Many of my at-risk students struggle with issues stemming from poverty and race. But abusive wealth and privilege can be equally harmful.
I team-teach a class of high school boys who have been labeled “at-risk.”
When people ask questions about the term, a bias often emerges that assumes the boys struggle with issues stemming from poverty and race.
The second column in this series drew a comment from a reader who suggested the boys’ self-esteem suffered the effects of low income and ethnicity, side-stepping the fact that the “Lonely Boy” highlighted was an affluent Caucasian.
It is true that boys of color have come through this program who lived unspeakable lives of poverty. One teen had lived in a car with his family for three years. I had a student who slept in the airport every night to get away from the meth in his home. I had a boy so full of self-hate that he told me being black was his curse in life.
However, I want to make it abundantly clear that abusive wealth and privilege is an equal component of the mysterious mix that puts a youngster at risk.
I have written of Thomas, whose sense of entitlement evoked a pompous statement about hiring good lawyers to get out of trouble, and Jonathan, whose home life in a six-bedroom chalet was a nightmare.
Meet Robert, a 16-year-old who came to school when he felt like it and said he didn’t need a degree because his father was going to bring him into the family business when he turned 18.
Robert wasn’t passing any of his classes. His parents told the counselor that he could catch up in summer school, as he had done since the seventh grade.
When Robert did come to school—with excuse notes written by his mother blaming the “sniffles”—he passively disrupted classes with petty thefts, whispered epithets, and artistic renderings of sexual organs.
I asked him why he hated school so much.
He said: “Oh, there are some things I like about school. I like it when I get my teachers fired.”
“Oh, you’re the one who does that?” I joked.
“Talk to my middle school teachers, you’ll see,” Robert replied, and leaned back in his desk with a smugness that made the other boys look for a response from me, but I have developed a poker face for moments just like this one.
Robert had advised the group on a few occasions that he was aware no one liked him.
The principal commented once: “Do you ever think you go out of your way to be unlikable?”
“I don’t care. I could buy everyone in this room,” Robert replied.
“With your daddy’s money,” Sadique said.
“No. It’s my money. My parents do whatever I say.”
Robert was completely serious when he said this, and I thought: “How much more at-risk can you get?”
Since the teenage anthem “I don’t care” speaks ironic volumes, the teaching team decided Robert needed to recognize how much he really did care. So I made him the leader in a game called “Trip Trick.”
I found Robert before classes started the next day and asked him to be our “shill” in the game. I told him what to do when I called on him, stressing that the key to solving the puzzle was to observe the body language of the speaker. Unless, the respondent brushed his hand through his hair, he couldn’t go anywhere. “Play along with me,” I said.
When I instructed the class about the rules, I only told them to try to figure out the formula that allowed one to go on a trip.
In the beginning, I deliberately misled them:
“I’m going on a trip to Alaska. I’m bringing my best friend Albert and”—I casually brushed my hair back as if thinking—”some aspirin.”
“I got you. I got you,” Estevan said. “I’m going to Alaska and I’m bringing my best friend Arthur and some apples. Take that, y’all!”
Estevan slapped the desk and started to join me up front.
“Well, you aren’t going on that trip.” I replied.
“You kiddin’ me? Whaaaaat? I said ‘Alaska, Arthur, and apples,’ right? You heard me, right?”
“Yes, that’s right … but oh so wrong,” I said, smiling.
Meanwhile, Robert was bursting with conspiracy in the back of the room.
“I’ll try another one. Now pay attention,” I said. “I’m going to Michigan. (hands combed through hair) with my dog, and I’m bringing a laptop.”
A collective “Huhhhhh?” resounded throughout the room, so I composed a few more unrelated adventures finally suggesting Robert give it a try.
Robert performed his part with great flourish, smoothing back his hair before he began: “I’m taking a really awesome yacht, and I’m going to Dubai with a babe.”
I offered a dramatic pause, just enough so everyone thought Robert was about to be shot down, until I said with game-show gusto: “Then come on down. You’re goin’ to Dubai!”
Robert came to the front with self-awarded fanfare that psyched up the others to find the key to winning an imaginary trip for themselves.
They loved the game. Those who realized the trick were filled with confidence. They ran to join us, arguing about who was going to give the trip information next.
The principal, who wasn’t in on the trick, happened to be among those still seated. He was losing with a smile on his face, but that wasn’t where he was comfortable. In a third attempt, the principal repeated the exact answer recently awarded a trip, but he failed to touch his hair.
The group at the front guffawed and pointed, loving how wrong he was.
The boys in the seats defended him.
“How come?” One of them demanded. “What’s wrong with that answer? You can’t say that’s wrong. This is so unfair. Man, he was not wrong. Wow. You guys are cheating big-time.”
But Estevan, who had been sitting there in determined concentration, said: “I got it. I got it.”
He repeated the principal’s exact words and rubbed his hair before combing it straight up with his fingers.
I let the trip-takers tell the three remaining in their seats what the trick was. The victors bragged about their skills, pounding their chests and strutting around before taking their seats.
The discussion centered on acceptance and rejection, involvement and passivity, the bonds shared through victory and loss, as well as observation skills. It ended with a discussion of knowledge and power.
I asked: “Who holds the most power in this room?”
Without exception they pointed to the principal.
“Then why couldn’t he figure out the answer to this puzzle?”
They shouted responses and I cut them off.
“Wait a minute. Which player held the most power in the game?”
Unanimously they said Robert.
“What did he have that the principal didn’t?” I asked.
And everyone knew what it was: “The answer.”
Sometimes, teachers just throw the lesson out there. I’ll probably never know if Robert absorbed the empowerment of information. He transferred to an alternative high school when he came of age and earned an equivalency diploma. I can only hope someday in his father’s company, he remembers what it felt like to hold the key to inspiring others to run up along side of him in a collaborative journey toward success.