I don’t know what to do about Katy.
I’m sure she could harm herself.
I’m equally certain she could inflict damage on someone else.
Two days ago, she turned in an essay in my tenth-grade Honors English class in the Los Angeles public school where I teach. The assignment entitled, S/He Had a History, is based on a chapter in Tim O’Brien’s novel, Going After Cacciato, in which Paul Berlin, a 20-year-old American soldier in Vietnam, sensing he may not survive the war, thinks back on his life.
Here are some of my students’ opening lines:
She had a history that involved a violent father.
He had a history of his parents who didn’t care if he went to school or not.
She had a history of living in constant crisis. People put her down and reminded her she was no one.
She attended five funerals by the time she was eleven.
He had a history of carrying a .22mm Glock at 14 years old because no one had his back.
All these statements are sad and shocking, yet I have gotten to know these young writers over the first 15 weeks and I see them in class writing, sharing their stories, building friendships. I seem them growing, maturing, dealing positively with the hands they’ve been dealt.
But not Katy.
She wrote, “She had a long history of depression.”
Six weeks ago, I sent her to the nurse’s Office when she told me she was feeling ill. She often seeks refuge there. On this occasion, she returned 20 minutes later full of energy and bouncing her basketball that she had retrieved from the nurse’s office. When I told her that she didn’t have to lie about why she needed to leave class, she shouted, “Half of everything you say is bullshit!”
Then she stormed out of the room.
After school, I met with the dean who looked at me and said, “Who is it?”
“Katy Brown,” I said.
“She curse you out?”
“First time that’s happened in my 24 years of teaching.”
“She has a long history of speaking her mind.”
The dean called Katy’s mother and set up a conference.
Mom never showed.
Dad is an alcoholic and he and his daughter avoid each other.
For the next five days Katy ditched my class.
Upon her return, she handed me a blue form issued by the school in which the student is prompted to apologize and promise to behave well. A meaningless exercise.
Back in class, Katy went through her usual motions: some days she slept; some days she drew the girls sitting next to her into her daily drama; other times she held hands with and stroked the hair of Mariana, the cheerleader who sits behind her.
When Katy read her She Had a History essay which included references to her drinking, drug usage, cutting and years of loneliness, the class responded with spontaneous applause, an act of kindness, respect, acceptance.
Later, I motioned her into the hallway and said, “That was great writing and amazingly brave of you. Thanks for reading.”
“It’s all true,” she said.
“I believe you. And listen, I get it. I grew up in a family that suffered depression. I had an aunt who was institutionalized. And uncle who underwent electroshock. As a kid, every time I reached into a kitchen cabinet for a glass, I knocked over bottles of anti-depressants. Are you getting help?”
“I see a therapist,” she said.
“On campus or off?”
“Listen, if you ever need to go see the school psychologist or you need to leave class and walk around campus, or talk to a friend, just say so. Okay?”
I felt we made progress. A connection.
The next day I stood at the podium waiting for the bell to ring to start class. Suddenly, I heard a crash, then my knee buckled.
I looked up.
Katy was flying out the door.
Her desk lay sideways on the floor.
Her backpack, stuffed with textbooks, had ricocheted off the wall and struck my knee.
I approached her friends.
“I didn’t hear any arguing? What happened?”
“It was about something at lunch,” Lillian Hernandez said.
Thirty minutes later, Katy returned, tears streaming down her face.
“Want to tell me about it?” I asked.
“I’ll be okay,” she said. “Can I get my cellphone and backpack?”
I retrieved her things.
“Do me a favor. Go sit in the nurse’s office and come talk to me after school. I don’t want you leaving campus in this state.”
She didn’t come back.
After school, I met with her counselor. Katy’s school rap sheet ran several pages. I was the sixth teacher over the last four years Katy had cursed. In middle school, she had been suspended for using marijuana and cocaine.
Katy is 16.
An Honors and AP student.
And in constant pain.
Her family seems to have given up on her.
Her teachers can’t control her.
Her therapists have failed to help her cope with her anger.
She’s my student.
And she’s drowning.
She’s a kid who has experienced something terrible, some hurt so deep she apparently can’t name it.
She has two and a half more years of school before she is thrust out into the world with no one to turn to.
So what do we do about Katy?
I am open to suggestions.
Photo credit: Getty Images