Join the Slice of Life writing community every Tuesday @ Two Writing Teachers
We crowded around the computer lab that second-to-last-period of the day, waiting impatiently for it to be unlocked so that we could get back to researching our Washington D.C. projects. My sixth graders were chatting away, mostly about the project but also about the NFL playoffs, the disgusting thing someone had done at lunch, who was signing up for the ski trip, and locker drama: all the essential ingredients of a sixth grader’s life. I was enjoying all this noise and movement, even though we were in the library and this was highly inappropriate, but sometimes just looking at the antics of sixth graders is joyful.
Then I saw David (not, of course, his real name). David had been in my class years ago, one of those kids everyone tells you to “keep an eye on”, as in “keep an eye on that one, he may look like a nice kid, but…”. And, to a certain point, I was right to have been warned; David did not always use his best judgement, if there was a commotion at the back of the classroom during reading time, chances were that David had something to do with it. He was careless about his work, and even more often focused on his work. There was always, it seemed, something else that David would rather be thinking of.
But, he was charming, too. He knew when he was in the wrong, and was quick to both admit guilt as well as offer a sincere apology. I chose to believe that those apologies were sincere, and so I accepted the apology, meted out consequences, and then we both moved on. We had a happy time in sixth grade, but then I could see signs of trouble: disengaged parents, confrontational relationships with teachers and students, a certain inappropriate maturity when it came to flirtatious behavior with the girls in his class and in the grades above.
By the time he had graduated from eighth grade, David had acquired a reputation; he was a “bad” kid, even the mention of his name would often produce an eye roll here, a heavy sigh there. No one, it seemed, predicted good things for David in high school. And they were right, in a way, for things went awry very quickly for David.
Our middle school and high school share different wings of the same building, and so I see my alumni from time to time. For the next few years, whenever I’d see David in the hallways, he avoided making eye contact. His whole aspect seemed to have changed, become hardened and closed off. I heard stories from other kids and faculty about drinking and fights. One day, there was the sad news that David had lost a parent. I was not able to make the funeral, but I sent him a letter asking him to stop by his old room. He never came, and for a long time, our paths never crossed..
Then, late on a school day afternoon, there he was among a huddle of high school kids in the our library. As my kids trooped into the now unlocked room, David looked up, saw me, and turned away. Stung, I turned back to my students, and focused on settling them in. About halfway through the period, David walked in. He was in a rush, but he wanted to say hi. He was trying out for a college team that weekend, “Wish me luck!” he said. A quick bear hug, and five sentences later, he was gone, but I had seen a glimpse of the old David
When I saw him lumbering into school the next day, however, it was back to the David that is – the David that he seems to have become. I was thinking about all this the other day, when I read a post Kylene Beers had shared on Facebook with the title” If you can only read one article this week, READ THIS. READ THIS. READ THIS.” So I did:
Sometimes The ‘Tough Teen’ Is Quietly Writing Stories by Matt De La Pena:
The gist of the article is the way in which one teacher, with one book, turned Matt’s intellectual life around, an intervention which proved to be just the key to unlocking his creative writing life. Matt was able to do the same, in turn, with his father. Reading, he writes, can make you whole.
The part that stuck with me on Monday night as I read the article, however, was this section, in which he writes about a school visit where he meets Joshua, another David:
The principal then pointed out a particular student, seated near the back. “That one’s a real instigator,” he told me. “But don’t worry, we’ll remove him if he starts acting up. It wouldn’t be the first time Joshua blew an opportunity like this.”
As the librarian introduced me to the school, I studied this kid. Joshua. He was bigger than everyone else. He had neck tattoos and a shaved head. He kept smacking the kid next to him in the back of the head and laughing. A nearby teacher shushed him.
I started my talk by describing my own early struggles in school. I was nearly held back in second grade because I “couldn’t read,” which shattered my confidence. For a long time after that experience I viewed myself as unintelligent — and the most difficult definition to break free from, I told the students, is self-definition.
Joshua began to pay attention.
That set me to thinking about David. Somewhere along the way, through his actions and his interactions, David had arrived at his own self definition. You could see it in the expression he wore on his face, the way he carried himself every day – wary, suspicious, prepared for trouble, and prepared (if necessary) to BE the trouble. How much time does it take, I wonder, for a David or a Joshua to arrive at self definition. What can we do to help them break free? And what do we do to make it impossible to break free?
In Matt De La Pena’s story, Joshua is inspired enough by what he hears, to share his writing with Matt. But there is no happy and tidy ending to the story – Joshua drops out of school and Matt never hears from him again. Did Joshua find a way to break free? Will David?
So here I am, at the end of a long school day, thinking about David as I look at a photograph of him on our memory wall. The picture is a bit faded, and the corners are curled in. Even so, David’s smile is just as exuberant and joyful as it was the afternoon it was taken as we gathered together for a writing celebration. Break free, David…break free…