This terrible story posted in Substance about school staff asking parents to take troubled kid home and after they refused the kid shot up the school got me to thinking about what happens to risky kids in school. For most of my teaching career I was assigned “the bad kids.” Ostensibly they came to me for reading help but in reality they came to give their regular class teachers some relief. Sylvia hung out in my room for most of the day, and no teacher ever came looking for her. Sylvia, with me for 7th and 8th grade, had two claims to fame, and one of them got her expelled.
It didn’t take me two weeks to figure out that Sylvia didn’t actually ‘qualify’ to be in remedial reading. I suspected she was one of the best readers in all of 7th grade. But her behavior offered a realpolitik reason for her placement that I accepted and even appreciated.
Sylvia took charge. After five minutes of chatter or obnoxious antics at the beginning each class, she’d announce, “Okay. time to READ!” Time-on-Task checklist keepers and advocates of other perfect and impossible behavior-management schemes will insist that as the teacher I was the one who was supposed to keep the group “on task,” but as James Herndon observed of his own group of seventh-grade black girls, affectionately known as The Tribe, kids are remarkably efficient in organizing themselves. Herndon pointed out that “not even an experienced teacher with a machine gun” could equal the time in establishing order.
Some years later later when I wrote an article about how Sylvia organized the most difficult seventh graders in the school into a reading group, the editors at Education Week published the article, changing my description of the person who showed me how to organize the group from “Sylvia the Zulu Chief” to a “no-nonsense African American colleague.” I was devastated to see this profound distortion of the point I was trying to make. I asked for a correction. They refused, informing me that “Zulu Chief” is an offensive racist epithet, something they would never publish. Well, of course it is. One of the other points I was making in the article is that I taught in a school where teachers referred to students this way. The editors did not explain why they transformed my student into my colleague. I guess that was part of their role in spearheading a drive for national standards.
If you packed all the Standardistos in the country into Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, or maybe the Olmstead Family Mortuary and Auto Detailing Shop in Heber Spring Arkansas, or the Devil’s Rope Museum in Texas (largest barbed wire historical display in the world), or the Jell-O Gallery in New York, or the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas, their combined know-how about students and the way schools work wouldn’t add up to one-tenth of the savvy of seventh-grade teacher par excellence James Herndon. I was lucky enough to encounter The Way It ‘Spozed to Be the same week I met Sylvia. Herndon taught me to give her lots of room to find her way, which meant also giving myself room to find my way. One of his best techniques–“wait and see what is happening”–is so simple and yet so hard. The temptation is always there to anticipate trouble, to miss the kids’ struggles ad approximations because we’re so concerned with the outcomes Outcomes: what a word. As though kids were volcanoes spewing out lava Or sewage pipes. Such words weren’t invented by people who work in classrooms; they come from hotshot committees with something to sell.
Even though the writing borders on the mawkish, Sylvia and her reading group were enthralled by Ethel Waters’ His Eye Was on the Sparrow, her account of her rise from poverty and abuse to stardom. They’d never heard of Ethel Waters, but the book cover showed them she was someone who looked like they do. They talked about Ethel’s troubles and triumphs in a very personal way, as though Waters were a friend or relative they were cheering on. After the success of Waters’ book, I bought multiple copies of Soul Brothers and Sister Lou, a book I spotted on a grocery store spindle. Sylvia organized another round-robin reading group. Five or six students sat a a table, each one reading a page out loud, with Sylvia coaching poor readers through their pages. She did not tolerate non-participation and by common consent, she often read twice as many pages as anybody else, just to move the story along. Every few pages a spontaneous discussion erupted–about Lou’s clothes, Lou’s ambition, Lou’s bad sister.
Good news travels just about as fast in a school as bad news. Other kids heard about the book and they stopped by on their way back to class from the water fountain, the lavatory, or the principal’s office to listen to the read-aloud for about as long as they figured they could get away with it. I let them linger, because what could be more wonderful than students sneaking out of class to get involved in a book?
Sometimes I worried that in my refusal to interject much “teacher talk” into their reading I might be shortchanging students, but as a reader, I’ve always valued my emotional response more than a school-imposed intellectual response. Years later, when I discovered Carol Bly’s wonderful Letters from the Country and The Passionate, Accurate Story, I was excited to read Bly’s convincing argument for not reaching literary techniques but instead reading stories for what they show about life, feelings morals.
