Friday, June 23, 2006


“It’s 9:30. Where have you been Ron?”

“I was out late dude. You know, taking care of biz”

“Shouldn’t you be in second period taking your final exam?”

“Damn dude I forgot all about it. It don’t matter. I’m probably not passing math anyway.”

I’ve known Ronnie since the sixth grade. Even then his mother thought it would be cool if she had him wear a “grill” of highly polished stainless steel over his upper teeth. I always called him Ron instead of Ronnie. It tended to make him feel more like a young man.

Ron and I had fought the grade battle for several years. He understood he would never be an “A” student and I understood he would always be a “C, D” student. I always stressed schoolwork when we talked. More importantly he knew he needed to be a young man instead of a street thug. Most of the time he failed at his schoolwork, but seldom did he fail to be a young man.

When others saw him on the street, they saw a thug. He usually dressed in very dark, baggy, and layered clothing. His hair worn in long braids. Most often he has a hood dangling on the back of his head. His crowning glories are the dark glasses hiding his eyes and the shiny grill reflecting out of his mouth. All of this camouflage did an excellent job of hiding a good-hearted soul mostly missed by the casual observer.

Ron struggles with the street. He struggles with a very religious mother. However, he mostly struggles with himself. In the hood, everyday, he sees quick money and friends disappearing either into jail or the graveyard. Thanks to the influence of this and his family he has a small tolerance for Caucasians. Several times he let me know that Caucasian was a funny name, “Sounds like a pair of shoes. Yes, I would like to have a pair of Caucasians in size twelve.” Then he would laugh making the sound of air leaking from a tire.

“Good morning Ron.”

“Morning man,” he replied each morning entering my portable classroom. I don’t remember him ever having breakfast before coming to school. So each morning he microwaved Ramon Noodles, chicken flavored, before heading out to English One. During three years in high school he tried passing English without ever getting close. However, he never quit attending the class. Each year I had to argue with his teacher not to socially pass him just to not have him in class the following year. As the end of year four approached, he proudly possessed a 71 in English.

I watched on a very fine Sunday afternoon as he walked across the graduation stage. I honestly thought he was taller. Afterwards, as I leaned against the exit door watching the graduation crowd of students and families, I saw Ron being hugged by his mother, older brother, and stepfather.

Seventh grade was the pivotal point in our relationship. Ron was small in stature and large in mouth. Ms. Ellison was and continues to be a stodgy English teacher. She rules her domain. That domain being her classroom and the students are her minions. They must all fit the mold of hard working, respectful (by her definition), and most importantly quiet. Ron could not comply with one of these demands let along all three.

Right after first class began my classroom door was flung open banging against the wall. Ron came running in with tears beginning to fill his eyes. Close on his heels marched Ms. Ellison. Her tan corduroy pants “zipped” as her legs moved her forward in pursuit of Ron to further punish him.

“He is not to be in my class again. He cannot behave. He’s nothing but trouble. Do you hear me Ron? You’re not to come into my class again!” I wanted to tell her that the yelling was unbecoming to a teacher, but I was more concerned with Ron then an irate English teacher.

“You’ll have to leave now Ms. Ellison you’re interrupting my class. We’re just getting ready to listen to the announcements.” She wanted to continue berating Ron as I escorted her out and closed the door leaving her to stare at the door.

By the time the morning announcements were completed Ron had settled down to his normally talkative self and the rest of the class had forgotten the incident. They were in the process of pooling money they had collected for two days to contribute to another of the many fund raising activities schools engage in to help the school. As I recall they had collected around ninety-five dollars. The “popular class leader” presented me with the money. I completed a receipt for the school secretary and placed the money in a brown envelope. The class leader stood next to my desk waiting to take the envelope to the office.

“Ron, can you come here a second? I need you to do something for me.”

“What you need man?”

“Please take this envelope to the school office for me.” By the expression on the class leader’s face, this was a complete surprise to him. It probably was no more a shock to him then to Ron. I suspected it was the first time he had been placed into a position of responsibility.

