Wednesday, August 6, 2008

My Life was Changed

Jeff was the most obnoxious student I have ever known. His peers picked on him for his entire upper elementary and junior high career because he wasn’t like them. Tall for his age, with reddish hair, and a quick smile, he had a sweet way about him when talking one-on-one. In groups, he was intolerable. He was always trying to fit in and never satisfied with being an outcast. I am not sure what the turning point was for his behavior, but it was obvious that he was never going to be popular, or even liked. He overcame being disregarded by peers with an insatiable desire for attention, any attention. He was prone to desperate attempts at friendship; ironically, he was probably picked on for being too desperate, too needy. He was desperate for friends, wanting to be included and noticed. If you are a kid like Jeff, being harassed is better than being invisible.

I was ‘fortunate’ enough to have him in my advisee group. Having the opportunity to observe him with his peers made much of the peer behavior understandable. A part of me, as the teacher, wanted to pick on him as well. I am ashamed to admit it, but his constant picking on others was cause of a great deal of restraint on my part. I had to develop a no put-down policy -- just for him. Each student making rude comments would have to place a quarter in a jar. If the year ended with more than twenty dollars, we would donate it to charity. If the year ended with less than twenty, I would make up the difference and then have a party. Odd what lengths I was willing to go to so that I might effect change. This worked well…in my room. Jeff was picked on for his entire career in my school.

Jeff started coming to my room every day during the last ten minutes. We looked at his homework and made sure that it was all going home with him and that he had all the things he would need. In contrast to the other times during the day, I actually enjoyed this time with Jeff. He was kind, appreciative and very calm. He thanked me and was on his way. He was a different and enjoyable kid.

Meeting Jeff’s mother was like meeting the wind. She was scattered and never in the same place at the same time as anyone else. She had huge eyelashes and batted them whenever she thought it would do her some good—it never did with me. She came to parent-teacher conferences to find out what awful things the school was doing to her son. She began the conference with the statement, “Jeff has ADHD.” I began the conference by saying, “Me too. Had there been such a thing when I was a kid, I am sure I would have been diagnosed. I have managed to make a good life for myself, so let’s find a way for Jeff to do the same.” This strategy would not have worked with every parent, but Jeff’s mom must have appreciated the honest discussion. Since I had already put in countless hours with her son, maybe I had purchased her respect.

This conference would be the longest of my teaching career…the longest of anyone’s teaching career. The conference was peppered with visits, mini breaks, from the counselor and the principal, but at least ninety minutes passed from beginning to end. At one point Jeff, who had been drug along to the conference, was weary and lost in another world; lights on, but no one was home. His mother chastised him for not paying attention but within minutes, was seemingly lost in a parallel universe. I wondered to myself if it was the same one Jeff visited.

At the end of his eighth grade year, Jeff’s family moved to another town. I believe the principal and every teacher breathed a sigh of relief. I was among the most relieved. I liked Jeff a great deal from the one-on-one time we had at the end of the day, but I wasn’t going to miss mediating every group situation. I was happy to not have the daily battle over grades and behavior, and I was also relieved for Jeff, who had a chance to leave behind his past and start over in a new school. No need for the outlandish cries for attention because he had no history to overcome. He went to my wife’s school and was fairly successful. He was never popular, but he did find a group of friends and, remarkably, a girlfriend. He stopped in a few times to talk to my wife; awkward discussions. As the years passed, I had a chance meeting or two in the mall, but I hardly saw him.

I was pleased the day I received the graduation announcement, not because I wished to go to the forty-fifth graduation reception, but because he had made it. He was graduating. The kid who I had spent so much time with was going to graduate. In addition, Jeff made a point to stop by my wife’s room and ask us to come. This was a party I would not miss.

The graduation party was very different from some of the others. His mother greeted us in bare feet. We had been to parties with pools and fancy houses but this party was in a very simple house with very minimal decorations. Jeff beamed when he saw my wife and I walking up the driveway. He greeted us and we had that man to boy, “do we hug”, moment. We settled for a handshake. He was stronger than I had remembered and much more mature. He had decided to go to the military. Although we didn’t stay long, it was one at which I felt very welcomed and I received many positive comments about the difference I had made in his life…perhaps something that wouldn’t happen at the houses with pools and fancy decorations because there was no question that those children would be a success; they would make it.

I didn’t see Jeff for a few years. I had a chance meeting at a store near a lake about 200 miles from home. We were staying at our friends’ condo on a different lake and went out late at night for some snacks. I looked down an aisle and thought I saw Jeff. I was sure I was having one of those weird experiences where I think I see someone that I know. However, this aberration was talking to my wife when I went down another aisle. He greeted me with a firm handshake and a solid look in the eyes.