So what was Sylvia doing in remedial reading? She had failed sixth grade but was moved ahead because of her size. She was failing all her courses in 7th grade. She caused a lot of disruption and refused to memorize the provisions of the Bill of Rights, how to figure home interest rates, the name of the poet who wrote Hiawatha, the difference between a phrase and a clause. The regular curriculum in our decaying urban school was the same standardized, homogenized, watered-down college prep curriculum that William Bennett, E. D. Hirsch,, Chester Finn, most of the media, and the corporate-industrial complex claimed is ever child’s sacred heritage.
My colleagues who complained bitterly that students didn’t grasp the concept of the 8th grade social studies or science or literature curricula weren’t willing to change one word of their courses. I tried suggesting that a love of history might be bettered delivered through, say, a few Jean Fritz, Russell Freedman, and James Cross Giblin titles than through the four-pound text stitched together by a backroom committee that had never been in a classroom. It took me years to catch on that nobody has ever expected 7th graders to understand the curriculum; that’s why it’s repeated in high school.
In the end, Sylvia was done in by ice cream. Being Sylvia, it was a lot of ice cream. Actually, it started with doughnuts. Periodically, Sylvia arrived at school with doughnuts for math class, cookies for science, or whatever. Everybody knew the origin of the treats: they were stolen from the nearby A&P. But the teacher receiving the bounty merely said, “Hey, thanks, Sylvia!” and dug in with the kids. I was grateful that she never showed up at my door with her ill-gotten gains. I wondered if there wasn’t some ethical line she didn’t want to cross, and I figured that in my class she had the book for comfort; she didn’t need doughnuts.
One day Sylvia organized her cohorts on a raid of an ice cream delivery truck parked near the school. I was home sick that day but heard the tale repeated over and over. Once Sylvia and her buddies absconded with the ice cream, Sylvia lead the troop up and down the hallways of the third floor, delivering containers to each classroom. She’d appear in a doorway, asking, “What do you want–chocolate or vanilla?”
Everybody enjoyed the ice cream, and then the next day Sylvia was expelled from school, not temporarily suspended but permanently excluded. I looked at the psychological evaluation the district psychologist prepared to aid the principal in getting rid of her:
*This individual exhibits an impairment in interpersonal relationships.
*This individual does not relate adequately to authority figures.
*This individual exhibits behavior aberrant to social mores.
*This individual exhibits an inability to delay gratification of personal needs. The exhibits immature capacity for long-range goal setting.
Conclusion: It is the finding of this examiner that this individual suffers from mental deficiency; impairment of personal social factors as well as cultural.
I see Sylvia one last time. She sneaked into the building and came to my room to say good-bye. She stacked up some of the books she had read that year: I Want to Be Somebody, Soul Brothers and Sister Lou, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, The Outsiders, A Hero Ain’t Nothing But a Sandwich, Charlotte’s Web, The Elephant Joke Book, three John Ciardi volumes. She said, “You know, it just proves that people who start out bad can do okay for theirselves.”
So Sylvia was shipped off to an institution for wayward youth. I told her friends I wanted to give her a present to take with her. They suggested a carton of cigarettes, but of course I sent books, and I sent them with the conviction that she was right: She had the ability to do okay for herself.
Jackson was a different matter. In my some 20 years of teaching students acknowledged to be difficult, Jackson was the only one who ever scared me. Jackson Lincoln Johnson was intimidating from the first moment he swaggered into class. Just 13, he could easily pass for 18–or 34: 6 foot, 175 pounds, all muscle. Other kids, barely five feet tall, talked about the cartoons they watch on TV; Jackson talked about the pictures in Hustler.
As far as I could tell, he was one of the least able readers in a class of extremely poor readers. He refused to cooperate with any kind of reading inventory. On the second day, when he launched into a menacing threatening speech, I took a step forward, lightly touched his arm, saying quietly, “Oh, come on, Jackson, knock it off and let’s get to work.” He jerked back as though I’d stuck him with a hot poker and said, “People don’t touch me.” He said it a second time, as though explaining an important rule to a young child. “People don’t touch me.”
I heard rumors about Jackson dominating the hallways, stealing students’ pencils, lunch money, and whatever else that took his fancy. He chose his victims carefully–kids who’d be afraid to squeal on him, kids on his block, kids who were already pretty much down and out. He didn’t steal from tough black kids who would fight back. ‘The principle said he couldn’t do anything if the victims won’t testify against Jackson, but he wasn’t offering any witness protection program either.
I began tailing Jackson to lunch. When he stopped near students I stood at his elbow. All the way to the cafeteria. I figured my tactic just forced Jackson to move his shakedowns to other parts of the school and the streets, but a teacher can only do what she can do.
