The rosy glow of the holidays had long disappeared. The high school class of at-risk boys I team-teach had sunk into a deep malaise. In the first months of the semester, our progress had taken two back-to-back hits.
The first came with the news that Anel had punched a boy, drawing blood, while riding the school bus. It was all recorded by the on-board camera.
Anel’s height, well over six feet, combined with his lack of coordination, his youth, his anger issues, and a host of other burdens, has been working against him since the fifth grade. Anything can set him off.
The police and the principal met the bus when it pulled into the school. Once the tape was reviewed, different disciplinary measures were allotted. Anel was the most affected—he was already on probation.
Anel was required to report to a tribunal held by the Board of Education. From past experience, the teaching team knew he would not be returning to our high school.
The counselor lobbied a disciplinary board member to give Anel a chance at a school that shared dialogue with our high school because we knew some of the administrators there. The counselor convinced the board member that having our experience to inform Anel’s new school would benefit all involved.
Anel had been emailing us since he’d been home. Every note was a plea to let him back into our school, but the day he was sent home, we told him we had no control over that.
We promised to help him make the transition to his new location. The principal reminded Anel that wherever he went, his ability to control himself would determine the results.
When the teaching team met, we talked about how to find a way to enable Anel to preserve the sense of self we thought he had attained before, and in spite of, the altercation on the bus.
We had worked with all the boys’ parents and had gotten each of them to grant us permission to keep the boys on the path to graduation with creative disciplinary measures. For instance, Estevan had trouble waking up in the morning and his mother went to work early, so she wasn’t there to boot him out of bed.
The second time Estevan missed a day because he slept in, the principal arranged for the school’s police officer to drive by Estevan’s house in the squad car on her way to work. It was a very effective way to ensure Estevan’s future timeliness.
The kids had great fun talking about the principal’s ambushes, like the morning Thomas was standing in a long line at the school’s attendance office when the principal, a good eight inches taller, tapped Thomas on the shoulder:
“Morning, Thomas. Why are you late?”
The startled, sleepy boy, with his backward cap pressing long bangs over his eyes, came up with a quick lie.
“My mother got up late and so I was late.”
The principal took out his cell phone: “What’s your mother’s phone number?”
By the end of that phone call, guess who was going to stay after school to attend the math make-up sessions held each afternoon?
As for Anel, his mother and the teaching team had become the leaders of a village prepared to raise her child—until he decked the kid on the school bus and derailed our efforts. Even so, we still felt a commitment.
Since the principal was going to a meeting close to Anel’s new school, he managed to find time to share a meal with Anel and his parents, so they could talk about what was ahead for their boy. Then the whole group went over to Anel’s new school, where a 10-minute introduction communicated the hope that Anel might start on a fresh path.
While all that was going on, I began to notice a change in Fernando, whose normally cheerful work ethic had suffered a complete turnaround.
Fernando was a “Freshmore”—a student with one foot in two different grade levels. He came to the U.S. at age 9, spoke English with a slight accent and only a few errors. He was passing all his core subjects, though he continued to fail classes like Phys. Ed. and Music Appreciation.
I had been helping Fernando with his sophomore English class and was impressed with his progress. The class was studying J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.
The last task for the unit was to write a 750-word essay. The assignment: Choose one scene in the book which relates to your life and explain how.
Fernando chose the thread about Allie Caulfield’s baseball mitt, which Holden inherited upon his brother Allie’s death. The glove has lines from poetry on its palm that Allie had written on it.
Fernando told me about a soccer ball he had from the team he played on in Mexico. All his friends had signed it when they knew he was leaving. Since Fernando had been here, he’d added lines in Spanish beneath their names that corresponded with a song lyric that one kid liked or a silly name another was called. In Fernando’s essay he wrote that, for years, the soccer ball was the only thing that felt like home.
When he showed me the high grade on his paper, we high-fived. A few days later, on January 27, 2010, when the news of J.D. Salinger’s death hit Fernando’s cell phone, he came by to share the news as if a mutual friend had died.
So when Fernando returned after a long weekend in February with his surly attitude, I was astonished. In no time, he was failing math and serving in-school suspension for for mouthing off to his English teacher about how Shakespeare sucked.
I tried to talk to Fernando in private but he continued to blow me off, refusing to even look me in the eye. I called home and left messages that weren’t returned, but his parents had always been uncommunicative.
Then Fernando stopped coming to school.
I went to his counselor and talked to the principal. They both made a trip over to Fernando’s house one afternoon with a volunteer Spanish linguist. Through the interpreter Fernando’s father told them his son was 16 and he was working for the family business now—institutional cleaning. The boy’s father made it clear this had always been the plan and it was really none of the school’s business.
After our class had met a few times without the familiar chemistry of Anel and Fernando, I began to think about the five boys who had been diverted by different paths, and I realized we were a team of teachers “standing at the edge of some crazy cliff,” but unlike Holden, we knew we could never catch all the runners in the rye.
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