' here."
"You're not learning anything," I corrected him, always the teacher.
"That's what I said!"
"So, what's the plan?"
"What plan?" he asked.
"The plan. What are you going to do? With your life? You're 16. You can work. You can drive. You don't want to come to school, so... what else are you going to do?"
"Oh, you know... I dunno... sell weed. Work. Live with my Mom's."
"You think your mother's gonna let you live on her couch doing nothing? I met her. She will throw your ass outta the house!"
"Naawwhh," he drawled.
"So, you got no education, you're gonna sell weed and do some kind of job. Where does that lead?"
He said it like it was memorized: "Jails... institutions... or dead...."
I nodded, "right. That what'chu want?"
He shrugged it off so I kept going. He was staring at the floor, the walls, anything but at me.
"Hey, tough guy. You disrespect what everybody's trying to do here, but you're not man enough to hold your head up and look me in the eye?"
He lifted his head. Now we were eye to eye. He wasn't as tall as me, but he was muscular and trim. If he wanted to get physical, he'd put up a good fight. I didn't want to think that way, but I had to. You have to when you're dealing with a kid on the edge. They feel like they've got nothing to lose, and that is a dangerous mindset for an opponent.
"What are you waiting for? You got it all planned out. Why are here? You don't need a license to sell drugs. There's no age requirement. You wanna live that life? You think you'll look good in a shit-brown jump suit that says State Prison on it, go ahead. Go for it. But what are you wasting your time for here?"
He didn't answer, but he held my eyes in his. It was a staring contest. And I took the bait.
"Look, I'm not talking to you teacher to student now. This is person to person. I know guys who went the route you're on. And I've been to their funerals. You wanna run the streets? Be a hot shot out there? When you're mother's waiting at home for you? Go for it. But know that you're running into a war zone. Kids like you die every day doing the shit you're glorifying in your head right now. You told me your own old man got shot down dealing on the corner. Just like that dude who came to speak to our school, the one on the crutches. 6 shots in the back. And your old man's crippled for life. And you think this is a fucking path to glory. Are you serious?"
Still, no words from him. Still, he held my eyes. But his nostrils were twitching - a sign he was nervous, maybe even scared.
"I've been there," I said. "I've seen kids arrested. I've been arrested. Cops don't play. It's not a game to them. Your dealing means that someone's kid - someone they know - will be a victim and they will rain hell down on you. They will blame you for every kid that ever died from drugs. And so will the judges. And so will the other inmates who decide that you're good looking enough from behind to satisfy them for the night. And the next. And the next. An the next."
His nostrils were flickering wildly now.
"I'm not trying to scare you, but I am telling you the truth. You are a smart kid! You have gifts that these other kids in there don't have. Some of those other kids try super hard to do well and don't have the natural intelligence that you do. They have to work for it. And they do. Fo you, it comes easy, if you let it." I paused. "What is so bad about success?"
This time I waited for his answer.
"Are you afraid of being smart? Afraid of standing out by doing well in school?"
He shrugged. Looked down at his feet.
"Look at me," I repeated. "You have it all. You've got what it takes. And I will believe in you until you start believing in yourself." To this he nodded.
"Now, I don't expect you to suddenly be super star student, but while you're trying to figure all this shit out, let me do my job. You... just lay low. Keep a low profile. You don't have to figure it out, but think about what you love to do, and then make that your purpose. Maybe that's football. Maybe it's money. You'll know. But don't throw your life away. 'Cause that's just a waist."
Things turned around after that. He laid low. He wasn't intent on causing trouble. He didn't come to class much either. And I could only hope that he wasn't out on the streets trying to deal drugs like his dad did, hoping for a shower of bullets to point him in the direction of motivational speaker.
All I can do is try. But I do know that briefly... briefly... I had him. For a moment, he was listening.
Hi. My name is Stephen Tesher. I am a novelist, screenwriter, educator, and father. I've authored three books, staged numerous plays and optioned screenplays, articles, and this blog.