Robert told me today that his class was "rough" and wanted to know what I was going to do about it. I asked him how he was going to react when I removed him from class tomorrow. He is one of the toughest actors in the room. He is the friend who walks me downstairs to Magnet duty every day because I shouldn't "walk" by myself. He is cutting class as he does this community service for me daily. You have to meet people where they are. You have to see behind the urge to sing out loud for no reason, gather attention any way possible but still expect to be treated like an individual. To pass a required English class with a good grade. To get home safe and eat dinner. What more could we want? The other side of the coin is dreadful. Distressing.
Note on children
Children in literature tend to fall into the rut of darling cherubs who do no evil and charm the socks off of the most taciturn hearts, or they are conversely evil, plotting beasts. It is interesting to consider the real spirit of a child. Children are so much more complicated. Even with older children like Josh in this story, they spin in a world that revolves around them; they are careless with their loved ones to the point of breaking them; they are capable of rash decisions and have no concept that retaliation for actions can occur. When their little universe spins out of control, they are hurt and bruised but, most of the time, exhibit a resiliency that rivals adults. Most of the time, the poor decisions and follies of the young are excused and tolerated by adults. But every now and then, fate rears up and bites down viciously on one of these young fools. They are always astounded and want to blame the nearest parental figure they can locate. Their ire is unfathomable until they focus on themselves again and begin to see the truth. Then it is too late; they have awakened into adulthood.
Josh from this story is based on a real boy whose story could break your heart. Justin F. was seventeen years old when he entered our school during the third quarter of his senior year. He was a transplant from Baltimore—I think either Cherry Hill area or Pigtown from our discussions about home. Social Services placed him at a shelter and arranged counseling through Maple Shade on the Eastern Shore because he’d been in a number of brutal fights in the Baltimore facility and needed a change of scene. He was an obvious recovering addict with old track marks on his arms from low grade heroin, sometimes smelled sweet with pot, sported weird, homemade piercings and deep blue streaks in his short black hair, wore a bit of rough facial hair that hid some of an addict’s version of raging acne, but gave me a wide, intelligent look from bright blue eyes and sat up straight through every lesson.
He turned out to be shy and a genius with historical facts and deep reading in literature. He’d spent so much time confined to his room at various shelters; he had improved his reading by absorbing everything he could find. He had imaginatively created a fantasy grandfather whom had served in WWII and fought the Japs on an aircraft carrier. He had a disturbing interest in Hitler, guns, armed vehicles and war. He harbored Neo-Nazi views, dallied with becoming a white supremacist, but his best friends and later a first girlfriend were all black kids. He sometimes talked to himself if over stimulated and rocked. We discovered he was off his medications when he did that. By April when he was “overactive,” two of his other teachers sent him to me so he could sit in the back of the room, read his favorite WWII ship book and draw boat after boat in close precision.
I admit I found him an interesting conundrum because he didn’t seem to fit into the ungainly collection of gang bangers and regular kids they put him into at the end of the year. He watched them spout their neighborhood wisdom and mumbled about Baltimore. He knew what tough really was and didn’t get too impressed with small time hoods. He’d make eye contact with me or one of the other kids and roll his eyes at the nonsense.
The Monday he returned to school bleeding, I finally got the whole story. His roommate, a seventh grader at the school adjacent to ours, had beaten him up after their bedroom doors were locked for the night. He had complained to the monitor, but little had been done to stop the beating. The boy who did it was in a rage over something that had happened on a home visit, but Justin felt he couldn’t retaliate. That month he had turned eighteen and knew if he was charged with a crime, he would lose his spot at the home and be arrested.
First I noticed that he was very quiet. We were in the Media Center researching for an essay so I wandered from student to student. I noticed he smelled sour and rank beyond the normal, gamey smell of boys that age. My first reaction was to take a few paces back. A sweet-faced black boy who had befriended Justin raised an eyebrow at me and tossed his head to get my attention. I moved over to his side, and he toned clearly, “He’s bleeding, Mrs. C.” The boy’s look was grim.
I looked over expecting a bloody nose. Even in high school, sometimes kids are not too good with functioning when they are surprised by them. Justin must have brushed his hand along his face a moment before and disturbed the swollen knot where the boy’s ring had smashed him over and over again. Standing that close to him, I could see the imprint of a little square shape that I later found out was the shape on the ring. As I examined his averted face, I realized there was crusted blood in his jet black hair and in the whorls of his ears and along his neck. I touched his shoulder and he shuddered, “Who did this to you? Did this happen this morning?” I was thinking there must have been a fight on the bus.