“Don’t take to long Ron. We got a lot of work to do this morning. You have to catch-up if you’re going to be with me for the remainder of the year.” Ron returned within two minutes and took his place in the class. The office staff later sent me a note asking if it was proper to have Ron bring money to the office. I simply noted on the yellow paper, “You got the money didn’t you!” I heard nothing further. The principal agreed, with the insistence of Ms. Ellison, Ron should remain in my class during first period.

Here in high school, four years later, as I lean against the exit door watching the graduation crowd of students and families, I watch Ron proudly being hugged by his mother, older brother, and stepfather.

Monday, June 05, 2006


(Roosevelt Revisited)

The heat of the summer is easing onto the Cumberland Plateau, public swimming pools open Monday, there have only been three newspaper reports involving my students, most of the hail damage from two months ago has been repaired at my house, and I have managed not to drive by my high school. During the summer break I make it a point to take alternate routes when I leave my house to avoid driving by the government school where I teach. This is difficult to do when you live less than sixty seconds away. Another difficult task to accomplish is avoiding current and former students. By my last count there are forty-one students living within a two-mile radius of my house. However, except for a few incidents I seldom encounter them during the summer break. Then there is Washington.

My personal joke has long been that Washington is the son I never wanted. He was a three-year freshman until he turned eighteen. Then, as his mother expected, he dropped out over a year ago. It had not mattered that his girlfriend was going to have a baby, that he did not have a job, he was jailed at the time, and was turning eighteen going on ten-years-old mentally. All of this aside I like Washington.

I despise mowing grass. This must be a holdover from my childhood, but I have not bothered to analyze it to deeply. Weed-eating, on the other hand, brings me a degree of pleasure. I suppose the violence of the whirling plastic string impresses me, so about once a week I beat back the invading weeds in the yard. There may even be a correlation between weed-eating and teaching, but I don’t want to get to psychologically involved and spoil the weed-eating.

Through my safety goggles I watched the dandelions sacrifice themselves to the spinning machine. I felt the stick strike my side and turned to see Washington standing in my driveway. He was not alone. In his arms he held his eight-month-old daughter. This was not the first time I had met Mia. Washington, his unmarried “wanna-be” bride, and Mia had visited their former high school several times. This was however the first time he and the baby had come visiting at my home.

“What’s happening dude,” he ask while shifting Mia to his other arm?

“Just baking a tuna fish casserole.” This was not the first time he had heard me say that, but it always caused him to laugh. This time was no different. “What you doing Washington?”

“Me and Mia are just out cruising.”

“Where’s her mother?”

“She had a doctor’s appointment.”

“Shouldn’t you be with her?”

“No man. She told me to take Mia, that she would be fine.”

“Huh uh…… you always believe what she says?” I didn’t feel like explaining some things today. How it would have been appropriate for Washington and Mia to wait at the doctor’s office and that maybe he should shade the baby when they’re out in the bright sunshine. “Let’s rest over here,” I said moving toward the shade of a tree.

We sat down at an old picnic table and he eased Mia down to the surrounding grass. I watched her hesitate to crawl and instead she stared at the blades of grass as only an infant can stare. Washington pulled a cigarette out of a crumpled package and flicked his BIC lighter. He was unaware of anything Mia was doing at his feet.

One thing I found useful when dealing with former or current students, on a personal level, was knowing the answer to questions before I asked, “How come you’re not at work?”

Mia and her mother lived with her mother and grandmother while Washington resided at his mother’s house. The two houses were only a block apart, but could have been light years away from each other. “I had to take-off while Christy went to the doctor’s.”

Washington was not above telling me an untruth. He had not been employed for three weeks. He and a group of friends, all but him under the age of eighteen, were involved in a fight at a local Wal-Mart parking lot. Washington was arrested after hitting one of the kids a glancing blow with a hammer. He was incarcerated in the “big people’s jail” while the other participants all went to juvenile detention. He was unable to find anyone to “go bail” until his mother convinced her live-in friend, Julie, that she had to do something for her granddaughter’s welfare and father. His court date was still three weeks away. Because he was locked up for three weeks the local faux Pottery Barn had filled his position with another of my former students.

“How are Christy’s GED studies going?” About a year ago she decided it would be better if she worked on getting a GED diploma instead of getting up so early and being confined to a government school all day. If I had a dollar for every former student that decided a GED was the route to go and failed to achieve the goal my retirement fund would be very bloated.

