Some nights sleep just won’t come.
I toss and turn, crumpling the blankets until I have to get up and read or pour myself a glass of water.
Sitting up in the pre-morning gloom, that’s when they come back to me.
A parade of faces. No names. Words are all lost in the haze of time.
But the faces remain.
Kids I’ve taught and wondered about.
What ever happened to Jason? Did Rayvin ever get into dance school? I wonder if the army took Tyler…
But there’s one face that always comes last.
A strong straight lip. Soft nose. Brooding eyes.
Terance… Terrell… TYRELL.
Yes. That’s his name.
One of my first students. One of my biggest failures.
And I don’t have to wonder what happened to him. I know with a dread of certainty.
He never got to play professional basketball like he wanted. He never even made it out of high school.
No, not dead – though I do have I gaggle of ghosts on my class roster.
He’s a murderer. Life in prison.
I was his 8th grade language arts teacher. It was my first year teaching in the district.
I had a reputation for being able to relate with hard to reach kids so they put me in the alternative education classroom.
I had a bunch of students from grades 6-8 who simply couldn’t make it in the regular school setting.
These were kids with undiagnosed learning disabilities, appalling home environments, and/or chips on their shoulders that could cut iron.
But I loved it.
I taught the Read 180 curriculum – a plan designed for students just like mine. We had three stations: silent reading, computer remediation and small group instruction.
The class was divided in three – students rotated through each group. Though I somehow monitored the whole thing, I spent most of my time meeting with kids in small group instruction.
I had an aide who helped the whole thing run smoothly, too. Lots of planning time, support and resources.
Everyday was exhausting. I could barely stay awake on the ride home. But it was worth it, because I felt like I was making a difference.
And there was Tyrell.
Few days went by without at least one of the children having to be disciplined. Sometimes it was just a simple redirection or even standing in close proximity to kids who seemed set to explode. Other times it was a brief one-on-one counseling session to find out why someone was misbehaving. And sometimes it was so bad kids had to be sent to the office. Once we even had a child escorted out of the building in handcuffs because he brought a weapon to class.
If you’d told me one of those children would end up killing someone, I wouldn’t have blinked. If you told me it would be Tyrell, I wouldn’t have believed you.
He was a gentle giant.
Almost always calm and in control. He was well above the others academically. When one of the others lost his cool, Tyrell would help talk him down.
I wondered why he was there. Turns out he was involved in a bloody fight on the way home from school the year before.
But that rarely made its way into the classroom. It was like he was already doing time – serving out his sentence with these misfits until he could be placed back with the rest of the student population.
I remember when Carlos got caught with the knife, Tyrell’s back had stiffened but he hadn’t moved.
The knife had fallen from Carlos’ pocket across the table and slid to the floor.
Tyrell watched it slide across his desk but said nothing.
“Is that a knife, Carlos?” I asked.
“No!” he said picking it up and putting it back in his pocket.
“Why do you have a knife, Carlos?” I asked.
He shrugged and refused to say anything.
Then Tyrell spoke up.
“It’s for the walk home, Mr. Singer.”
“What?” I asked.
“He needs it,” Tyrell said.
And the look in both of their eyes said it was true.
But what could I do? If he used that knife, I’d be liable.
I had to report it, and I did.
Would I still do that? Was it a mistake?
I don’t know.
But I went to the administration and told them the truth – that I BELIEVED the knife was for self-defense. That something had to be done to protect these kids on the walk home.
Nothing changed. Our district saves a ton of money by forgoing buses. Richer kids get a ride to school. Poorer kids walk.
And Carlos got charged.
Tyrell never said anything about it. But I wondered what we’d find if we searched HIM.
We have metal detectors, but they are far from 100% effective.
I remember one day Tyrell stayed after class to talk to me. Talk quickly turned from grades and assignments to what he wanted to do with his life.
Tyrell loved B-ball. Often wore a Kobe jersey to school. And always the cleanest, brightest Jordans on his feet.
He was going to play ball, he said. No doubt about it.
I tried to convince him to have a backup plan, but he just shook his head.
“What kind of options you think there is out there for a guy like me, Mr. Singer?”
I’ll never forget it. Me trying to convince him he could do anything he wanted, and he just smiling.
“Guy like me only do one of two things,” he said, “He plays some ball or he runs out on the streets.”
I asked him to explain, and he told me about his brothers – how they sold drugs, bought fancy cars, took care of the family.
I kept insisting there was another way – a better way. And finally he agreed but said that his way was easier, safer, more of a sure thing.
“Why should I work my ass off on all this?” he said pointing to his books, “I can make a stack on the street.”
Was there anything I could have said to change his mind?
I don’t know. But I tried.
And that was it, really. I never had another chance. They moved him back to regular ed. a few weeks later.
He finished the year with a different teacher in a different part of the building.
I saw him occasionally, and he’d dap me up, but that was about it.
The next year there was an opening for me in regular ed., too.
Eighth grade with the academic track population.
I had to really think about it. My colleagues thought I was crazy not jumping on it at the first opportunity.
But it was no easy decision.
What finally pushed me over the edge was the rumor that alternative ed. was being downsized.
They would no longer pay for the Read 180 curriculum. No more aides. No more resources and extra planning time.
So I put in for the move and have been there ever since.
Of course, with a much reduced alternative ed. most of the students I would have taught had moved up with me to the regular ed. classroom. Now they’re just bunched in with the regular population.
But I don’t regret it. I love these kids. I love being there for them.
And Tyrell? About a year later, I read about him in the newspaper.
Police think it was a drug related hit. Tyrell was in the backseat. He put his gun to the driver’s head and pulled the trigger.
No more future for either of them.
Except on restless nights when Tyrell’s face keeps coming back to me.
Is there something I could have done? Do the words exist for me to have convinced him to change his path? Would he have listened if I hadn’t reported Carlos?
And most importantly – why am I the only one who seems to care?
NOTE: A slightly condensed version of this article was published on Nancy Flanagan’s blog “Teacher in a Strange Land” in Education Week. The expanded version seen here also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.