The problem with 9th grader Phillip Johnson, we teachers decided in the seclusion of the faculty lounge, was that he was absolutely unlovable: In him there was no charm, no grace, no buoyancy.
This isn’t to say that we didn’t try, for we believed ourselves to be good teachers, and we fully bought into the impossible assumption—our profession’s version of the Hippocratic oath—that it is our responsibility to get through to each child. But Phillip, increasingly unruly, was absolutely impenetrable. He sneered at our studied, kind words, went rigid when we dared touch his shoulder. And to our warnings and reprimands, he went into a brooding rage, which he carried from class to class.
Then, on a glorious spring day, the headmaster set up an after-school meeting among Phillip, his father, and his teachers as a last ditch attempt at reform. We saw this meeting as little more than a futile formality. But it didn’t work out that way. As we went around the room, each teacher outlining expectations and deficiencies, Phillip began to weep, and the father, red-faced and downcast, hopelessly and repeatedly interjected an understated, “Are you listening to what your teachers are saying, Phillip?”
Phillip could only, between sobs, shout over and over, “I can never tell you what’s wrong.” We teachers were helpless, abashed. Was there a terrible secret, something we had overlooked? I watched Phillip and his father trudge out toward their car, their eyes never leaving the ground.
Several weeks ago, while cleaning out a classroom bookshelf, I came across Phillip’s poetry textbook. Flipping through the pages, I was amazed by what I saw. There were no scurrilous remarks, not even typical schoolboy doodles. Here, instead, neatly inscribed in the margins, were notes on the romantics, on figures of speech, on the symbolism of Frost’s mending wall. Here, in the back cover, were guidelines on how to write a thesis statement, how to structure a compare/contrast essay. And here, on a page I opened to at random, was a Shakespearian love sonnet, the meter precisely scanned with its curves and dashes as in a kind of urgent Morse code. A Shakespearian love sonnet? Had I really taught him something during his short tenure or had I been as superfluous as I had imagined? Was he truly callous or did he have a sensitivity we never detected? I don’t know. I still think of Phillip Johnson and try to figure everything out.
A version of this article appeared in the September 08, 1982 edition of Education Week as Voices: Unlovable