Equity & Diversity Opinion

Voices: Missing Person

By Joanna Johnson — September 04, 1996 2 min read

James sits next to me and unfolds the day’s Metro section. “Will you read this to me?” he asks, pointing to a story on the lower half of the page.

James looks at the newspaper, eyes serious and wide. His 14-year-old body is slim, not from growth spurts but from malnutrition and lack of sleep. He is the poorest student I have. All of September, he slept under a bridge. Now he lives with his father, a senior member of a violent gang. I’ve met Dad once, at a dismissal reinstatement. He has no phone.

“Sure, which article?” I say, smoothing the paper. James points to a headline: “Local Man Shot in Bar.”

“That’s my uncle,” James says. “He got killed.” He puts his chin on his fists that rest on the table.

“You read to me,” I say, moving closer, my arm touching his. “I’ll help if you get stuck.”

Haltingly, but with determination, James reads about the murder. His uncle, accused of picking the pocket of a customer in a bar, refused to empty his pockets and was shot by the offended patron. James reads every word, stopping after each sentence to paraphrase. He doesn’t want to miss a thing.

“Is he in the obituaries?” I ask.

“What’s that?” James says. We turn the pages and read and talk. James knows the words “eulogy” and “condolences” from his vocabulary lists. He doesn’t know if he will be allowed to go to the funeral.

As he reads, I look closely at him. He’s wearing faded, baggy blue jeans that aren’t quite long enough to be fashionable and a tight, black sweat shirt, sleeves pushed up to hide the poor fit. His skin is ashy; he hasn’t asked for lotion this morning as he usually does. At least he’s clean; the kids won’t make fun of his smell.

Before today, James had been gone for two solid weeks. His attendance has always been bad, but such a stretch is unusual. With no “attendance specialist” and a single social worker stretched between five schools, no one else has noticed. I used to ask James where he had been, but now I just welcome him back. Occasionally, I give him lunch money or act as his advocate in disciplinary scrapes.

When we finish reading the paper, James says, “Thanks, Ms. J.” He is always polite.

“Any time,” I reply, smiling as he rises to join the rest of the students who have been working with my student teacher.

As he walks away, I have no way of knowing that this will be the last day I ever see him. I have no way of knowing that he will simply disappear, that he will not show up on the roll of any school in the district, that no one--no administrator, counselor, or social worker--will search to see what has become of this engaging, sensitive child. I have no way of knowing that I will start carrying a photo of him in my wallet. James will not be forgotten by at least one adult in a system that failed to protect him from a life he did not choose.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Voices: Missing Person


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Safe Return to Schools is Possible with Testing
We are edging closer to a nationwide return to in-person learning in the fall. However, vaccinations alone will not get us through this. Young children not being able to vaccinate, the spread of new and
Content provided by BD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
Meeting the Moment: Accelerating Equitable Recovery and Transformative Change
Educators are deciding how best to re-establish routines such as everyday attendance, rebuild the relationships for resilient school communities, and center teaching and learning to consciously prioritize protecting the health and overall well-being of students
Content provided by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Addressing Learning Loss: What Schools Need to Accelerate Reading Instruction in K-3
When K-3 students return to classrooms this fall, there will be huge gaps in foundational reading skills. Does your school or district need a plan to address learning loss and accelerate student growth? In this
Content provided by PDX Reading

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Equity & Diversity Opinion Q&A Collections: Challenging Normative Gender Culture in Education
Ten years of posts on supporting LGBTQ students and on questions around gender roles in education.
1 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
Equity & Diversity Video These Schools Served Black Students During Segregation. There's a Fight to Preserve Them
A look at how Black people managed to grow a solid middle class without access to so many of America’s public schools.
According to The Campaign to Create a Julius Rosenwald & Rosenwald Schools National Historical Park, the two-teacher school was developed between 1926-1927 and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2009. The building is now owned by Cain’s Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, which sits adjacent to it.
The Russell School (also known as Cain’s School), a Rosenwald school in Durham, N.C., pictured on Feb. 17, 2021.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week
Equity & Diversity Letter to the Editor Former Teacher: Essay on Equity Falls Short
A retired teacher critiques an essay about equity in this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Equity & Diversity Opinion 'Students Deserve to Know Our History'
Two educators wrap up a four-part series on how teachers should respond to attacks on critical race theory and lessons on systemic racism.
9 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."