In the latest installment of ‘Believing in Boys,’ the class penetrates a brick wall of entitlement.
At our weekly meeting about motivating the at-risk high-school boys I teach with the school’s principal and a counselor, it is obvious we are drained and tired.
We agreed to handle the discipline issues of the 15 boys in our class, but it has become clear that we’ve taken on much more than we intended. These boys have been disrupting classes and school systems like professionals for years, and a few I-love-yous from the administration isn’t going to change that overnight.
The biggest blow to our progress is the on-campus arrest of one of our own for dealing drugs at school. The event weighs on us, though it is not a total surprise: Clayton, the boy involved, hasn’t looked us in the eye since day one. If the other boys were laughing with us, Clayton was clearly laughing at us. His basic expression during class was a surly smirk, accompanied by a posture that said “fuck you.”
We had repeated conversations with him about giving the class a chance, but Clayton was only in school because the system required it. Kids like Clayton were offered a second chance after serving time for a major juvenile offense, which in his case involved a weapons charge.
We’d promised to believe in the boys without judging them for their past actions, but Clayton had never experienced faith, so the concept was foreign to him. At our teachers’ meeting, we prepare to handle whatever questions arise about his arrest with only the information we are legally allowed to divulge—but first we have to deal with the less serious infractions that caused the boys to receive disciplinary write-ups from other staff members.
In class, the principal asks Thomas to step to the front of the room and explain to the class why he gave his algebra teacher the finger in response to her request to remove his hat. Remaining hatless during the day is part of the school’s culture, a hard and fast rule that has been enforced with relative ease for more than a decade.
“She’s nasty,” Thomas offers.
“So, it was about her, not you?” I ask.
“Have you ever really looked at her? I mean, for 54 minutes every day of the week? She’s two times nasty.”
The counselor saves me: “Thomas … focus. Let’s get back to how the person who gets flipped off feels, and why it’s a crude, rude, and obnoxious gesture.”
We go around like this until the principal begins to recognize the rhythm of an Abbott and Costello routine. He disrupts the flow of deflecting responsibility by turning to the rest of the group and asking who else had ever given the finger to a teacher’s face. No one responds.
“Assuming your silence means that none of you have actually flipped your finger at a teacher’s face, how many of you have wanted to, but stopped yourselves?”
All hands reach upward.
“OK. Who wants to tell Thomas why I asked this question?” the principal asks.
Eduardo is waving his hand wildly to be chosen as the kid who gets to quote an oft-repeated class theme. He spits it out before being called on: “Thinking about it happens before doing it.”
Thomas musters up a lip-curling reply: “Well, I did think about it and I decided to do it.”
This is our dance with Thomas. He’s a very intelligent boy who has interpreted the comments about his potential over the years to mean that he’s so gifted, that he’s learned it all. Couple that with a sense of entitlement earned from wealthy, divorced parents who buy his forgiveness, and the result is a finger-flipping, arrogant teen who believes all adults are the spawn of Satan.
Thomas has accepted little that we’ve offered him, other than a forum to express his genuine disdain for all things school-related. There are days when the barrier he throws up is impenetrable. For instance, the school’s guitar teacher volunteered to give the class lessons for an hour each week. During the first class, Thomas refuses to pick up an instrument, saying he only likes rap and “everything else is crap.”
Like the parents of a raging 2-year-old, the adults ignore him. Within 10 minutes, the rest of us have learned to play the opening of “Sunshine of Your Love” with one finger on one string. There is a real sense of appreciation and accomplishment in the room as we rock our own versions of Cream’s hit for one another. I look over at Thomas, who is pretending to be asleep.
All of this to explain that when we address Clayton’s arrest with the class later that day, it is Thomas who challenges the issue.
“Why’d you have to ruin his life and have him arrested?” he asks the principal.
“That kind of derailment might actually help Clayton,” the principal replies. “He broke the law, Thomas.”
“Maybe the law’s broken,” Thomas snarls back.
We launch into a talk about where laws come from and how to work to change the ones we don’t like. We compare the laws of a classroom, a family, and a team to the laws of a society at large. The principal, who’d once taught in a school for juvenile offenders, tells us about a boy like Clayton who’d resisted every offer to step on the right path and ended up sentenced to life in prison just two years after leaving the facility.
Thomas pipes in with his opinion immediately: “That guy got rooked because he didn’t hire a good enough lawyer.” Many of the boys in the class know what happens to people who can’t afford to hire attorneys, and they burst out laughing at him.
Eduardo says: “Hey, man, your rich parents ain’t bought you nothin’ but stupid!”
We all take out our journals to write about the conversation. After class, when I read Thomas’ entry, he’s written the exact words of Eduardo’s comment in one-inch letters on the page, with a small remark beneath them addressed to me: “Mrs. R: I may have actually heard that.”