This is a guest post from Steven Singer, who describes himself as “a father, husband, teacher, blogger and education activist.”
He writes at Gadfly on the Wall.
Some nights sleep won’t come.
I toss and turn, crumpling the blankets.
Sitting up in the pre-morning gloom, that’s when they come back to me.
A parade of faces. No names. Just faces.
Kids I’ve taught and wondered about.
What ever happened to Jason? Did Rayvin ever get into dance school? I wonder if the army took Tyler...
But there’s one face that always comes last.
A strong straight lip. Soft nose. Brooding eyes.
Terance ... Terrell ... TYRELL.
Yes. That’s his name.
One of my first students. One of my biggest failures.
And I don’t have to wonder what happened to him. I know.
He never got to play professional basketball like he wanted. He never even made it out of high school.
No, not dead—though I do have I gaggle of ghosts on my class roster.
He’s a murderer. Life in prison.
I was his 8th grade language arts teacher. It was my first year teaching in the district.
I had a reputation for being able to relate with hard to reach kids so they put me in the alternative education classroom.
I had a bunch of students from grades 6-8 who simply couldn’t make it in a regular setting.
These were kids with undiagnosed learning disabilities, appalling home environments, and/or chips on their shoulders that could cut iron.
But I loved it.
Everyday was exhausting. I could barely stay awake on the ride home. But it was worth it because I felt like I was making a difference.
And there was Tyrell.
Few hours went by without at least one of the children having to be disciplined. Sometimes it was just a simple redirection. Other times it was a brief counseling session to find out why someone was misbehaving. And sometimes it was so bad kids were sent to the office or once even escorted out of the building in handcuffs.
If you’d told me one of those children would end up killing someone, I wouldn’t have blinked. If you told me it would be Tyrell, I wouldn’t have believed you.
He was a gentle giant.
Always calm and in control, well above the others academically. When one of the others lost his cool, Tyrell would help talk him down.
Why he was there? He was involved in a bloody fight on the way home from school the year before.
But you’d never know. It was like he was already doing time—serving out his sentence with these misfits until he could be placed back with the rest of the student population.
When Carlos got caught with a knife, Tyrell’s back had stiffened but he hadn’t moved.
The knife had fallen from Carlos’ pocket across the table and slid to the floor.
Tyrell watched it but said nothing.
“Is that a knife, Carlos?” I asked.
“No!” he said picking it up and putting it back in his pocket.
“Why do you have a knife, Carlos?” I asked.
He shrugged and refused to say anything.
Then Tyrell spoke up.
“It’s for the walk home, Mr. Singer.”
“What?” I asked.
“He needs it,” Tyrell said.
And the look in both of their eyes said it was true.
But what could I do? If he used that knife, I’d be liable.
I had to report it, and I did.
But I told administrators the whole truth—that I BELIEVED the knife was for self-defense. That something had to be done to protect these kids on the walk home.
Nothing changed. Our district saves a ton of money by forgoing buses. Richer kids get a ride to school. Poorer kids walk.
And Carlos got charged.
Tyrell never said anything about it. But I wondered what we’d find if we searched HIM.
We have metal detectors, but they are far from 100% effective.
One day Tyrell stayed after class to talk. We quickly turned from grades and assignments to what he wanted to do with his life.
Tyrell loved B-ball. Often wore a Kobe jersey to school. And always the cleanest, brightest Jordans on his feet.
He was going to play ball, he said. No doubt about it.
I tried to convince him to have a backup plan, but he just shook his head.
“What kind of options you think there is out there for a guy like me, Mr. Singer?”
I’ll never forget it. Me trying to convince him he could do anything he wanted, and he just smiling.
“Guy like me do only one of two things,” he said, “He plays some ball or he runs on the streets.”
I asked him to explain and he told me about his brothers—how they sold drugs, bought fancy cars, took care of the family.
I kept insisting there was another way—a better way. And finally he agreed but said that his way was easier, safer, more of a sure thing.
“Why should I work my ass off on all this?” he said pointing to his books, “I can make a stack on the street.”
Was there anything I could have said to change his mind?
I don’t know. But I tried.
I never had another chance. They moved him back to regular ed. a few weeks later.
He finished the year with a different teacher in a different part of the building.
I saw him occasionally and he’d dap me up but that was about it.
Until about a year later, when I read it in the paper.
Police think it was a drug related hit. Tyrell was in the backseat. He put his gun to the driver’s head and pulled the trigger.
No more future for either of them.
Except on restless nights when Tyrell’s face keeps coming back to me.
Is there something I could have done? Do the words exist for me to have convinced him to change his path? Would he have listened if I hadn’t reported Carlos?
And most importantly—why am I the only one who seems to care?
The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.