I once ran over a student in the parking lot.
Gio was standing in front of my car, waving, grinning and doing a little hopping dance in apparent joy at seeing me, which made no sense because only an hour earlier he had brought my entire class to a standstill by taking a half-eaten pear and mashing it into the floor with his shoe. Obviously, I threw him out of class, though he did not go easily, muttering profanities and slamming the door behind him. The sight of his beaming, delighted mug in my windshield was like a red flag to a bull. Enraged, I gunned the engine and squashed him flat.
Okay, I didn’t. I honked, smiled, waved and drove around him. But in my imagination, I ran him over. Gleefully. Vengefully. Repeatedly. On several other occasions, I mentally strangled him, usually during class when he could not stop pestering the girl next to him by drawing all over her notebook or when he shouted out irrelevant, annoying questions or when he announced loudly that he hated most of the people in the class, especially the quiet, nerdy boy who had been kind to Gio all week.
Gio was that kid. That kid! Every year I had three or four of them, students who occupied about 3% of the actual population of any class but consumed about 50% of my energy. That kid! The one who made my whole body tense up, who could shut down an entire class for minutes at a time with his demands, accusations and outbursts, and whose absence, I’m ashamed to say, would cause a wave of relief to wash over not only me but all of the students in the class when we realized we were actually going to have a Gio-free day.
Maybe it’s just me, but I suspect every teacher at one time or another has that kid. Our school always had a short list of students with extreme behavior issues; they were like mini-celebrities, occupying our lunchtime talk, populating our nightmares, inciting our migraines. In any given year, of my six classes, usually around three of them had at least one kid with extreme behavior issues. I’m not talking about kids who are chatty or can’t focus. I’m talking about kids who aggressively, compulsively and continually seek negative attention. Sometimes you’d have two kids with extreme behavior issues in a class, which really sucked because they’d trigger each other, causing an exponential escalation of problems. Once, I had three in one class, turning it into a “Lord of the Flies” situation with clusters of high-achieving girls taking me aside in a weeping, enraged circle and demanding that the three boys with extreme behavior problems be removed permanently from the class.
These kids weren’t always boys, though often they were. They didn’t always have learning disabilities, though sometimes they did. Here’s what they always were: smart. Often, these students were especially bright, which is what made them so good at driving an entire schoolful of people completely batshit crazy.
Did they come from terrible home lives? It would be simplistic to say so. Many of our school’s students came from very difficult family situations and the overwhelming majority did not have extreme behavior issues. But for whatever reason, nature or nurture, in my experience, these particular students seemed to be driven by overwhelming feelings of shame, failure and above all, loneliness, making them lash out in ways that caused them to be rejected further, a vicious cycle re-enacted daily. In the inspirational movie version of this narrative, the presence of a stable, caring teacher would break the cycle. Sure, there’d be a few bumps along the way, but by the end of the year, after a lot of weeping heart-to-hearts, a rock-solid behavior plan and some crackerjack lessons in goal-setting and relationship-having, the kid would turn his life around, graduate and go to college.
These turnarounds actually happen. I saw very difficult kids turn their lives around, and these were among the most rewarding experiences of my life. There is nothing on this earth more miraculous — I simply have no other word for it — than to watch a human being find the determination, patience, strength and courage to change.
But a turnaround like that takes years. Years and years of imperceptible growth, of the kid being thrown out of class every day, of parent conferences and arguments and lost tempers and forgotten promises. Often, as a classroom teacher, you’re not there for all of those years. Sometimes you just see the first year, which feels like complete failure.
And it doesn’t always happen. It’s a sentimental fantasy that every kid’s life can turn around if enough caring adults just stay in the game, breathing deeply and sticking to their values. The rougher truth is that yes, those caring adults can make it possible for a child to make a breathtaking life turnaround. But the fact that such a turnaround is possible does not make it inevitable. For every Gio who turned his life around, there were other Gios who dropped out and disappeared. I’ll never know what happened to them.
I’m taking a year off of teaching to observe 11th grade English teachers in classrooms across Los Angeles, and I’m thinking of Gio today because in a classroom at Augustus Hawkins High taught by an amazing teacher named Cynthia Castillo, I saw a boy who was that kid, acting out, talking constantly, making continual demands. And I braced myself instinctively — a body memory, thinking of Gio and all the others who were that kid. I thought of Fernie, who was kicked out of every single class he ever took, who once called me a f—— bitch right to my face, whose eyes filled with tears when his mother told him for the first time that she loved him, who walked the stage in cap and gown this past June. I thought of gum-chewing Tiffany with the big earrings who couldn’t stop swearing, never did pass a class, and left our school.
I thought of Peter, my most difficult student ever, who alternated between charming conversation and uncontrollable, profanity-laced outbursts, who once shoved a teacher into a wall and who, God help me, was in three of my six classes one year. By some miracle, Peter managed to graduate. After graduation, though, he floundered. I know this because he continued to visit me. As far as I could tell, all he ever did was work out; though he’d been a lanky beanpole as a teenager, as an adult he bulked up and became gigantic. He never signed up for community college but hung out at home, breaking his hand one day when he punched his fist through a wall after a fight with a family member.
Last year my father died after a brief illness and in the weeks after his death, I found myself working late night after night in a vain, numbed-out attempt to catch up with the paperwork I’d missed. One evening around 5:30, Peter walked into my classroom.
I could hardly bring myself to feign enthusiasm. He was the last person I wanted to see. But I knew the bus ride from his house had taken at least half an hour.
“What’s up?” I said, managing a faint smile.
“I heard your dad died,” he said. “I just wanted to give you a hug.” For a long moment, he enveloped me in an enormous, silent, heartfelt bear hug. “Okay,” he said. “That’s it. You probably wanna be alone.” And then he left.
“Teaching,” Cynthia Castillo once told me, “is an act of faith.” As we talk about finding evidence to measure the success of teachers and the growth of students, I hope we can remember that sometimes the most important thing a teacher can do is to take a breath and have faith in the human beings in the room. Including ourselves.
Ellie Herman taught English electives for five years at Animo Pat Brown Charter High School in Los Angeles, a career change after 20 years as a TV writer. She is taking a year off to write a blog, Gatsby In L.A., following the lives of 11th grade English teachers across the socioeconomic spectrum. A version of this post first appeared in her blog.