A Survivor's Tale

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We at Teacher Magazine see most of the new books authored by teachers, but occasionally something good slips past us. Such is the case with Chasing Hellhounds(Milkweed Editions), Marvin Hoffman's 1996 memoir of teaching at Jones High in inner-city Houston. Hoffman, who has taught for more than 20 years at every level from preschool to graduate school, wrote the book at the urging of his wife, a writer. "My wife sits at home writing novels," he says in an introduction, "but when I unload on her all my tales of triumph and tragedy, humor and sadness, she tells me that I live a novel every day." Milkweed Editions is a nonprofit literary publisher.

Throwing chalk is a device mentioned in no extant manual of classroom management, but if you asked the kids in my class that year what they remembered most, they would tell you it was not Othello, not A Separate Peace, not the short-story writing project; it was the chalk.

There I am pacing restlessly in front of the class, from stool to blackboard to my perch atop the back of a chair. When I turn from the board to face the class, there is Jeff buried in his book seemingly oblivious to whatever inspired discourse I'm delivering. I've tried to ignore the fact that he has been thus absorbed since the beginning of class. It's not a statement of boredom or an act of defiance. Although it is early in the year, I know enough about Jeff already to guess that it is an act of self-protection, a futile attempt to wrap himself in a cloak of invisibility, a hope that this statement of disengagement will immunize him against the responsibility to perform. In fact, I suspect that Jeff is like the autistic children with whom I've worked. Without ever making eye contact or giving any hint of attending, they show evidence of absorbing everything around them, like giant satellite dishes pulling in signals from halfway around the globe.

Like the blooper-ball pitchers of my childhood, I loft the piece of chalk in Jeff's direction. To my delight and to the astonishment of the rest of the class, which is at least paying enough attention to take note of the bizarre act, the chalk's trajectory carries it through the narrow space between Jeff's nose and the open pages of his book. He looks up in astonishment. Adam leads the class cheer: "All right, Dr. H! What an arm. Nolan Ryan!" Always appreciative of acts of athletic prowess, Adam had been the organizer of the celebratory cake in honor of my two baskets in the faculty-student basketball game.

When Jeff looks up, I smile, compliment myself on my accuracy, which is, in truth, dumb luck, and welcome him back among us. He knows the chalk was not thrown in anger, and there's good reason to assume from his later behavior that he saw it as it was intended, a reaching out to draw him back among us, a plea to put aside his shield in return for a guarantee of safe passage.

David, a student in one of my other classes that year, used his jacket in much the same way that Jeff used his book. He would never appear in class without it, and when the interior going got rough for whatever reason, invisible to the outside observer, he would pull the jacket up over his head and run the zipper right up under his chin until the smallest possible area of his face was left open and vulnerable to assault from the outside. Toward the end of the year, we suddenly realized that David was showing up minus the jacket; he was informing us that he had passed into a new zone of safety.

I repeated the chalk-throwing gambit many times during the year, to the class's delight. It got to be a kind of game between me and Jeff in which I had the sense at times that he was burying himself in his book specifically in order to trigger it. There were even occasions when he roused himself in time to catch the chalk before it reached its mark.

Jeff was not at all aloof or unapproachable when I was alone with him. I had begun to invite him in from time to time to eat lunch with me in my classroom. Although the chalk throwing had created an important link between us, I needed to get beyond it. It was a lifeline I tossed to him, and he seemed willing to reach out for it. My invitation was spurred by a plea for help from Jeff's mother. She was a regular at our parent-support group, which met every other Wednesday to discuss everything from achievement tests to shyness. Mrs. Randle was an attractive young woman who showed up at the meetings straight from late hours at work still wearing a business suit and ruffled silk blouse. She looked tired and harried.

Mrs. Randle rarely said anything during the meetings, but she always stayed behind to talk with me afterward. She had divorced Jeff's father, remarried, and had another child. Like a number of his classmates, Jeff spent weekends and one month of the summer with his father. It was his mother's feeling that these visits with a demanding, rather emotionally inaccessible father were a source of great strain for Jeff and were often followed by intensified bouts of the defensive reading Jeff did in class. Teachers had been complaining to her for years about his retreats, but no one had broken through them.

I needed to hear Jeff's version, which he was more than willing to provide. For several years we had run a discussion group at school for children from divorced families, and I learned from them in vivid detail how kids' needs fell to the bottom of their parents' agendas as they engaged in marital combat.