“She’s going to get back to it when Mia gets a little older.”

“Are you still living at your mom’s house?”

“Yeah, just until I get my own place.” He knew as well as I did that he would live with her until she or her friend couldn’t stand having him around any longer. Mom’s friend Julie was the catalyst for him being evicted earlier. She did not like having others in the house. Before Julie moved in she often said Washington was a “wonderful boy” and how much she wanted him around. Afterwards he became a pest and was forced out within three weeks. (Love is a many splendored thing!)

We chatted about former students and friends, what he wanted for the future, where he expected to be in five years, the odds he and Christy would ever marry, how much fun Mia is, how Christy’s mother still didn’t like him, but adored Mia, and how his maturity is delayed in coming. The one subject that was long in coming was the real reason he had come to visit me.

My gas weed-eater was cooling down and would need to be re-primed before starting. The weeds were getting a reprieve while we talked. The host of a local PBS garden show frequently says that a weed is anything that grows where you don’t want it to grow. By that definition a rose could be a weed, thistle could be a weed, and Washington could be a weed in his mother’s house and in Christy’s house. At times I sensed he felt lost in life. Like many teenagers he was searching for a direction, a purpose, and perhaps even guidance from others. All of these are especially difficult for Washington to attain. His mother should be a source of guidance, now more then ever, but her life was slipping by and perhaps she felt the need to choose between her needs and his?

“I was wondering if I could float a loan from you. I need some gas so I can get back to the doctor’s office.” I chose not to mention if he had stayed at the office then he wouldn’t need gas money to return. I understood that he just needed to come by and talk. He did not need criticism or a lecture.

“Let me see what I got.” I left him with Mia and went into the house. My billfold was on the table next to the window looking out onto the backyard. While I counted out some dollars I watched him pickup Mia. He held her, said something, and kissed her on each cheek. Perhaps there was hope for him yet? Somehow he had a capacity for love that frequently he hid from the world.

Outside I passed him the money. He didn’t count the bills. I held Mia while he crumpled them into his shirt pocket. Mia is a beautiful child with long, dark, curly hair and infectious smile. Much like her father’s smile. He assured me that he would see me soon before he drove away in the rattle-trap old Thunderbird.

I returned to my weed-eating knowing all I can do is delay the growth of the dandelions. Hopefully, Washington is only delayed in his growth.

Sunday, June 04, 2006


Trip Three – To August 2005 Through May 2006

When you least expect, the school bear sneaks upon you, and bites you in the educational behind. Sometimes, I knowingly invite the bear to try and devour me. The very last thing I ever want to do in my portable classroom, in the government school, on county taxpayer property, is to restrain a student. I only recall doing the “restraining deed” on two other occasions. On this occasion I tried every educational re-cue, (I love technical education stuff), trick in my bag and failed.

“You’re doing this because my kid is black,” the angry father yelled at me. We had both been summoned to the principal’s office due to the events of the previous day.

Ernest, a tall, lanky, loud, likeable kid had been assigned to my classroom sometime during the last month. He could not manage to be quiet during any class. Eventually, it wore one of his teachers down and he was issued a discipline report and sent to his principal’s office. The result was his assignment to me, during second period, to work on classroom social skills. I like Ernest. He is funny, smart, and a challenge. We generally get along well. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Ernest and his relationship with some other students. It is safe to say that he is not “cool” like the cool guys think they are.

Ernest is never dirty. He doesn’t seem to care how he dresses to come to school. Mismatched clothes could easily be his trademark. However, his hair has yet to meet a brush or comb it liked. He is never dirty just disheveled. Talking loudly is the one trait he possesses that agitates his peers. This skill is what led him to being restrained, to protect him from another student attacking and partially to get him away from my face.

“You’re doing this because my kid is black,” again the angry father yelled at me!

“Sir, that is not the case,” Ms. Wilson, Freshman Principal, said trying to calm the man.

“What else could it be? He’s a white man trying to teach my son.” He waved his hand in my direction both recognizing my presence and dismissing me at the same time.

“Okay, I understand your anger, but let’s look at the facts.”

“The facts are that he laid his hands on my son!”

