Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Three Memorable Students....

I probably should have saved this post for "Flashback Friday," since it is about three memorable students from early in my teaching career. But the inspiration came to me TODAY, so I'm going to go ahead with it.


I had a student whom everyone called "Red."  I used to know his real name and at first insisted on calling him by that, but eventually even I gave up and called him Red. His hair wasn't red, so I don't know where the nickname originated. I learned it was better not to ask. Some nicknames I never stooped to, though. I got my class rosters one year and listed under the column "Goes by..." was the name "Cheesebox." No way in Hell I was going to call a young man Cheesebox when he had a perfectly acceptable given name.

Red was in one of my ... less capable ... classes. It was a small class, so I got to know the students fairly well. I was friendly to them without becoming their friends. That's a fine line, you can't teach it, and I have no idea how I developed the skill. But it was one thing I prided myself on throughout my career. I could be tough on kids when they needed it, but I could also relate to them on their level. I wasn't a pushover, though, and they knew it.

One day Red had a big old wad of money in his hand as we were leaving for lunch, and I admonished him.

"You shouldn't have that kind of money in this school," I said. "Especially not out in sight. Put that away!"

"I'm going to get some new shoes after school," Red explained.

The next day, sure enough, Red had some new hundred-dollar sneakers. And a fat wad of cash. I was truly astounded (and more than a little naive, I guess).

"I don't know how you're getting all that money," I said, "but I think I want to try it."

If he could have turned pale, Red would have. He looked horrified.

"No ma'am, Mrs. Bragger," he almost whispered, "I don't think you do." He looked genuinely horrified that I might try to follow his example.

I wonder what Red's doing now.

10-20 with the possibility of early release for good behavior, if I had to guess. But I can't help but remember Red fondly, because he was genuinely concerned for my welfare. More so than his own, I think.


Bill was a particular challenge. He was a constant behavior problem, and I think he got stuck in my class because I was a rookie. Unlike Red, Bill had no redeeming qualities. He would be perverse just for the sake of being perverse.

For example: Every year on the day of the prom, the school experienced "Senior Skip Day." I suppose it started with people checking out of school or skipping it entirely for the purpose of getting ready for prom. (It was suggested on a number of occasions that the prom be changed to Saturday night in an effort to nip Senior Skip Day in the bud, but the word "tradition" kept coming up and we gave up.) Senior Skip Day tended to trickle down even to the ninth graders, and we were doing well if we had a handful of students in the entire school that day.

Then it trickled down (up?) to the teachers, and we began to make plans for Senior Skip Day in the event we didn't have any students. (Please, it was a rough school, and we had so few outlets. That's my only [admittedly weak] defense.)

One year on Senior Skip Day some of my co-workers and I decided to go out for lunch. It was the one day out of the year when we had more than 20 minutes for lunch. I realize that no matter how I spin this, I will never justify our unprofessional behavior. Duly noted.

Just as I expected, no one showed up for my fourth period class. I waited a reasonable amount of time (at least 15 seconds), and then I gleefully started to lock my door and join my friends.

And here came Bill.

"Bill," I said, "wouldn't you like to have all four lunch periods today?"

"No," Bill replied. "It's hot out there."

I hesitated. But only briefly. The main thing that passed through my brain was how many times Bill had nearly brought me to tears in the classroom.

"Bill," I said, "I'm locking this door, and I'm going to lunch. Find somewhere to go."

And that's not even the worst thing I ever did or said involving Bill.

Once during some downtime in class, another student (Al) was drawing. He was very good, and I'd never seen his work before.

"Al, you draw very well. Maybe I should get you to design the shirts for our family reunion this year."

Billy just had to pipe up. "Is everybody in your family fat, Mrs. Bragger?"

The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. No thought involved. No filter. Nothing I could do.

"No, Bill," I said. "Is everybody in your family stupid?"

Not one of my prouder moments.

I saw Bill several years later, when I was no longer teaching there. We were in a gun shop.

Oh. My. Stars.


I can't ever think of Shawn without getting teary-eyed. I first taught him in the eighth grade, when I served a three-year sentence in a middle school before I was paroled. Shawn had the worst speech impediment I have ever seen, up to then or now. He would open his mouth and nothing would come out. His speech therapist said it was the worst SHE had ever seen. Shawn would approach my desk to ask for something (restroom pass, pencil, book), and I would wait patiently (but awkwardly) until he could channel the air he needed to get a word or two out.

When I moved to the high school, Shawn wound up in my class again. I like to think it had to make him feel more comfortable, at least in my class, to have someone familiar with him and his situation. He was probably smarter than the other kids in the class, but he had probably always been lumped in with the less capable ones. (He may have been in the same class with Red; I'm not sure.) I was never one of those teachers who called on students to read out loud if they didn't want to. Most of the time I chose to read TO them because it was less painful that way. I called on students to answer questions sometimes, but I tried my darnedest not to embarrass them or humiliate them. I never called on Shawn. I wasn't going to open him up to ridicule that way, although most of the kids in the class had probably been in school with him forever and knew about his impediment.

One day an administrator came in to observe/evaluate me during that class period. That didn't usually freak me out, because I ALWAYS (mostly) had a lesson plan and I followed it. Even when I flew by the seat of my pants, I could turn on a dog and pony show for observers, and I could make it fit whatever we were reading or studying. The day this administrator came in, we happened to be doing a grammar lesson.

Oh. Joy. Nothing a bunch of thugs like better than literature, unless it's grammar.

They were all great, though. They answered questions when I asked, they followed along, they didn't ask why I was being nicer to them than usual, and they behaved.

And then I looked at the row of desks on the left side of the room, the one next to the door. The student in the third desk had his hand raised to answer a question.

It was Shawn. And he managed to get the answer out. And it was correct.

To this day I don't know if Shawn thought I needed to be saved. Or if he just wanted to impress me.

But I can't tell that story to anyone without getting choked up.

I hope Shawn is doing well somewhere. He deserves it more than a lot of kids I can think of from that time period.


Kelly said...

You should write a book.

DJan said...

I feel like I met these three kids. And Shawn, I hope you're doing well somewhere in the world. Maybe I've even had a conversation with you. I hope so.

Thanks for this, B. It's very moving.