Justin just shook his head. His friend leaned over and said very clearly, “His punk roommate did it. Nasty little nigger from the middle school. It’s a terrible place where they have him.” He gestured to Justin with a thumb and his bottom lip trembled.
“Justin, did you hit him back?” I know I must have sounded harsh, but reporting a beating is a two-sided disaster. Usually the victim is judged just as harshly as the attacker in a school or institutional setting.
“Only to get him off me. I can’t get thrown out. I have no place to go.” He swallowed suddenly and looked up so I could see the bruises beginning to color. They were new and needed ice. When I sent him to the nurse’s office, I called the guidance counselor and the deputy. The rest of the class watched me and mumbled about do-gooder teachers who cause trouble. My one concern was how hurt he really might be under all that crusted blood.
I had noticed he had stopped wearing the wild Baltimore clothes that were black and grey with long chains and studs. Someone had told me somebody at the home threw bleach into his laundry and ruined his wardrobe. The home supplied him with something right out of a Polo advertisement that made him look slightly more civilized but odd. The collared shirts and khakis looked clean, but they seemed to rob him of his personality. After a visit from his social worker from Baltimore later that month, the original style of clothes returned with even more personality in bright royal blue and black. Justin had chosen his gang affiliation in just two months in Salisbury.
Justin received his diploma after a few courses in summer school that year. They moved the roommate to another site and paired Justin with someone calmer. He came back to see me by November this year and sat in my classroom to vent a bit about real life. He was in the process of dropping out of community college; the Army had finally rejected him because of his manic depression medication and ADHD. That failure was close to breaking him. If he couldn’t go to school full time, he couldn’t stay at the home.
My heart ached for him, but the careful sense of protection I have after years of dealing with troubled children and adults warned me. We were sitting in my empty classroom at the end of a quiet wing, and he was raving about how unfair life was treating him. He was bordering into an eruption of violence like I’d seen one time when someone pissed him off. He left before I called the office for help. Ordinarily I’d have hugged him, shaken his hand or walked him to the door, but I waved him a goodbye, waited a few minutes, shut my classroom door and locked it. I haven’t seen him since.
The guidance counselor that I enjoy working with most at the school because she is so even tempered and realistic, cried a bit when we discussed Justin the day he came to school caked with blood and relieved to be with us in the safety of school. She told me his story was one that was too familiar: drug addicted parents, one of whom had died, grandparents who were overwhelmed by disabilities the boy was born with because of his mother’s alcohol and drug use during pregnancy, and the abuses he encountered as a beautiful child in the brutal world of foster care. It turned out that Justin had been in foster care since he was three years old. As she dabbed away the tears, she asked, “What do you do with a life like that? How can we help him survive once he leaves here?” She told me that in counseling today these children are considered “throwaways.”
I don’t have any answers. Self preservation kept me from trying to get over involved with Justin; I told myself that he could kill us if we got too close; I have a young daughter; he will need meds for the rest of his life. You know the drill when you are making excuses. The hurt I absorbed from knowing him well and caring for him the best I could while he attended school yielded this character Josh Avery. Josh falls short because he is not as destroyed as Justin is. Josh is salvageable and attractive. Daphne is too strong and good at being a guardian. It is a manufactured denouement for a fraction of the person who could be saved.
Justin stopped by to see me today. Really—the day after I wrote the remembrance of him from above. He was not as intense as the last time I saw him. Short hair with a trim beard, all black on with some kind of band tee shirt. He didn’t know whether to hug me or not but I had to because I had thought so much about him yesterday and there he was.
He told me that he had a hearing in a month in Caroline County where one of his grandmothers lives to decide if he can continue at the home. He is nineteen and dropped out of Worwic so he should be out on his own. He worries about where he will go; he knows it wouldn’t be long without his meds on his own. Now he is trying for a job with the armory but it’s part time. He gave me the catalog of relatives he can’t live with: Mom who he is trying to speak to again in Frederick, the grandmother who barely returns his call from Denton, and a pregnant girlfriend who the grandmother took in. (She is obviously not all bad.) The grandmother has her thirty year-old son living there, too. He tells me she was born the day her father flew out oversees to the Gulf War in the 1990s. Everything is still defined by its relation to the military in his mind though he reminded me that he can’t serve.
I took his number and gave him mine for a recommendation. I will see the guidance counselor tomorrow to get him the information for the Job Market. When they called looking for him, he hurried away to catch his ride back to the home. It is all just too much to imagine a mentally disturbed nineteen year-old to handle.
J D Cooper
Author of the Lilac Hill series, The Portia Journal, other novels and countless short stories