Keven Johnson (not his real name) entered my class last October--about a month after school started. In a ghetto school it's usually a bad sign when a kid enrolls late. It often means he is an "opportunity transfer"--kicked out of his previous school. He could have been tossed from one separated parent to the other. Perhaps he recently arrived at a local foster home.
At first Johnson sat sullenly a few days, then he began engaging his neighbors with whispered threats and demands for money or property. He progressed from littering the floor with torn shreds and gum wrappers to actually spitting gum on the floor--and just plain spitting.
I took him outside and explained how our school had a bad reputation. "It is dirty," I said. "The kids score low on tests and tend to beat each other up to establish a pecking order where the tough stand tall on top while the studious cower below."
I asked if he was part of the problem or the solution.
After a while he muttered, "Solution, I guess."
"That's great, Kevin." Then I gave him a pep talk. I told him people often let us down, but the best revenge is living well.
The next day he asked if he could clean my room and rearrange the furniture.
I answered, "sure," knowing full well I had to teach him English; not facility maintenance. This was no time to tell the kid "no." He was actually talking to me, reaching out.
Johnson swept the floor and pushed and pulled the desks out of rigid rows and into a horse-shoe pattern. That was last December. As of late February, I still have the desks in Johnson's preferred pattern because it feels conducive for a less teacher-centered environment. I can also circulate better while the students interact more during academic discussions.
I still have a lot of challenges teaching Johnson. For one, he doesn't show up for school very often. He says his Grandma in Las Vegas is sick so he and mom must go there often. Whether he's telling the truth, only God and Johnson know. When he does attend class, he cusses all the time and calls everyone the n-word. Even me. All I can do is constantly remind him that harsh language wrecks the intellectual atmosphere of a classroom. Then I return to the topic at hand, hoping the other students don't suddenly find Johnson's antics more interesting than the lesson. I'm often S-O-L on that.
Citizens in Johnson's world--including his teachers--are seldom celebrated in mainstream American society. Yet Johnson is very American and ought to be celebrated. He is a child struggling to live an honorable life in a ruthless society he apparently perceives as hostile toward his identity and dreams. My trick is to teach him the pointless frivolity of beating up acquaintances and strangers. He'd do well to toss a few dictionary words into his lengthy streams of profanity, too.
If I stand any chance of connecting with Johnson, I have to stand on his side of the line while helping him cross over to be a functioning member of society--not fodder for some judge in a courtroom later on.
"Besides, Johnson, you don't like people watching you all the time, right?"
Instead of quoting him directly, let me just say he agreed that independence and freedom is what makes life worth living.
"Then you need to take care of business, Johnson. The stuff I'm trying to teach you to do will come in handy. Trust me."
Until he sees some value in what education may offer, standardized test will remain nothing more than a Scantron card with circles to be filled into a pattern--a pattern like the desks in a classroom run by a teacher who is desperately looking for the portal to every student.