Monday, March 19, 2007

Tales from Factory High: Johnny

This happened in the spring semester of my first year of teaching in the Bronx. At that point, courses were only one semester long. In the Spring, I had a whole new set of students to get used to, and since most of them were in ninth grade, and my first semester I’d taught 11th grade, I could not use the same lesson plans again. I was drowning.

There was a kid in my third-period class I want to tell you about, who is not Johnny, because it will give you an idea of what made Johnny unusual in comparison. This other kid – I think his name was Stephen – was a real tough one with a serious chip on his shoulder. It happened that his assigned seat was next to the classroom door, and a couple of times he took advantage of the fact by storming out of my room. He’d crack jokes about me, about the material, etc., and because he was smart and slick the other kids couldn’t help but laugh. He had the appearance of caring about very little, least of all whether he gets into trouble. Once, when going over material for an upcoming test on The Diary of Anne Frank, I told the class that if they study purely by going over class notes, they cannot possibly pass the test; they can get a 65 or higher only if they have read the book. Stephen gloated about how that is bunk, he’ll pass anyway, there’s no way he’s reading the book . . . I designed the test with him in mind, and he got exactly a 64. To his credit he did look me in the eye at some point and congratulate me on being right.

The point is, Stephen was far from a model student, and he often caused significant distractions in class, but there was a twisted logic in everything he did. Whatever was going on in his house or his life, his reactions were, if not healthy, at least understandable. Underneath the chipped shoulder, there was something worthy of respect – and the other kids did have a nervous respect of him, and were perhaps envious of his reckless willingness to say dangerous, disrespectful things that the others wouldn’t dare to say. When Stephen spoke, the other kids laughed or stared at him bug-eyed with a mixture of horror and awe.

Then there was Johnny. Johnny sat in the back, and if you didn’t spend 40 minutes a day with him, you might have thought he looked rather sweet. He was a big, bulky kid, new to the school, with a round face, red hair, and small blue eyes. He walked a bit clumsily and his writing proved him to be functionally illiterate. At first, his tendency to call out in class and make irrelevant comments (“That’s a nice dress you are wearing, Miss,” “What time does the gym open?” etc) was nothing worse than annoying. Perhaps he was trying to be funny, but neither I nor any of the other kids appreciated the jokes. The other kids would inch their desks away from his, and whenever he spoke they would roll their eyes and say “can we PLEASE listen to the teacher?” I think kids have a good internal radar that knows the difference between a kid like Stephen, who was angry and bitter but had all his screws in, and Johnny.

One day I called Johnny’s house to talk to his mother about his behavior in my class. I don’t remember the outcome – it could be that she wasn’t home, or that she didn’t understand what I was saying because she spoke only Spanish – but anyway the next day, while I was trying to organize class, from the back of the room Johnny suddenly called “Why did you call my house last night, Miss? Why did you want to talk to my mother? Why did you call? It’s because you don’t like me, right?”

At this point the kids were already rolling their eyes, inching away, etc. Most kids who get a home phone call from a teacher do not advertise the fact. For most, it’s embarrassing. As for me – well, I was seriously annoyed that he was interrupting and causing a distraction.

“Why don’t you like me, Miss? It’s because I’m Dominican, isn’t it. You don’t like me because I’m Dominican, right?”

”Will you shut up?” exclaimed about three other kids in unison. “We’re all Dominican, and she likes us. So shut up already.”

This sort of thing went on all term. I begged the administration to remove him from my class, but they wouldn't hear of it. After all, there were lots of "problem" kids. Why shouldn't I have responsibility for my fair share of them? Finally, shortly before summer break started, there was a conference between Johnny, Johnny’s mother, a translator for Johnny’s mother, Johnny’s administrative dean (that is, an administration member in charge of discipline, such as deciding at what point a student should be suspended), Johnny’s guidance counselor, me, and Johnny’s Social Studies teacher. The seven of us crammed into the Dean's office to talk about Johnny's "situation."

It turns out that before coming to my school, at the ripe old age of 14, Johnny had been expelled from another Bronx high school not exactly known for orderliness or academic excellence for – get this – attacking a security guard. He had been transferred to my school – remember, every child is guaranteed a public education, so he has to be put somewhere – and he’s assigned to the English class of a brand new teacher. Terrific. He was on a variety of psychiatric medications, some of which I suspect he often forgot to take, and was failing every single class.

His mother, who spoke no English, was horrified that her son was failing every class. She hadn’t known because she had no concept of report cards and therefore had never thought to ask her son if he was receiving any.

The best part was when I told the others assembled about his insistence that I didn’t like him because he is Dominican, and his mother got wide eyed and said “But we’re not Dominican at all! We’re Puerto Rican!”

The next time I remember seeing Johnny was the day of a big test in my class – probably the final exam (though we had 3 more class days afterward). As was my habit during tests, I stood in the back of the room most of the time; it’s a classroom management tactic that reduces cheating, because the kids can’t see where you are or what you are looking at. Remember, Johnny sat in the back of the room.

In the middle of the test, he caught my eye and gave me a look of unadulterated hatred. With his eyes squinted and twitching, he stared at me. He wouldn’t look away. I held his gaze calmy.

Slowly, Johnny reached down into his bag, still staring at me with this creepy rage. I was absolutely positive that he was going to pull out a gun. Still looking him in the eye, I started calculating what I should do to save the students, and the thought crossed my mind that tomorrow this incident would be in the papers. I'd be dead, but I'd be a hero . . . if I could save the other students.

Slowly, slowly he grasped something in his bag, slowly slowly pulled it out. It was a sharp pencil. He held it with the pointy end toward me, as if he was about to lunge with it, and then slowly, slowly looked away and started writing on his test. I breathed a sigh of relief, but I was extremely creeped out.

During my lunch break I reported the incident to my Assistant Principal, and reenacted it for him. He agreed that though no words had been exchanged “that looks like a threat to me,” and Johnny was, finally, removed from my class. For the last three days of the term, I was relieved of his presence.

I heard a rumor a couple of years later that Johnny had been expelled from our school and sent to yet another Bronx high school, his third. Somewhere out there, he is now about 21 or 22 years old, probably in prison. I hate to say this, but I hope he’s in prison. The idea that he’s wandering around on the streets is pretty scary.

But I hope Stephen made it somehow. I hope he graduated eventually, or got a GED, and decided to live his life productively instead of wallowing in anger and blame. I hope he found some sort of steady and honest job. I don’t even remember his name, so I’ll never know.

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