When Jesse Reads Slam!

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Kennedy Krieger's extended therapeutic day program serves severely emotionally and behaviorally disturbed adolescents.

"We're about to get excessively agitated kids. They've just been told they can't go on the trip." It is 11:05 a.m. on July 14, and Chad Kramer is not issuing a simple late-morning announcement. He's warning the staff in the Reading, Writing, and Language Room at Baltimore's Kennedy Krieger School. The staff hears the warning as he intends it: Expect trouble.

Kennedy Krieger's extended therapeutic day program serves severely emotionally and behaviorally disturbed male adolescents. The program provides a variety of resources: psychiatric, medical, occupational, and speech and language services. In the words of teaching assistant Ernest Maker: "The boys can be extremely high style. They can escalate very quickly."

Mr. Kramer, or "Mr. Chad" as he is known throughout the school, specializes in a different kind of therapy--the medicinal powers of literature and conversation. The teaching assistant says of Mr. Kramer: "The communication is awesome. He gives them a chance to communicate. He helps them to grow." The program's educational director, Pat Millard, does not mince his words when describing Mr. Kramer: "He embodies the art of teaching."

Chad Kramer grew up reading Jack Kerouac and J.D. Salinger and credits his Irish mother with introducing him to James Joyce's The Dubliners. "I was the typical young man searching for answers," he says. After majoring in English and psychology at Rutgers University, he did something atypical. He joined Teach For America for the express purpose of working with the "most difficult kids, rough kids. And I got them," he says with a smile. "I saw it as my opportunity to give back. I felt I owed it to a lot of people."

Most of his students are weak readers, requiring Mr. Kramer and speech therapist Jen Langenberg to make "strong accommodations, a multi-modality approach that plays to the kids' strengths." Unfortunately, many of the support materials for a book like To Kill a Mockingbird skirt the tough issues that Mr. Kramer believes his students need to talk about most.

"Discussing the race issues, the single parenting, the domestic abuse, and the crime in To Kill a Mockingbird makes everything real to the kids. You have to connect the classroom to real life."

By 11:06 a.m., reality has connected, or more accurately, collided with his classroom. Two of his young men, Jesse and Sam, are feeling deeply aggrieved about being left behind while their peers are off to visit the state prison at Patuxent. With a strong suggestion from Mr. Kramer, they have elected five minutes of Chill Time.

But when they return to class, it is clear that Jesse is about to explode. As he pulls his T-shirt up over his head, he warns Mr. Chad point blank: "I'm at my boiling point right now."

Chad Kramer doesn't flinch or call for backup. He has been assaulted by students before, once sustaining a concussion when a Timberland boot caught him square in the temple. He quickly deploys his intern and an aide to work with his other students. Then he slides into a desk, so he is eyeball to eyeball with Jesse, and asks: "What is making you so agitated today?"

"Ten dollars says I fail this term." Jesse prophesies his own academic demise, but Mr. Kramer isn't buying it. "I don't have $10 to spend." He tries again: "What kind of kick do those other guys get out of getting you upset?"

Then Jesse pours it out. Later, Mr. Kramer explains: "He told me everything. A scattershot of all the things that have been building up. Not going on the trip just set him off. We had to work through all of that."

After about 10 minutes of the right questions in the right tone, Mr. Kramer suggests that Jesse pick up today's book, Slam! by award-winning young-adult author Walter Dean Myers. Mr. Kramer has a lesson plan on characterization in the first chapter, but it is far too late in the hour for that. He asks Jesse if he'd like to read quietly by himself. And Jesse, some new transformed Jesse, does. He takes the book to a corner of the room and cracks it open.

Jesse is the kind of kid that other teachers don't want. The conventional wisdom is that they're too impulsive, angry, and violent to redeem.

Jesse is the kind of kid that other teachers and other schools don't want. The conventional wisdom is that they're too impulsive, angry, and violent to redeem. "Medicate him. Find him a 'more restrictive residential placement.'" And perhaps the conventional wisdom is right more often than it is wrong.

But Chad Kramer doesn't think so. He acts as though Jesse, and all of his students, have dormant souls and minds that can be awakened by the music in books. He has a hard-earned and rare audacity, an unwavering commitment to the manhood of these boys, and the humanity of their manhood. "It still surprises me how deeply these disturbed boys feel things."

With five minutes left in his class, Mr. Kramer wheels his blue desk-chair over to Jesse's corner. "Tell me about the book. What's going on in the first chapter?" Jesse can summarize, cold and concise. He lays out the key facts about the book's protagonist, Slam Harris, star basketball player, weak student.

"His father drinks. His little brother starts trouble. His principal made his mother upset by saying Slam might not be able to graduate." In the same flat tone, as though describing another circumstance enveloping Slam's life, Jesse adds: "If I were Slam, I would have punched the principal in the mouth. I would have gotten arrested."

Mr. Kramer doesn't hesitate: "But how would his mom have reacted, if he had done that?"

"Probably laughed. I would have laughed, if I were her."

Mr. Kramer's voice grows very soft now: "Remember, you're not her. How does his mom react when she is upset?" He's calling Jesse back, recalling him from a vivid, violent fantasy of himself to the life of Slam's mom.

"She makes tea."

The hour is over, and Mr. Kramer is trying to establish an understanding, an emotional beachhead for tomorrow. "Slam is not you, but he's dealing with some of the same stuff you're dealing with. That's why we read these books. So that you have some time to think about you. A book can be a safe place to go to."

Jesse resists the upbeat didactics, fights off Mr. Kramer's closing appeal: "I'm still going to fail this term." Mr. Kramer's tone is still measured, but there is anger just below the surface. "I'm talking about today. Did you fail today? I'm talking today."

"No. You helped me a little bit," Jesse grudgingly acknowledges. Then, he pauses and asks quietly: "Can I read this for a few more minutes? I'll put it on your desk when I'm done."

This is what brings Mr. Kramer to work each morning. "The ragged fullness of it all--I love that. When they are able to produce thinking, that's what makes me happy."

Mr. Kramer is a realist. Books and questions may not be much, but they are all he has to help Jesse recognize and wrestle with his demons. To the extent that he fails, Mr. Kramer knows that another professional will be ready with some convenient and powerful warehouse: pills or steel bars or a dreary worksheet, the "functional stuff," as he calls it.

It's a day-to-day thing. His job is to talk to these young men about their reading--and their fantasy-filled misreadings. "Jesse asked for more time with the book. They never ask for a few more minutes to work on a practice job-application form." His joy is in witnessing their discovery that books are a safe place to go, a safe place for young men searching for answers--and for themselves.

John G. Ramsay is the Hollis Caswell professor of educational studies at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and a member of the Northfield school board.

Vol. 18, Issue 7, Page 44

Published in Print: September 23, 1998, as When Jesse Reads Slam!
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