I was a teacher who prided herself on not looking at a student’s cumulative folder until I had time to make my own judgment, but at the end of Jackson’s second day in my class, I went to the guidance office and asked to see his file. I was told that as a new transfer student, he had no records. I protested, “We must know where he went to school before he came here. Why not phone and ask if there is anything we should know?” At that very moment, the guidance staff and principal knew exactly where Jackson had been to school for the previous two and a half years but they felt they had good reasons for not telling teachers.
So I muddled along as best I could for two months. I figured that he had a sight vocabulary of about 20 words. He made a big production of printing his name, but in two months I didn’t see him write more than a dozen other words. Everybody in the class wrote me a note every day, responding to my notes to them. Everybody but Jackson. He tried to tell dirty stories and tried to touch the girls. I didn’t see other students horsing around with Jackson, initiating conversations with him, or even listening to his ramblings. We all kept our distance, wishing he wasn’t there. But in keeping with one of the great laws of education, during these two months Jackson was never absent.
At the time, I tried not to put too much emphasis on one incident, but later it stood out as an emblem of my experience with Jackson. I showed the classic film The Red Balloon, and at the end, when the balloons rescue the boy and carry him off to balloon heaven, the students gasped, laughed, and cheered. Everyone but Jackson. Jackson pulled out an imaginary gun and sat there grinning while he shot down the balloons. Bam! Bam! Bam!
When I mentioned Jackson to a friend in a school across town, she was shocked. She said his first three years were filled with rages against teachers and children. Then, when he was 9 he went berserk. The police were called and it took 3 officers to restrain him. They strapped him to a cot brought by paramedics, but he broke the restraining straps. Jackson’s mother went to family court and said she couldn’t cope with him any more than educators could cope at school. Jackson was sent to a custodial institution.
I went to my principal’s office and told him the name of Jackson’s previous school. The principal reluctantly conceded that I was right, claiming that he’d “just learned” and that the records were “in the mail.”
My relationship with Jackson was brought to a state of crisis because of my cat. I was participating in a National Endowment for the Humanities teacher training project conducted by New York University. For a lesson on ambiguity, I collected images of the cat in the art of various cultures to teach a few basic concepts. I tried to liven up these concepts and make them more personal by interspersing some funny stories about my own cat, MacDuff.
Students in my classes usually worked on individual assignments, and this lesson on art was the only time in 6 years that I delivered a lecture to a whole class. Students in the designated class were so enthusiastic that I repeated the lesson for other classes. All the kids were enthusiastic, really getting into the quiz on artistic terms. They seem to revel in the strange new terminology as well as the art itself.
Everybody but Jackson. Toward the end, he started in. “You know what I’ll do to your cat when I see him? I’ll grab him by the neck and twist and twist until that ole’ cat is strangled dead. Dead. I’ll just twist that ole’ MacDuff’s neck right off. He grinned. “That’s what I like doing to cats when I see them.” He kept twisting his hands. Other students, many of whom could be described as tough urban youth, were shocked. Some had tears running down their cheeks.
Even as I started to tell the principal, I figured he’d think I was overreacting. After all, my cat was safe in my house fifteen miles away. But my principle jumped into action. The records from Jackson’s institutional placement had arrived and apparently they contained information that made my principle very reluctant to keep Jackson around. The principal decided to run his own little test to prove that Jackson is violent. He asked a big, strong male teacher to join him and Jackson in a small office. They called Jackson a “diry nigger.” Then the principal used Jackson’s “violent reaction” as evidence that his placement in our school was inappropriate.
Of course I was outraged. What business do these guys have deliberately provoking any student, never mind one who is mentally ill? I didn’t think Jackson belonged in our school but why was it necessary to construct this bizarre scenario of entrapment? I wondered why, in two months time, our administrators hadn’t noticed that Jackson was angry all the time, that he didn’t need provocation to do mean and nasty things. I was outraged that my so-called educational leader resorted to a macho shootout to force a 12-year-old boy out of the building.
Since the district was attempting to expel Jackson permanently, law required that the Committee on the Handicapped meet. The committee was formed, ostensibly, to act on a student’s behalf, to protect a student’s interest. Because my students were often the subjects of the committee’s business, I ended up attending a fair number of these meetings. I never saw an advocate for students at these meetings,n ever saw the committee do anything but rubber-stamp the psychologist’s recommendation, which turned out to be an echo of what the school principal requested. I have to admit it was usually what teachers wanted too. Nonetheless, I thought the student should have an advocate. I never saw one.