In fact, Jeff confirmed much of what his mother had repeated and added a few embellishments of his own. Jeff's father was a lawyer who had been heavily involved in left-wing politics. Some family friends whom Jeff knew well were currently in jail for their activities. Jeff knew more about politics than any 6th grader I have ever met. He could speak with great authority about Nicaragua and about American policy in Central America. When he did a paper and presentation on the subject in the 7th grade, his classmates were taken totally by surprise.

We met sporadically over Jeff's three years in middle school. As we nibbled absently at our sandwiches and apples in the stingy 25-minute lunch periods, he would catch me up on the latest domestic battles. He was open, articulate, impishly funny. There was so much charm that he managed to keep concealed from his peers as well as from adults. We talked about the ups and downs in his academic work, which were connected to his problems at home, but not in any simple, linear way. Although he was never anywhere near the brink of failure, he missed assignments or did them in haste, moments before they were due. The writing assignments he knocked off in the five minutes before class were as good as pieces other kids had labored over at home.

Sometimes things really took hold, and Jeff threw himself into a project with a full measure of passion. I remember a piece of historical fiction he wrote, a short story set during the revolution in China, a perfect synthesis of his reading, his deeply internalized family political values, and his considerable powers of imagination. Ironically, what was probably his best piece of work came at the most turbulent time of his life. I once interviewed a renowned Hungarian émigré mathematician who told me he had reached his intellectual peak while he was fleeing from the Nazis, never sleeping in the same location two nights in a row. Jeff was fleeing his own demons.

One Friday night during his last year with me, Jeff's mother left him and his sister alone and told them she had some work to do at the office. According to Jeff, this had been happening with increasing frequency and his suspicions were aroused. When it got really late and his mother hadn't returned, Jeff began to search around in her room, perhaps for some clue to her whereabouts. He found a packet that looked to him like cocaine and called his father for advice. Since my first meetings with his mother, the family balance had shifted, and Jeff was now much more in his father's orbit.

He was at the age where he desperately needed that male force in his life. On his side, his father had softened and seemed less inclined to sit in judgment, readier to accept Jeff and appreciate his considerable gifts. At the same time, Mrs. Randle was becoming less accessible and more irresponsible. The cocaine was both cause and symptom of the changes in her life, which was spinning out of control.

Jeff's father called the police, who arrested the mother when she returned home late that night. Thus began a yearlong battle in the courts, all too well publicized in Houston papers. The fascination of the case lay in the fact that Jeff and his sister had informed on their own parent. Mrs. Randle's defense attorney, one of the best in town, tried to build a case on the inadmissibility of evidence collected in this way. In spite of his efforts, she was convicted, and the conviction was upheld on appeal.

Throughout all this, Jeff and his sister continued to live with their mother. I imagined all three setting out together for court, where Jeff and Lisa would testify against their mother, and then returning home for the evening as if from an outing.

The strain on Jeff was enormous. Although his mother exercised admirable restraint in dealing with the children, she was at the same time making them pay emotionally for their act of betrayal. Yet Jeff was showing up in school every day, getting most of his work done, making pretty decent grades, and only occasionally playing hide-and-seek behind his book in class. He knew when my off periods were and would get a pass from his teacher, ostensibly to borrow a book from my class library but also to snatch a few minutes to talk about the latest twists and turns at home or in court. Sometimes he just wanted to talk politics or books, a welcome respite from the press of his personal woes.

I remember coming upon Robert Coles' classic volumes, Children of Crisis. In the course of reading these extraordinary accounts of kids transcending the most difficult circumstances, I realized for the first time how primed I was to dwell on breakdown, defeat, malfunction. When we're looking at Jeff and thousands like him, it's far more impressive to consider the enormous strength and resilience that kids display under the most insufferable circumstances. There was Jeff, for example, hauling his suitcase and sleeping bag to the bus for our 8th grade overnight trip on the same day the mess of the trial, the conviction, and his role as informant were on public display in the local papers. He was determined to get on with his life, and he was succeeding with a dignity and courage that I would match against any act of battlefield bravery.

This excerpt is from Chasing Hellhounds: A Teacher Learns From His Students, by Marvin Hoffman (Milkweed Editions). Copyright © 1996 by Marvin Hoffman. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions, 430 First Avenue North, Suite 400, Minneapolis, MN 55401; (800) 520-6455;www.milkweed.org.

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