School has been over for a month. I’m leaving Gallup in another 3 weeks. But all my kids are still on my mind. Here’s the one I’m thinking about today. (Warning: it’s long.)
Tyree has TLS. I made it up: Terrible Life Syndrome. That’s when everything just sucks so much, in all ways, that the only possible courses of action are bad choices. His family moved from far out on the reservation in the middle of the year, because they were fleeing an abusive situation. His mom is taking care of 6 kids under the age of 12 by herself, with no job and no money. Consequently, there’s also no food a lot of the time. He’s the only boy besides the babies, and he feels responsible in some ways to be a man. That said, the only example of manhood he’s seen is yelling, cussing, and violence. He has some serious learning disabilities in reading, and couldn’t read past a 1st grade level at first. He also has the second lowest language skills of any student I’ve had (after the girl who didn’t say one word to me until October).
In response to this awfulness, Tyree lashed out in a lot of ways. Over the course of the year, he stole. He lied. He cussed at other students and called them names. He hit people. He threw rocks at windows on his walk home. He ran away from the after school program. He attacked his mom twice, so violently that she took him to the police station because she had no idea what else to do with him.
He also worked his butt off for me.
Every time he fell apart and did something bad, we would talk through it. Now, since he has the expressive abilities of an average 5 year old, sometimes that was mostly me talking. I talked through his actions, and what I guessed he might be feeling based on his actions, then asked him if I was right. If I wasn’t, I tried another interpretation of his actions. We kept going till we nailed down how he was feeling and why he acted the way he did. Usually, he was just mad for lots of reasons, and it came out as actions against the last person who made him mad. This is TLS.
Before Thanksgiving, we had an extra turkey dinner left over from our Turkey Bingo, so I brought it to their house. His mom thanked me, then showed me the gouges on her arm from where he attacked her the night before. So we talked that out. His mom cried. He got quiet and refused to look at anyone. I made him promise to call me if he was feeling that upset again, feeling woefully inadequate, and his mom asked me to try to pull strings with his counselor to get him more time to talk. I spent some of my Thanksgiving break calling Tyree, calling his mom, and calling every counseling office in the IHS till I got to talk to his counselor. He got more time, and I arranged transportation through the school so he wouldn’t miss so many appointments. It wasn’t enough, but it was a start.
Life went on. Tyree started doing awesome work in Math. He worked so hard with me on his reading, and he started to make progress. He still slipped up every now and then and did something upsetting, but it was almost always at recess, in PE, or at home. Our classroom became a place where he worked hard and behaved well. He even started to raise his hand during class reading discussions. For a kid with the language issues he has, that’s huge.
Then, one week, he was out on Monday. On Tuesday morning I get a call from his mom. He attacked her again yesterday, and she doesn’t know what to do anymore. He is refusing to go to school. Can I come over and talk to him? I find a random sub for my class, throw some work at them, and bring our parent liaison and health assistant with me (because they are trained in conflict resolution and nonviolent holds if need be).
When we get to his apartment, his mom opens the door and there he is. This tiny, 9-year-old ball of hurt and pain, so small his Incredible Hulk socks don’t even touch the floor from his seat on the couch. I sit next to him while his mom cries and tells us the story. It turns out that they went back to his hometown that weekend, as they do many weekends because their whole family is there. I think something happened with his dad, because he won’t look at anyone or say anything, but when I ask if something happened he shrugs. A no is a no. A shrug is a yes.
Tyree responded to whatever happened by pushing his 3 year old brother off a rock, which busted his head open and needed stitches. He got yelled at, and responded to that by attacking his mom. Now his behavior has him in a hole so deep he can’t get out of it, and he has no words to explain any of it. So he shuts down.
I talk at him for 10 minutes. It’s the same kind of talking we always do, me guessing what he needs to say and him shaking his head or shrugging. I give him reasons to come to school: it’s PE today for specials, we have computer time in math centers, the boys want you to be there to play football with them. All these things seem so tiny compared to what he is dealing with, but as I talk he slowly but surely leans toward me on the couch. When I put my arm around him and say, “Time to go,” he gets up to get ready.
As he puts his school clothes on, his mom shares that he hasn’t been to counseling in a month. They missed an appointment and got put back on the waiting list. Plus she doesn’t like that counselor because all they do is play with toys. I try to explain that Tyree needs to feel safe before he can process anything with a counselor, and the toys are part of that. She is skeptical, but we agree to get him back into counseling. The problem isn’t solved, but I don’t know how to solve it. No one seems to. Maybe there is no solution, except to keep going, so that’s what we do.
Meanwhile, back at school, things are fine. We start reading There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom, a favorite by Louis Sachar that is just above Tyree’s reading level. The main character is Bradley, a “bad” kid who does all the wrong things. We slowly find out that he’s doing all this because he feels bad about himself inside, and he starts to feel better with the help of a wacky counselor at his school, Carla. In the end, Carla gets fired because she is so unorthodox, and does things like keep confidentiality with kids and let them call her by her first name. She has to leave, and Bradley is crushed. He acts out, but finally decides he loves Carla even though she had to leave, and he can be a good kid even without her.
I did not pick this book because of Tyree; we’ve read it every year for the past 3 years. But he immediately gets the connection and latches on to it. He asks me if he can stay after school with me to do his reading homework, because he understands the book better and can do his paragraphs better when we work together. He stays every single day for three weeks, at his choice, from 3 to 5. Sometimes he even gets his buddy, who also needs the help, to stay too, and when they finish their homework they play math games on the computer.
It comes to the end of the year. Tyree is not a healthy, happy kid. He still has major issues. But he has grown two and a half years in reading skills. He has an A in math, and he raises his hand to participate in class discussions. He has friends, and if he also has enemies, at least he is ignoring them rather than outright bullying them. And I have to tell my class I’m not going to be here next year. They knew this in theory and we’d talked about it, but I guess most of them forgot because they are shocked anew. Tyree thinks about it, and then raises his hand.
“It’s just like Bradley.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s just like Bradley, because Carla left and you’re leaving too.”
His words punch me in the stomach. Another student goes on, half-joking about how they’re all like Bradley inside, but Tyree means it from the heart. He has been safe here in our classroom. He cares about me, and now I’m leaving.
I had an end of year conference with each of my kids individually, where I showed them their progress graphs and test scores and we talked about their growth and next steps. I was really glad to get this one on one time with them all. At Tyree’s, I told him how proud I was. I showed him his reading progress, his math scores, talked about how excited I was when he participated in class, and all the while his head dropped lower and lower.
“Tyree, what’s wrong?”
I have never seen this child cry, but there were tears in his eyes when he looked up at me, lost for words.
“It’s been a hard year for you, hasn’t it?”
“I am so proud of you for keeping going through it. I can’t imagine how hard it has been. But I saw how hard you worked, and how much perseverance you showed, and that makes me so happy because I know you can do it. You don’t have to be perfect, and everyone makes mistakes. But you keep trying, and that’s what’s going to help you through it.”
It’s not enough. I can’t make this better. And this has really been the case all along, not just for Tyree but for teaching in general: the issues here, the problems and complications and pitfalls, are way more than I can handle. I have tried my best. I think I’ve helped, at least a little, at least for some kids. There is something to be said for providing a safe, stable, loving year of school for kids who might not always get that. It’s something, but it’s not enough.
I don’t have a nice pat ending to this story. Maybe I’ll tell another story tomorrow, and try to make it a happier one. But this is the kid I’m thinking about today.