“Sir, he probably was justified due to the circumstances,” Ms. Wilson tried to continue.

“It ain’t right. No white man should lay his hands on my son!” I watched, without comment, while his anger increased. It appeared he was less into defending his son’s honor and more into enjoying being the center of attention and being in charge.

“Okay, we’ll bring Ernest in and listen to his explanation of the events,” she said.

“He doesn’t have to be in here. I already heard his side. This white man ain’t got no right laying his hands on my son!” It was quickly becoming evident that this meeting was going nowhere, except perhaps to a due process hearing. I was shifting in my seat wanting to get back to my students. I stood to shift my position around, not to leave. Ernest’s father misunderstood. He rose quickly and moved close to my face.

He pointed his finger within an inch of my face and again yelled, “You’re doing this because my kid is black!”

“No, it’s because your son acted like an idiot,” I said. He swung his arm back forming a fist.

I enjoy wearing hats. My favorites are fedoras. They are long ago out of style, but appear to be making a comeback. I tend to wear a hat on rainy days. Umbrellas are inconvenient for me to carry. I’ve lost enough umbrellas to supply most teachers in my high school with one. So there I stood with my hat in my hand waiting to get punched by the irate father of one of my favorite students.

His fist was beginning to move toward my head. All I could do was toss him my hat. This caused him to hesitate and grab the flying hat in mid-air. What it really did was allow me the time to side step him, placing my left leg behind his left leg, forcing him backward and down to the floor. I stood over him. I offered my hand to help him back to his feet. He looked up at me and offered me back my hat. He took my hand and I took my hat.

“Let’s all calm down,” Ms. Wilson said revealing the panic in her voice.

“We’re okay. Right sir,” I asked?

“Yeah, we’re fine,” he said while straitening his jacket.

“I’ll talk to Ernest about working on his temper,” he said.

“I’m looking forward to Ernest coming back to my class. He’s a good young man.”

Ernest graduated this year. He wasn’t the head of his class nor was he at the bottom. His father sat behind me during graduation. He is a proud man. Ernest is the first, in several generations, of this family to graduate from high school. Already he is working at the local flour manufacturing plant where his father has worked for fourteen years.

Sometimes the bear bites you and sometimes you bite the bear.


Trip Two – August 2005 to May 2006

Breakin’ Up Is Hard To Do, so the old song goes. Glenda is a wonderfully hard working, dedicated, and inspired English teacher. The bad news is that Glenda is a wonderfully hard working, dedicated, and inspired English teacher. The really bad news is that Jack was enrolled in her first period class. She has only been in the high school trenches for three years chasing the elusive “teacher tenure”. Sometimes, before school starts, I drop by her room to discuss the progress of several of my students in English. Our conversations always turn toward Jack and his “attitude”.

“All he does is sleep.”

“He does have his own agenda,” I said.

“What can I do? He irritates the crap out of me!”

“Does he disrupt your class?”

“No, not really. He seldom is awake long enough to talk to anyone.”

“Well, I guess that could be good news.”

“Good news? His principal is no help. He talks down to me and tells me I need to be creative in teaching Jack.”

Part of my unofficial duties, as instructed by this very principal, is to assist some teachers with classroom management. I shouldn’t let any of them know what I’m doing, but none-the-less, I should assist them. This is not really a problem. Most other teachers don’t consider me a teacher. I’m just the guy that relieves situations in their classes by taking problem students off their hands for a period of time.

I don’t think that Glenda believes she knows everything about teaching, but she has at least one thing in common with most other teachers, she is territorial. She owns her room. However, I understand the principal owns “her” room and she occupies it only at his discretion. The teachers that change rooms at the end of each school year can attest to this. There appears to be no rhyme or reason for this moving, but if you teach Math and English in this high school, be aware as May nears.

“Perhaps, if you send him over to my portable for third period we can help him with his assignment?”

“I can do that? It really would help me out, I mean help Jack out.” Her justified frustration was barely hidden.

“Sure, let’s try it for a couple of days. I’ll clear it with his principal.” Of course I didn’t have to clear anything. If it keeps a student or teacher out of his office it will be okay.

“I don’t think Mr. Smally likes me?”

