the students, part 4: Justin

Telling the story of my experience with Justin might as well read like a choose-your-own adventure novel.  There are as many starting points as there are endings.

Justin was in my regular Civics class during the fall semester of my fourth year of teaching.  It is helpful to know that he was and possibily still is living as a foster child with a woman who probably has no business being a foster mother.  I did not know this at the start, and it certainly was no excuse for any of the events that took place, but it sure did add some context.

Justin is smart.  It was unfair that he was placed in a regular section of Civics when he could have been successful in an honors section.  Even his test scores (the revered numbers in education) indicated that he should have been in an honors class.  When I inquired about this in guidance, they gave some sort of answer involving the difficulty of scheduling.  To be honest, I understood.  It wasn’t their fault.  There are simply too many credits and too little time to give students the individual attention they deserve.  We all want to, but rarely get to. 

In any event, Justin is smart.  Unfortunatley, he found himself in a situation that so many students do – he didn’t know how to be a student.  He started doing things like throwing pens across the room, tripping classmates on their way back to their desks, using language inappropriate for the classroom (but that I would later repeat to my husband when expressing my frustrations with Justin). 

Finally I decided to exercise my authority and write a referral.  I wrote up the incident – this particular day it involved a combination of language, failure to do work, interrupting instruction, etc.  I handed him and his accomplice their referrals and asked them to leave, as they were expected in ISS.  Unfortunately, they did not leave.  They had a problem with the referral, and I told them to take it up with the administrator.  Instead, when I reached to open the door for them, they moved in front of me to block the door, hitting my arm in the process.  This caught me off guard, and I did something that I regret to this day – I became flustered.  I called the office to ask for assistance, at which point Justin and friend decided they should go to ISS.  I was so upset that I knocked on my colleague’s door and just kept walking. 

What I did not realize was that when the resource officer responds to any call, an incident report must be filed.  While I was in the bathroom wiping my face, my colleague had to get me and explain to me that I had to come out.  I did, we all calmed down and talked, I was given an apology, and several hero-teachers watched my class for the remainder of the session. 

That could have been the end of the story.  That was a Friday, and I made an appointment to get my hair cut.  It was well past my shoulders, and I got it cut chin-length.  I felt like doing something dramatic after that experience.  Part of me also felt like students viewed me as weak because I was a little white girl with long hair.  Since my hair was the only thing I could change, I did.  Sort of a reverse Samson effect.

Monday Justin spent the day in ISS.  The next day I found out he collapsed from exhaustion at football practice.  The coach heard about his incident in my class and worked him harder than he had ever worked in his life.  I didn’t know how to react, except to say, “I never had this conversation”.   I didn’t want to be implicated in that sort of thing.

Over the next several weeks, I learned how to shut down during class.  I’ve always enjoyed teaching because of what I teach and who I teach, but that class made enjoyment impossible.  I learned that I was capable of creating assignments, delivering instruction, and going through the motions without smiling, without joking, and without connecting.  It was exhausting and scary. 

One day about a month later I saw Justin in the hallway with a woman who I assumed was his foster mother.  She had on flip flops and a doo-rag and was making noise about something at his locker.  I watched from my classroom for a few minutes, and I noticed Justin do something that I had never seen him do before – he hung his head.  I couldn’t tell if he was embarrassed or upset, or maybe a little of both.  That’s when I gained a different perspective on Justin’s behavior in my class.

The story could have ended there, too.  We made it through the remainder of the semester, and that group of students moved on.  Justin’s locker was right outside my classroom, and one day he did something that I did not expect – he came by to say hello.  In fact, Justin stopped by about once a week until the end of the school year to say hello, catch me up on his classes, and see how mine were going. 

When I first wrote him up and we found ouselves sitting in front of an administrator and a resource officer, the admin said, “Mrs. Russ, when a situation like this happens, you have grounds to have these students removed from your class.  Do you want to do that?”  I remember saying no, because I didn’t believe in giving up on anyone. 

I’m glad that my story with Justin had the twists and turns that it did, and I hope that Justin’s own story has a good ending.