Saturday, November 15, 2008
a regret
While writing my review of Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why, I found myself going off on a personal tangent that, while interesting, was not particularly appropriate for the purposes of a book review.  Even while I was writing it I knew I was eventually going to remove it, but I allowed myself to write through it anyway since it seemed to be serving some sort of personal catharsis.  On any normal month, that passage would have been highlighted, deleted and eventually forgotten, but this is no typical month.  This is November.  And so, in the spirit of my November 1st warning, here's a post that would have never otherwise seen the light of day were I not in the throws of trying to meet such an absurdly high word count goal by the end of the month.  It's quite confessional, and for that I apologize.  I'll make attempts at something a bit more lighthearted for tomorrow...

I met Jason eight years ago, when he was fifteen and I was twenty-two.  It was my very first day of teaching, and he was a sophomore student in my 6th hour American Literature and Composition class.  Most of the other names and faces from that particular class have long since faded from my memory, but Jason remains quite clear in my mind's eye for two reasons, the first being that he was the first true test of my authority. 

As a first year teacher, I was young, excited and more than a little nervous about the narrow age gap between myself and my teenage charges.  Both my student teaching and a brief stint in the trial-by-fire that is teaching summer school had prepared me for the eventual test of my authority, but I was confident that one of my greatest strengths was building mutually respectful relationships with teenagers.  And so although I knew that my age, appearance and small stature might be, at first, a handicap, I was confident in my skills of diffusing and disarming those moments of temporary insanity that even the most level-headed teenager eventually falls victim to.  What I was not prepared for, however, was for such a test to find me on my very first day.

From a classroom management perspective, the first day of school is, at least theoretically, the easiest.  We teachers go over our syllabi, while the students sit like lumps and listen.  Then, if there's time, we start getting to know one another by way of verbal introduction.  That year, I had decided to forgo the kitchy icebreaker activity in favor of a more organic "just stand up and introduce yourself" approach.  Understandably, no one ever enjoys doing this, but most everyone accepts both its inevitability and necessity.  The first four hours had gone by without a hitch, and my final period seemed as if it would wrap up without event.  There were only a few minutes left before the final bell was due to ring, and, after exhausting my list of willing volunteers, I had moved on to randomly selecting students to stand up and introduce themselves.  Eventually, I called on Jason, who then did something I was wholly unprepared for. He said no.

I now know better than to handle insubordination this way, but at that time I was relatively untested, and terrified of what this little jerk's firm and public refusal would do to my tenuous authority.  So, rather than just letting it go, I put on my best bitchy tone and ordered him to get up and do what I had asked.  Again, he refused.  I ordered him a third time.  A third time, he refused.  Somehow, I had found myself in the middle of a public stand-off over something so seemingly small as asking a kid to stand up and say his name, and I was at a loss for what to do about it.  

Burning with anger and embarrassment, I ordered Jason out into the hall.   I followed him out, and then unleashed all over him.   For his part, Jason just stood there and took it.  If I remember correctly, he never spoke a word.

After the bell had rung and the kids had left, I called Jason's mother with the goal of nipping this situation in the bud.  My actions seem extreme to me now, but at the time I feared any little crack that might weaken my position of authority.  Jason was a crack.  I explained the situation to his mom, who listened patiently, then apologized for her son's behavior, explaining that Jason has a crippling fear of public speaking, a history of emotional issues, and even attempted suicide that previous year.  She began to softly cry upon reaching this third point.  Naturally, I felt like a total asshole.  Of course there was a very reasonable explanation for Jason's insubordination, but so consumed was I with my own insecurities that I never even attempted any inquiries.

From then on, I never called upon Jason, and I never had another issue with him.  Whenever the lesson called for public speaking, I had already mentally excused him from the task, and for his part, he never acknowledged my "forgetfulness."  He passed through that year in my class like a ghost - doing what he needed to do to pass but little more, and speaking very rarely to the other students in the room.  So afraid was I of doing further damage that I did nothing at all.

Three years later I learned that Jason had managed a second suicide attempt shortly after graduation, and this time he was successful.  This is the second reason he stands out so clearly in my memory.   Unlike other students I've had who've died, I barely knew Jason at all.   I knew he was troubled, but so self-conscious was I of our initial misunderstanding that I made no further attempts to reach out to him.   I can excuse it by claiming that he never reached out to me, but it's clear to me now that this kid never reached out to anyone.  

And so though I can't pretend to understand what he may have been thinking, I do know this: just because he didn't reach out for help doesn't mean he might not have been waiting for someone to notice how desperately he needed it.