“Don’t be silly. If he didn’t like you, you wouldn’t be teaching here for the past two years.” I didn’t want to inform her that she seldom crossed his mind unless one of her students landed in his office for discipline. “You know, you might want to move your desk a little?”


“If a student gets really upset and comes after you where would you run to?” She looked at the placement of her desk and realized that one end was against a wall that allowed only one route for escape.

Her mental light bulb flickered on, “Yes, yes, I see what you mean.”

I left, heading for my portable classroom, while she began tugging on her desk. If I had one “gentlemanly inclination” I would have offered to assist with moving the desk. I walked on. The thought briefly crossed my mind, at a future date, of letting her discover another misplacement of her desk. Away in a corner quite removed from the students. Many students will interpret that she is trying to stay far away from them.

Two mornings later we discussed Jack returning to her class. She was unhappy with this decision. “Is he going to continue sleeping?”


“I graded the work he turned in from his stay in your class.”

“How did he do?” I knew the answer having looked over his work before I slipped it into her mailbox.

“He did okay. I think he got a 81 on one paper and 76 on the other?”

“Not bad,” I said. I did not want to argue with her that he had scored higher and perhaps she was grading him more harshly because of his “attitude”. Also, I didn’t bring it up because Jack didn’t care what grade he received.

Jack and her continued the Tic-Tac-Toe game most of the year. He won many of the battles and lost the educational war. He will be taking English One again as a second year freshman. Glenda also lost the classroom possession war.

“I have to change classrooms,” she said. Angry would not be a fair description of her reaction to the news. Ballistic would be a better verb or adjective.

“Where you moving to for next year?”

“They want me to take Mrs. Baylor’s room. She’s moving to my room. What damn good does that do?”

“I don’t know. The principals seem to have their own plans for where teachers teach from each year.” Again I let the opportunity pass about who controls (owns) the classrooms in the school. I didn’t even feel like reminding her it wasn’t where she taught, but what and how.

“I told them I wasn’t moving unless I got Honors English next year. I’ll quit if I don’t get the course.” She didn’t seem to understand that she was five or six years shy of getting an honors class. Without tenure and several more years teaching at this school she was not getting an honors class. It is not your ability to teach, but how long you’re here that counts.

I recalled she was going to quit after her first year because she did not have first period planning. At the end of the second year she was going to quit because she didn’t get along with the inclusion teacher assigned to her. (The inclusion teacher made the mistake of thinking she owned the room.) Now she was quitting if she did not get Honors English and was being forced to change classrooms.

My belief is that she will be back, in her new classroom, in August. Glenda is a wonderfully hard working, dedicated, and inspired English teacher. Breakin’ Up Is Hard To Do with a lover, but Breakin’ Up Is Impossible To Do with your dream of teaching!


Trip One - To The School Year August 2005 - May 2006

This was year three for Connor in high school. More accurately he was a third-year-freshman. Generally this is not something to be proud of, but for Connor he was just marking time until his eighteenth birthday. Due mostly to his miserable home life he took everything negatively and personally. If a teacher attempted to be nice to him it was because it was their job. If a teacher was not nice then it was because he was white, because of his age, because of where he lived, because of prior trouble he had been in, because, because, because, etc.

Connor felt comfortable in the haven of my classroom mostly because my demands of him were subtle. I expected him to be a young man. He was expected to accept responsibility for his actions. Sometimes he was successful in these expectations and sometimes not. The man he encountered in the classroom in August was the same man he left each May. Consistency in teaching is greatly underestimated. Or maybe it was because I am three times his size?

Like many Special Education students he had become an expert at avoiding schoolwork. In fact they may dedicate more time at avoiding schoolwork then if they had gone ahead and did the work. I tried for three years to find the one thing Connor was good at in the world of academics. He had great difficulty reading. Anything beyond 8 times 5 was lost on him. He could not find America on a map. He didn’t know, nor did he care, who was George W. Bush. However, Connor does have an aptitude for auto repair. More precisely he could repair tires rather quickly. Unfortunately he could not pass the prerequisite course to enter auto repair. No Child Left Behind has tainted even the meager vocational offerings of the government school. The federal mandate says that students like Connor should be destined for college.

