In the spring of 1998, it was my fourth year of teaching and my first year at what was considered to be the “worst” elementary school in my county. It serviced a very poor neighborhood on the edges of a huge military base. At various times it was, in fact, off-limits to military personnel. Not a weekend went by without a murder, a robbery, a domestic dispute that erupted into violence, “court” versus “court” rumbles, and at least one arrest – and usually more than one.
The school population was predominantly African-American, and eighty-nine percent of the student body received free breakfast and lunch.
During the 1996-1997 school year, the state threatened to take over the school due to poor test performance and behavioral issues. The principal was replaced mid-year. The new principal told the school board and the Superintendent to forget any change in test scores that first half a year; she had to get the school under control before any academic changes could occur. To that end, all staff had to go through the hiring process again – more than half were thanked for their time and sent on their way. Mrs. T. changed everything about the way that school did business and stuck to her belief (which I share) that students must feel safe before any learning can occur. The home lives of most of our students were so unstable, so crazy, that it was no wonder academics were the last thing on their list of priorities. Making it through another day in one piece was number one for most of them.
I’ll save the rest of the story about the school itself for another day. Let me say, though, that Mrs. T. and her new staff and positive student/family policies made a really huge difference to those children and their families.
Anyway, during the 1997-1998 school year I taught a self-contained class of about thirteen students. I was lucky enough to have an assistant, Mrs. M. She was wonderful. I don’t know how I would have managed without her.
The students in our class were in grades two through six. One child had mild cerebral palsy, three were borderline mentally retarded, five were emotionally disturbed, and four had a learning disability. Scattered throughout the children were other issues, such as ADHD, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and Autism. I was teaching all four academic subjects (English, Math, Science and Social Studies) across all five grades, trying to differentiate everything so it hit everyone at their own level. It was a difficult assignment, but I truly loved it.
One of my students, the one about whom I was thinking today – hence this story – was a third grader named D. He was small – maybe, maybe, three and a half feet tall. He had a well-above-average IQ. He was emotionally disturbed. His head was shaved, he was thin, he was fast, and he could be really mean – his temper was legendary in the neighborhood.
At the age of five, D. had seen his cousin murdered. He then took a knife, used a mirror so he could see his shoulder, and carved a “V” into his shoulder blade. He did this, he later explained to me, to remind him of his cousin’s murder and his vow to avenge him. He was very disturbed.
I loved him, but I didn’t trust him very much, until one day in December.
I had this thing with my elementary kids, where, if I thought they weren’t telling me the truth, I would say that I could smell their hair burning when they lied. (A trick my aunt used on her kids to great effect back in the day.)
One day a student approached me and told me that D had done something offensive (I can’t recall what), but when I asked D. about it he denied it. I looked at him suspiciously. He hopped up and down, rubbing the fuzz on his head.
“Mrs. B.!! I’m not lying, I swear!!”
“Are you sure, D?” I asked.
“Smell my hair!!! Smell my hair, Mrs. B!! I’m telling the truth, I promise!!”
I smothered the laugh that threatened to erupt, knelt down and obliged, making a pretense of smelling his hair. Nodding, I hugged him and told him I believed him. He smiled, relieved, and yelled, “I told you so!” when the child who had come to me initially hung his head in shame and admitted he had lied. From that point on I trusted D. and knew he trusted me.
That he trusted me was proven out even more later that year.
One afternoon in May I walked my students out of the school at the end of the day. Mrs. M. had left early for a doctor’s appointment. I watched as the students moved, en masse, to cross the street and return to their homes. Smiling, glad the day was over and I, too, could go home, I went back to my classroom to get my things.
I was startled, upon entering, to see D. sitting at his desk, drawing. I asked what he was doing back in the classroom. He refused to answer me, just kept drawing, scribbling, really, with a black crayon, making huge sweeping movements on the white paper in front of him. I walked over to him, knelt by his desk and tried again.
“D. D? Honey, you have to go home now.”
He shook his head in the negative.
“Yes, dear, you need to go home. I have to go home, too, because my son will be getting home from school soon and I need to be there for him.”
He shook his head again and kept drawing, refusing to even make eye contact with me.
Five more minutes of talking – in a calm, quiet voice – proved fruitless. The only responses I received from D. were head shaking and one, “NO. I am NOT going home.”
At a loss, I called the office and asked for our head of security, Mr. P. He came down to the room. He had no more luck with D. than I did. After several minutes, Mr. P. told me to leave the room and said he would have to call the police. We are not allowed to touch students, so we couldn’t MAKE him get up and go home, so calling the police was, apparently, the only option.
Reluctantly, I left the room, asking D. one more time if he wouldn’t, please, come with me and go home. He looked up at me, finally making eye contact, but shook his head no. I walked out into the media center, which was also the center of the school, and decided to wait there until D. had gone home.
I watched the policemen walk towards my room a few minutes later. There were, I noticed, three of them. Three really large policemen, all to deal with a little third grade boy not even four feet tall.
Suddenly I heard yelling. Startled, I looked towards my room.
The three policemen rounded the corner carrying D. It took all three of them. In their arms he was bucking, flailing his arms, and screaming at the top of his lungs –
“Fuck you, you mother fuckers!! Put me the fuck down or I will fucking kill you!”
He tried to bite the policeman whose arm was closest to his face.
“Goddammit!! Fuck you, pigs! Let me fucking go!!!! I fucking hate you, fucking mother fuckers!!”
