My Biggest Fear has evolved. It isn’t, surprisingly, early death by manic clowns with vampire fangs (specifically in the showers of the locker room at the PEC on campus in Wooster, Ohio), as it has been for a significant portion of my life. It isn’t even failure, which one would expect from this job. It isn’t being brainwashed into loving country music and the confederacy (although the former MIGHT be happening, thanks to the radio).
My biggest fear is 5-9 and his head is way bigger than his body (foreshadowing…keep this in mind). He has a long neck that makes him look like a charmed snake and his favorite activities include zipping his orange Aeropostale sweatshirt all the way up while simultaneously pulling his hood over his face, basketball, and spiting me. His name is T and every day is a battle. He’s my biggest fear and my biggest fear within my biggest fear is letting him down.
He’s brilliant (score!) and he knows it (problem…and also why his head is actually physically large). He’s in English 11 (score!) but he rolls around on the floor during ACT Prep (problem). He got a 19 on the ACT as an 8th grader (score!) but he wants to get a 34 and go to Duke (for this Terp fan, that is a MAJOR PROBLEM).
I can’t even pinpoint his behavior. I can barely describe it. I just know that one day he’ll tell me he hates me and the next he’ll follow me out to my car during lunch because he hears I’m going to Subway, grab at the door handles, find that he is locked out, perch ON TOP OF the car and refuse to leave. The next day he’ll stay in my classroom during lunch and show me videos of NBA slam dunk competitions and the next day he’ll flip a desk over. The next day I’ll pace around an empty classroom with his mom on the phone for 20 minutes wanting to pull my hair out, and she’ll sigh and say maybe she should pull him out of the school, and I’ll have that awful heavy tears-behind-the-eyes feeling (ultimate letdown).
When my alarm goes off in the morning I’m thinking 3 things: what’s today’s lesson (check), why am I getting pinkeye again (check), and WHAT THE HELL AM I GOING TO DO ABOUT T TODAY (no check. there’s never an answer).
I fear I’m running out of solutions. He wants to be challenged, he says, so I painstakingly copy challenge problems from the ACT workbook but he throws them in my face. He has no pride in our school, he says, so I ask him to recite the creed the next day, which he does robotically, his neck swinging on his head like he has never cared less about anything in his life. I say hi to him in the hallways, but he doesn’t respond, choosing instead to push one of his many girlfriends (seriously?) up against the wall and pretend to choke them (which is true love, I guess, and makes them giggle) (seriously????). I remind him he’s in English 11 and honors geometry, a 10th grade class, and he gets in my face and tells me to stop holding him to higher standards just because I know he can do it (bahahah. hahahahahha. Wait, still laughing. hahahahahahahahahahahhahahHAHAHAHAH).
Last Tuesday T stayed in my classroom for the first part of lunch. We talked about basketball (he’s on varsity, which is pretty insane for a 9th-grader), earthquakes, and the changing landscape of education in America. He pointed out things about our school and about our country’s education system that I have yet to hear from middle-aged experienced vets and I found myself truly engaged–questioning my assumptions, nodding my head as he spoke (FYI, this is my biggest pet peeve, but this kid was SPOT ON), everything I want my kids to do when they listen to me. And this was coming from a dude whose daily aspirations include beating his highest score in Call of Duty and eating en entire bag of Hot Cheetos without needing water.
Finally I interrupted him and said, “Look. Whatever you do with your life, it NEEDS to be in education.”
He swiveled his bobble head like he was confused. “Why?”
“We need you. Whatever it is that we need in education, you’ve got it. You see what needs to be fixed. You see how you can change things. Listen, I’m opening a school. I need you to work there. You can teach, then you can eventually become principal. Then you can get into educational policy and then you can really work for change. Sound good? Good.”
“What do you think?”
“….Nah. I’m gonna be a physical therapist.”
“Well FINE. You can be a teacher AND a coach at my school. Either way you’re working there. Settled?”
Settled for me, at least. He went off to to lunch to do whatever 14-year-old boys do at lunch, which I now know may involve trying to hijack teachers’ cars.
We had a parent meeting two days later, an opportunity for our school community (parents, teachers, staff) to come out, pinpoint exactly what issues were holding back our collective education, and come up with solutions. T swore up an down that his “mama wouldn’t be coming because she hates things like this”; I greeted her at the door (duh). We broke up into focus groups and I called T over to my table. I sat him down amongst all these parents and told him to talk. I said I wanted him to be part of the solution. And talk he did. He talked about low expectations for academic and behavior and how these were doing horrible things. He talked about how one or two kids could throw off the entire chemistry of a classroom community. He talked about EVERY DAMN THING I’ve been experiencing this entire time, he identified EVERY PROBLEM I associate with the achievement gap, and he held his own among these 40-year-olds, let me tell you.
So here’s what I’ve come up with: the 8-year plan (possibly 7), to be presented to T tomorrow at lunch.
Step 1: T passes all his classes this year, gets a 25 on the ACT as a freshman (which would involve being fully engaged and participating in my class, dude, SO GET ON IT), moves up to 10th grade (and consequently to 11th grade math and 12th grade English), starts taking college courses in 11th grade, continues in 12th grade (meanwhile owning on the basketball court…this is, after all, his plan, not mine) and graduates with a 34 on the ACT (no question)
Step 2: He goes to Duke. Whatever, I’ve stopped fighting it.
Step 3: Graduates from Duke and goes into education. Some way, some how. I don’t care if it’s Teach for America or Teaching Fellows or a master’s in education or WHATEVER as long as he shows up at the door of my new school ready to work.
Step 4: He teaches 9th grade. He meets a kid the first day of school who drives him crazy. Sometimes the kid jumps on the roof of his car and sometimes the kids overturns a desk or three when he’s angry. But the kid has a glint in his eye, like he knows the kid cares about him. He engages in ferocious, painstaking daily battles with the kid. He simultaneously wants to smack the kid and do everything in his power to make sure he becomes president of the United States. One day the kid does something that makes him so angry that he brings him to me, the principal, and says he can’t do it anymore.
Step 5: I laugh in his face and tell him to suck it up.
Something tells me he’ll be fine.