If kids don’t fit into our system, we find ways to exclude them. We never change the system: not the housing system, not the social services system, not the school system. I wondered then as I wonder now if there will be a judgment day for the system that failed to make any adaptation to Jackson’s needs when he was in kindergarten or first grade, or second, third, or fourth. But that’s a rhetorical question, of course. The school system just can’t accommodate the Jacksons among us. The hidden curriculum enforces the ideological and practical distinctions demanded by the marketplace. Schools are mechanisms for the reproduction of a hierarchical, compliant workforce, the division of labor.
Jackson’s mother was at the meeting, accompanied by a social service worker. She was a small shriveled woman who looked old enough to be his grandmother. I found out later that she was 28 years old. The psychologist tried to ingratiate himself by making a few jokes. No one laughed. He then intimated that he has observed Jackson in my classroom He didn’t quite say that he’d been there, so his remarks skirted just on the edge of a lie. I marveled that he could do this while I was sitting there. His remarks were just an indication of his contempt for teachers; he didn’t give a fig about what I heard him say because he district had shown him he didn’t have to.
The meeting became an institutional version of Alice’s tea party, though more off center even than Carroll. The psychologist assumed role of host at a friendly social gathering. The social worker was a governmental office worker, pushing paper, on nobody’s side. Jackson’s mother did not look up or acknowledge any of the introductions, but sat in her chair bending over her clutched hands. The psychologist tried to be kind, warm, chatty, even jocular. His gentle humor was singularly out of place, brushing up against this woman’s inability to react or respond. Hey, the rest of us weren’t amused either. This was a sad glum, necessary, if pro forma, ritual, definitely not a tea party.
The psychologist explained that Jackson’s IQ of 67, his violent temper, and his emotional instability indicated the he couldn’t handle a conventional school setting. He recommended home tutoring. This was the cue for the social service caseworker to deliver a prepared, legalistic statement intoning that Jackson was uncooperative at home and in constant trouble on the streets and that the family requested that Jackson be returned to custodial care.
At that moment, for the first time, Jackson’s mother spoke. She didn’t raise her head but, huddled over her hands, she said, “He should of took his pills.”
Pills? No one said a thing. We chose to ignore this information because at that particular moment no one wanted to rock the boat. We were desperate for someone else to step in and accept responsibility for Jackson. And yet…I wondered why the personnel at the custodial institution that sent Jackson to a regular school didn’t include the advice, “Be sure he takes his medication.”
Even as I sat in that conference room wanting Jackson to be someone else’s responsibility, I couldn’t help but feel pain for that 9-year-old boy cast out by his family as incorrigible. Was his violence a way of trying to get his vacant mother to notice him? Or had this uncontrollable child ground down this poor woman’s sensibilities to the point of numbness? If Jackson had been a middle-class 9-year-old, he would have been declared autistic or suffering from Apsberger’s and had his own personal aide by his side throughout the school day. But because he was a welfare case, he as sent off to an institution for incorrigibles.
Our hearing was a formality. Before we ever walked into the room, the key players had agreed that Jackson would be returned to custodial care. Nonetheless, as we were leaving the room, I asked the social worker, “Is Jackson taking medication?”
“He’s supposed to,” she sighed, “but he doesn’t like it. He complains it slows him down. He needs it though. Desperately. He’s dangerous without it.”
So the social service worker knew about the medication, but social service workers don’t talk to teachers. They ply their trade outside school walls. Even when just plain common sense would dictate a simple phone call to the school to confirm a need for medication, social workers didn’t do it. And their excuse was “The mother didn’t request it.”
But the school bears greater blame. The authorities intone over and over that “these kids” aren’t expected to master the academics, that they are in regular classes “for purposes of socialization.” Just how social does it feel to be the dumbest one in every class every year? When school critics descry the failure of our public schools, they’re not talking about Jackson. For school critics, the Jacksons of the world are invisible. School critics are talking about everybody taking algebra in 7th or 8th grade and whether the kids in Larchmont score as well on high stakes tests as the kids in Palo Alto, not to mention Singapore and Kyoto. But when I talk about the failure of our schools, I’m talking about Jackson, who stands forever as my failure as a teacher. He is the only student for whom I can’t recall even one small moment of a teaching/learning bond. Not one positive moment.
Garrison Keillor says people don’t learn from punishment. He believes they learn from being happy. When the Jacksons in our world commit atrocious crimes, newspaper headlines scream about their low reading scores, proof positive that the schools have failed. I wonder about the larger failure of a society that does not nurture its children, a society that defaults on giving even its youngest members a chance to be happy.
Note: These two pieces are adapted from my book Caught in the Middle: Nonstandard Kids and a Killing Curriculum.