I still have a copy of the letter. It showed up in a stack of papers I was grading late one night as a student-teacher. Seventh grade American history.
The assignment: “Someone I admire in history.”
And there, printed in pencil on a lined notebook page, these words: “The person I admire is Adolf Hitler. He helped kill all the blacks and Jews. ...”
Even then, years before Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the words were chilling. Clearly this was a troubled kid, and a problem way over the head of a rookie teacher in his first classroom.
Jeff wasn’t a skinhead, not even a “troubled loner.” Just a long-haired kid with a mullet, in bluejeans and black T-shirts and the trucker wallets that were around when I was a kid in the ’70s in this same school district. Back then, though, everyone’s dad had a good job at Ford, and there were only a few black kids. Now those jobs were largely gone, and the town and this suburban Detroit school district were very different. A merger with a nearby district had changed the demographics, and now about 30 percent of the students were black. And a few of the white kids, like this boy and his friends, resented them.
There was a group of them, and they shared a fascination with Nazi culture—swastikas and Stuka dive bombers and black uniforms and Panzer tanks.
The next day, I pulled Jeff aside after class. Nervously, I told him that his paper was unacceptable, and that I was going to talk to his mom and his counselor. When I called his home, his mother was shocked, and terribly embarrassed. And had no absolutely no clue that her son was into this sort of thing. She was divorced, and Jeff’s dad wasn’t around.
My supervising teacher, the counselor, and I talked it over. They suspended Jeff from school, saying he couldn’t come back until he’d apologized to me and written a letter explaining himself. His mom took his Nintendo away for a month. Looking back with post-Columbine hindsight, that response seems pretty inadequate. And every time there’s one of these campus shootings, I think about Jeff and how every teacher, sooner or later, has to make judgment calls like this.
He was back in class a couple of days later. “Dear Mr. Drummond ...” He was sorry, didn’t really mean it, had just made it up, and so forth and so on. The kind of apology any kid can do in his sleep. In other words, mostly a lie.
I wish I could say I helped Jeff, or prevented him from growing up into a full-blown hater. I doubt it though. One of the things I found most shocking about teaching, and most frustrating, was how absurdly little time you actually have with your students. Especially in middle school, where so many kids on any given day seem right on the edge of giving up, or exploding from all the pressures they’re under. You get 55 minutes, and there are 28 kids in the class. Do the math.
I taught about the Holocaust. We read aloud from Elie Wiesel’s Night. Jeff took his turn along with the other kids in the back row. We did a unit on the civil rights movement, squeezed in as most such units are in the last couple of weeks before the semester ends. I spoke with his mom regularly and she, mostly, made sure he did his homework. Jeff for some reason took a liking to me (there were almost no male role models under the age of 40 at the school)—he even showed up for several of my after-school review sessions to study for tests, and I think ended up with a C-minus or a D.
On the last day of class, he came up to me and asked me to sign his yearbook. As I reached for it, the pages flipped over, and there among the signatures and “To a cool kid” messages from his classmates were all sorts of swastikas and German crosses. I wrote my name and handed it back, and never saw him again.
A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2007 edition of Education Week as A Swastika Moment