During the summer breaks he carried bundles of roofing shingles up ladders for his uncle. This man was not really his uncle, but had been involved at one time with Connor’s mother so he continued to refer to him as his uncle. Connor did not have steady work with his uncle. It was always determined by how much his uncle drank the night before. Most days Connor lounged around the one-bedroom mobile home during the day smoking cigarettes that his mother provided him. To my knowledge he had not developed an interest in illegal drugs. I assume due to his financial state more then a moral belief. All told Connor is not a bad “kid” just a product of his environment.

Mrs. Bessemer was part of a package deal. She and her husband had been hired to teach at the beginning of this school year. Most likely her husband had been rehired because he coached baseball. Number three of four sports in this school, but a sport no less. Incidentally he teaches World and US History. She teaches Special Education Inclusion English. Conner immediately fell for her. He was convinced that she was the new love of his life. She is very religious, very nice, very naïve, and very cute. Connor enjoyed having her lean over his shoulder to help him with an assignment he had no interest in completing. The one educational accomplishment she provided him with was an increase in his attendance. For whole one-and-half semesters he did not skip her class. He was not passing, but at least he was there. Then came the big announcement.

I wasn’t in the inclusion English classroom, but it was reported to me by eight students that Connor didn’t take the news well. All of the SPED students were in a small group for extra instruction on the daily assignment from the regular education teacher.

“I wanted all of you to know how happy I am,” Mrs. Bessemer said. “Barry and I are going to have a baby.” Knowing her fairly well I assume she was giddy in making the announcement.

“Mr. Bessemer is pregnant,” Sheila ask?

“Don’t be silly,” Mrs. Bessemer said while giggling. “God has blessed us.”

Mrs. Bessemer is the daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher from a very small Tennessee town twenty-seven miles to the east of Nashville. Far enough away that she feels she and Barry are living independently and close enough that she can visit her father a mere six times per week. Her husband had taught at our high school two years earlier. When No Child Left Behind decreed that a GED student did not count toward graduation numbers for any government school, he left. As I recall, he dedicated a large portion of his teaching day to exploring the Internet and flirting with female students. Now he doesn’t spend as much of his time exploring the Internet. He discovered religion when he discovered his twenty-one year old bride. Now she was transforming him into her father.

It is safe to say that Connor did not take the big announcement well. He ask to be excused to go to the restroom and did not return to the class that day. Mrs. Bessemer wrote him the dreaded “pink slip” disciplinary report and forwarded it to his principal. The result was Connor receiving two days In-School-Suspension for skipping class. This set the course for him to destroy what progress he had made during English class.

Three days later he was assigned to my class all day for violating additional school rules; e.g., smoking on campus, skipping other classes, leaving campus, and cursing Mrs. Bessemer. She had denied him permission to leave class at which point he stood up and declared, “I don’t have to put up with this s*#^”! He slammed the classroom door leaving his former favorite teacher’s class and further exclaiming, “You can’t tell me what to do b*^#h”!

“I can’t have him in my class anymore,” Mrs. Bessemer said, explaining her fear to me. “He threatened me.”

“Well, he didn’t really threaten you,” I said, trying to calm her.

“It sure feels to me that he did.”

“His feelings were hurt.” I decided at that point to be a little more graphic with her. Perhaps part of me wanted to see her shocked, perhaps I just wanted to defend Connor’s position. “You know he has the [hots] for you?”

I do admit the redness that swept across her face was worth it. “Doesn’t he understand I’m married, pregnant, and his teacher?”

“Oh, he understands that. He also understands that in his mind you are close to his age and treated him very nice. Most women he has been around have not treated him very nice.”

“Well, I can’t have him around me after he threatened me.”

I understood she was not going to be receptive to Connor returning to her class. Everything she had been exposed to in “SPED 101” was lost on her. She was married, pregnant and scared of a student. The opportunity for her to make a difference in this student’s life was gone.

Connor “graduated” this year with a Special Education diploma. It is referred to as “not a real diploma” much like a GED is referred to as the “Good Enough Diploma”. The Bessemer’s world will be changed forever in August, after the birth. The unfortunate loss was the opportunity to maybe increase Connor’s English skills to the sixth grade level. My sense was that that Connor had been left behind years ago and we had missed the last chance to free him from the anchor of his life.