There we were, in a store I hardly go in, and I was thinking of what an odd coincidence it was to run into someone I know, let alone Jeff. The conversation quickly slipped out of the mundane to what had been happening in his life. Jeff told me that he had just come back from Iraq. He had been deployed there for a few months. During the conversation, he told me how he had been airlifted out of Iraq a few times because of injuries. A vest had saved his life. He also told me about a knife fight he had with an Iraqi soldier. He said, “I did what I had to do.” I could tell by the look in his eyes exactly what he meant. He showed me the physical scars and I could feel the tears welling up in my own eyes. Here, in front of me, was a kid who was so lacking in social skills, such an outcast, so messed up, and he was fighting in a strange country…doing ‘what he had to do.’ How could that little boy who used to come to my office every day, be the man who is having knife fights?

Then, the question that had been haunting me through the whole conversation was asked. “What are you doing in here?” Jeff said, “My grandpa has a place here and it is my happy place.” I must have looked at him quizzically, because he went on, “All the time in Iraq and when I was injured and on the helicopter, I thought of this place and it got me through.” My eyes welled again. A mixture of pride and sadness surged through me. I know I did what I could for him, but I know I could have done better. Here he was, a kid who used to drive me crazy, off in a foreign country fighting for our country.

All the time I was working with Jeff, I had hopes that what I was doing would make a difference in his life. I wanted to show him that people could be decent and caring. I wanted him to feel better about life. In the end, Jeff touched my life too. First, at his graduation party, when I could hear about the difference I had made in his life. Then, in the store I realized that my life had been changed.


loonyhiker said...

What a great story! I'm glad he had someone like you in his life. And I don't think he would have changed your life if you hadn't been the compassion kind teacher that you are. That leaves you open to letting the students make an impact on your life too! Thanks for sharing this.

Paul Bogush said...

You'll enjoy this:

Kat said...

Hey, Terry...

It's amazing how as teachers we protect our students and try our best to prepare them for the real world. We are meant to give them the knowledge so they can function successfully in college and in life.

How do you teach or prepare a child for war?

My thoughts are with Jeff.

Switching gears....

It was a thought provoking story. I can relate to your student, Jeff. The student that needed to be constantly supervised. I had a nine year old boy this year that was determine to bully the kids and disrupt my room constantly. Group work was a nightmare...and yet... when I was one-on-one with this child he would shape up and show his sweet side. He was a master a punching people's buttons. His mother was the same kind of mom you described. She made the same ADHD excuse for his behavior, and in this case she had decided to stop giving him medicine that year to treat it. I think there was a reason he was put into my class. I was always patient with him and I could keep him functioning as best as I could...although his needs unfortunately took time away from the other children. I could have done so much more for my other students had I not had to constantly deal with his problems. He finally was written up and sent to the office so much by other teachers outside my classroom...he ended up at the boot camp school for our district. I have to admit...the four weeks he was gone my classroom had a completely different feel. Kids began to notice how peaceful and "quiet" things had become. When he came back things were good for a short time. I thought that maybe the structure for him had helped but progress slowly reversed and we were back to the same pattern at the end of the year. I was so relieved the last day of school...very much like your story. I saw him at the mall this summer and that kid was so happy to see me...I couldn't believe his reaction. His mother went on to tell me how much he loved me. My heart melted. I am still fearful of where this child is going to end up. I just know that middle/high school are going to be hard for him. He is my first student that I worry will make the wrong choice at the wrong time and end up in jail. For now...things are good with him this summer and I hope he is able to get his anger under control.

I still can't believe the smile on his face. Just goes to show you that you never know which ones you are touching. I am constantly surprised by which kids make a point to come back to see me each year. It's never the ones I thought would come back. :)

Great story, Terry...

Wish I would have thought of the "Tip Jar" :)...oh wait... party jar. :) Great Idea!

SherryC said...

Wonderful story, Terry. As teachers, we all need to remember that what we do for a child may make a difference in ways we cannot even fathom. You obviously have seen that. I am glad you could see how Jeff changed you as well!

Sharon Elin said...

I love to hear stories about our students growing up... it helps me remember that we're merely ushering them along as life sweeps them through the years.

Too often, we get stuck in the day-to-day grind and unintentionally underestimate students by assuming they will always remain the way we know them in our class. The fact is, they grow up, move on, and they change. Other teachers and people touch their lives, but maybe we made a just-in-time difference in their journey.

Who knows why particular students land in our world? We may have made connections with them and for them that we'll never know - and as you discovered years later, they may still teach us unexpected lessons in the process.

Thanks so much for sharing that heartwarming story. I have tremendous respect and gratitude for our troops, and you should be proud to have helped this young man in his apparently rocky youth.