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What Lies Beneath

Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.

On a Sunday night in December 2006, I received a call from one of my tenth-grade students asking for the phone number of our principal. Surprised by the request, I asked what was wrong. “My friend and his family were killed,” she responded.

I called the principal myself. “Do we have a student named K— C—?” I asked. “Yeah, boy hasn’t been to school in five days …” he started to say and then knew there was a problem. “How bad is it?” he asked. “Really bad,” I said, and proceeded to tell him what I knew. “Don’t call anyone,” he said, “let me handle it from here.”

The ninth-grade student was said to be friendly and mild-mannered. No one imagined the hell he must have been living in. The young man, his sister, and his mother had all been bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat in their home by his drugged-out uncle, who was also found dead of an apparent overdose.

This tragedy cannot be taken as representative of the lives most students live. But all of my students carried their own emotional baggage into the classroom, while also having different learning needs and levels of literacy.

There was L—, an 18-year-old tenth-grader who liked to read and write but had a learning disability that slowed her down. She was sweet, but had a mean streak that came out when other students made fun of her bad teeth. L— created an elaborate fantasy that she was raising a baby daughter, and she had me convinced for most of the year. She made up stories about doing things for her baby and her friends corroborated her. But one day when her mother came for parent-teacher conferences pushing a stroller, we found out the truth. “That’s not L—‘s baby,” exclaimed her mother incredulously, “that’s my baby!” L— wouldn’t talk to me for a week after that. I had apparently betrayed her trust.

Then there was D—, a charming Panamanian boy who could barely read and write. D— was a master manipulator and used his charisma to woo girls and teachers alike. He was also, apparently, a gang member who other boys looked up to and who dropped vague references to “putting in work” (for the gang). D— did just enough to get by with Ds but hated being lectured about how he should do more. “Stop with the speeches,” he would tell me whenever I broached the subject. D— found a saving grace, though. He became an amateur boxer through the Golden Gloves organization, and has racked up an impressive record. Last I saw him, he seemed to have one foot in the ring and one still in the streets.

Finally there was E—. She was the student who called me about K—‘s murder and was one of the few students I taught who genuinely sought my advice and approval. E— was highly insecure, but she held high standards for herself and saw herself as a cut above her classmates. She told me she wanted to go to Harvard and I deliberated about how to encourage this goal while also making her aware of just what the odds were and what kind of work it would take to get there. I settled on giving her a copy of the book “A Hope in the Unseen” by Ron Suskind, about a student who made it from the D.C. public schools to Brown University. But E— couldn’t even finish the book. She is now attending a local university.

Often, it was hard to even know what problems students were having — many had built up layers of defense mechanisms to shield themselves from their vulnerabilities. Classroom misbehavior was one such mechanism and it continued to be a problem for me as I embarked on my second semester at the Brooklyn Arts Academy. With one social worker, one special education teacher hired in the middle of the year, no assistant principal, no dean, and no school-wide discipline policies, I felt like I had little support in dealing with the emotional and learning needs of my nearly 100 students.

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