I wanted to cry as they passed me on the way to the office. I looked around the media center and was sorry to see four or five general education teachers standing in the media center, watching D.’s not-so-graceful exit. I was sorry they were seeing him at his worst, knew it would forever color their dealings with him. Shrugging, I turned to follow D. and his escort, determined to see if there was anything I could do to help.
They had taken him to a small conference room off the main office. I walked into the room to see D. sitting in a chair much too big for him, his little hands gripping the arms of the chair so tightly that his dark cream colored skin showed almost bone white. Tears were threatening to run down his face. The three policemen were standing together at the end of the conference table, about six feet from D. I sat in a chair opposite D. and smiled encouragingly at him. He looked at me; stared, really, tears still filling his eyes. After a few moments he appeared to calm down a bit. I spoke to him softly. I don’t really remember what I said.
Mr. P., the school security officer, came into the room, nodded at the police, then looked at D.
“I called home, D., and someone is on their way to get you. I am sorry it had to come to this, son, but we really had no choice.” Mr. P. was an African-American gentleman of average height and build, with a usually smiling face. Not smiling at that moment, though.
D. looked up and said, “Fuck you, Mr. P., and you cops, too. Fuck you. I’m not going home!” His body had tensed again at Mr. P’s words, almost as if he was expecting a blow.
No one spoke for the next few minutes, we just waited for someone from D.’s home to arrive.
“Where the fuck is he?” I hear someone growl in the main office.
“I don’t have time for this shit. Where – “
The door opened and in walked a very dark-skinned woman in, perhaps, her early fifties. Her face was angry, her eyes bulging, her hair in disarray.
D.’s whole body language screamed fear as soon as she entered the room.
She approached the table and began screaming at him immediately.
“What the fuck wrong with you, boy?”
As she spoke, she reached toward him and he flinched away from her. I knew what that meant and I was already sorrier than I could say that we had called this woman to come and get him. I was to become even sorrier.
“You think I’m gonna put up with this shit?” She screamed. “Well, I won’t, dammit. You think yer gonna grow up to be like yer damn father?? Well! I tell you, “she leaned forward, index finger in his face, voice lowered menacingly, “I tell you that I will fucking KILL YOU MYSELF before I let that happen!”
Her voiced raised to a near scream. “You hear me, boy?” She slapped his face. “You fucking hear me???”
D. said nothing, just nodded, crying even harder.
I looked at Mr. P. and at the three policemen, totally in shock. How could they let her treat him this way? Wasn’t her behavior illegal? Certainly they weren’t going to let this crazy woman take him home??
Mr. P. was looking at the floor, obviously uncomfortable. The policemen were looking at each other or at the wall, one of them even smiling. I was nauseated.
The woman, D.’s grandmother I found out later, then uttered her piece-de-resistance: “You’re such a bad child. I will not let you upset yer mother anymore. She has cancer, boy, and it all because of YOU! You’re killin’ yer ma and I ain’t gonna let you hurt her no more!!!” She raised her hand as if to strike him again, and, finally, one of the policemen did something.
“Ma’am,” he said in a very stern voice as he shook his head in the negative.
She started in on D. again and I could no longer take it. I got up, like a coward, and left the room, leaning against the wall, tears now streaming down my face, my breath ragged. A moment later the door I had just used opened again and out walked Mr. P. I could still hear the grandmother screaming at D. I put my hands over my ears and cried harder.
Mr. P. tapped me on the shoulder. “Robin. Get back in that room.”
I stared at him as if he had told me to fly to the moon. “No. I can’t go back in there. I cannot listen to her anymore. Please…” I looked at him pleadingly.
“Robin, that boy in there needs you. Now go splash your face and get back in there. Now.”
I hung my head, crossed the hall to the staff lounge, and splashed cool water on my face. I grabbed a few tissues and headed back to the conference room.
Stealing myself, I took a deep breath and opened the door. It was quiet – at last – in the room. Mr. P. looked at me and said, “Ah, Mrs. B. Glad you could rejoin us. D. is going home in a few minutes. Shall I go get his things from the room?”
“I’’ll fuckin’ go,” the grandmother jumped in. “I got to get the fuck home to the kids, no time for this shit.”
I looked at D. and then at her. “How about if I take him to the room, Ma’am? You rest here and we’ll be right back.”
She started to argue but Mr. P. cut her off, saying, “I think that’s an excellent idea, Mrs. B. I’ll escort you both.”
I took D.’s hand and we left the conference room followed by Mr. P., but not, thankfully, by the grandmother.
We talked quietly about homework and “normal” things til we got to the classroom. Once in the room I helped him pack his backpack, slipping a few pieces of candy into the outside pocket. I smiled at him and he smiled shyly back. Mr. P. stayed in the background, giving D. some space.
As we started to leave the room, D. pulled my hand and called my name. I turned around and looked at him questioningly.
A tear trickled down his cheek. He held out his arms to me. I got on my knees and hugged him tightly, and he hugged me back.
“I love you, Mrs. B.” he whispered.
“I know, D. I can’t smell your hair, so I know you are telling me the truth.” We looked at each other and laughed, then I said, “I love you, too, D. Now let’s go. When you come back on Monday we’ll have a great day, right?”
He nodded, and we headed back to the office.
Mr. P. and I stood in front of the school and watched them cross the street on their way home, waving at D. when he turned around to look at us helplessly.
I looked at Mr. P. and said, “What the hell? If I lived with that lady I’d be emotionally disturbed, too, wouldn’t you?”
Mr. P. replied, “For certain sure, Robin. For certain fucking sure I would.”