Wednesday, August 6, 2014

"Suppressed grief suffocates, it rages within the breast, and is forced to multiply its strength." ~ Ovid

I love old movies… just LOVE them, especially when Kathryn Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are both in one. Their movie "Pat and Mike" even let Kate show off her golfing ability, and I used to love playing golf, and playing tennis, too. But, I'm not like Kathryn Hepburn in any other way, at all. I only started with that beginning sentence so I could connect my experience with Pat, the boy in my last entry, to this one about Mike…

It was the 3rd or 4th year in my high school teaching career, and I was finally beginning to relax into it all. Who wouldn't? My room was a perfect art room, fully equipped with all the tools and with all the room I needed to teach. At different personal points in the year, my students would each discover that they, too, could design an actual piece of art, IF they used their brains in perfect timing with their hands. 

Discipline was easy, mostly because I genuinely liked those kids, all of them. We were told, though, that we had to be tough, that these kids needed to know who was boss. Well, maybe so, IF I was teaching math or history or something kids didn't like, I thought. But I was teaching art, and I loved it so much and I loved them so much that there just wasn't going to be any trouble for me! And I'd been pretty much right about that, too.

That was until about one month into the school year when my door exploded open, and a wiry, wind-blown boy stomped into our classroom. He shoved his transfer slip into my hand and snarled, "Where do I sit?" 

I showed him to his seat, and he plopped down, put his head on his arms, and went to sleep. I was glad. The kids sitting at that table were relieved, and the other students put their eyes back into their heads, and quietly resumed drawing.

As soon as my prep period arrived that day, I raced into the office and asked to see this boy's cum folder. Each student in every school has a "cum folder" that includes the history of their schooling. Most kids' folders are thin and easy to re-file. When the office lady brought Mike's folder out, though, it was 4-times the width of any other student's in our school, all 2,500 of them! Before I even opened it, I knew this boy had seen trouble, and lots of it, in the first 10 years of his "education!"

I sat at a table in the office and plowed through as much of Mike's educational history as I could, the written comments by teachers and by vice principals in charge of discipline, as well as those comments on his report cards. Then I saw it! This boy and his mother had moved 19 times during his 10 years of schooling! Nineteen times in 10 years? Nineteen! Why? How could any child adjust to that instability?  

But it was the last paper that shook me. Mike had been thrown out of his last school, and maybe the entire town, because the punch he'd thrown at a teacher had sent her to the hospital! Yes, HER! And he'd be in my classroom the very next day… and every school day after that… 

The next day was the same as the last one. Mike stalked into the room, hunched down in his stool, lay his head on his arms at the table, and went right to sleep, an ugly scowl spread over his face. The day after that was the same, and the day after that, and the next, and the next… And I was glad to leave it that way, I'm ashamed to say. The class was actually being held hostage by two people: a sleeping teen-ager, and a scared young teacher who couldn't figure out what to do about the situation.

Mike was never late to class, or absent, either. That was probably because he slept better in my art room than anywhere he went after school. He was a sleeping tiger in our room, and no one would be fool enough to wake a tiger!

But, one day the bell rang to begin class, and Mike hadn't crashed through the door and collapsed onto his stool. Students looked at each other, I looked at the students, and we all let out our breaths for the first time since Mike had arrived on the scene. Students began to smile as they got their work out. They looked up at me, and then over at each other. I heard students whispering for the first time since Mike had arrived! Some eyed me with guilty looks, but I had a grin on my face as big as a dinner plate, and I welcomed that whispering… In fact, I talked out loud, instead of doing that breathy whisper I'd used ever since the sleeping tiger had invaded. Then someone said some funny little thing and we ALL laughed! And for ten minutes we were actually having fun in 3rd period Art, just like we did in the rest of my classes!

But the door exploded open! Mike stalked through that door, and the whole room froze. 

"Mike, you're late! Where's your hall pass?"


"Then go to the office and get one… NOW!"

"I ain't gunna get a hall pass!"

"Yes, you ARE!"



He took a step toward me. I grabbed the front of his shirt, to push him backward, out of the door. He twisted. I didn't let go. He twisted again. The top button on his shirt ripped off and hit the floor. The button sounded like a blacksmith's forge had hit the floor! I froze, scared and shaking and angry.

Mike looked straight at me, teeth bared, and, with both hands, grabbed the nearest large wooden stool and swung it up over his head. He was going to use it on ME! That's when time became slow-motion… the slowest of slow motion for me. I was going to be hurt... badly… never happened before… Clyde Beatty, THE LION TAMER! When I was young, I'd read a book about Africa by Clyde Beatty. I remembered he had written, "Look the wild beast straight in the eye. Speak slowly and firmly. Don't look away!" So I did

"Mike, p u t   t h e   s t o o l  D O W N!"

Time must have stopped for Mike, too. He held that stool over his head for a long, long time, all the while staring back into my eyes. Then his face contorted… then, so many expressions flew across his face... and then, one sob… and then, water filled his eyes. Neither of us moved. Finally, he threw the stool down hard on the floor, and we watched it bounce crazily into the wall. 

Finally, Mike turned and ran out the door, down the hall, past the office, and out into the parking lot. Someone caught him. Someone gave him a week's detention after school. Someone also brought him back to my class the next day.

What had happened, I don't know. But, Mike came in to the class with only half a scowl on his face. He took some paper and tried to draw… or something. All I knew was that his head was up and his eyes stayed open for the whole class. No smiles, no talk, no looking up from his paper, but no going to sleep, either.

The days passed and Mike actually finished some work. He didn't try to pull the door off the hinges when he walked into class, either. Mike even erased the scowl, most days. One day he even said, "Hi," to me as he came into class.

But then Mike left school for good. He'd come in after school was over one day and said he and his mother were moving.

"I only came in to tell you that and ask you if I could come see you, maybe, after school, sometimes…" 

"Of course you can, Mike! I'd like to see you. Where are you moving to?"

"Dunno," and he walked out.

Mike did come to see me, every Friday after the school day was over. Every Friday he helped me clean up the art room and get things ready for Monday's classes. He'd talk sometimes, and other times he was silent. But he was relaxed, as relaxed as Mike could ever be, that is. When I asked him how he got out of his new school early enough on Fridays to come see me, he said, "I don't go to school on Fridays! I gotta hitch-hike to get here."

"You hitch-hike all the way to Omaha every Friday?"


I don't know where Mike's mother had moved them, or what his new school thought of Mike being a four-day-a-week student, but I didn't pry. Even tamed tigers still had claws. You don't push it with tigers. And the truth is, I liked Mike, and I think he needed those 2 hours in that quiet room doing helpful work.

When summer vacation began, my time of seeing Mike was over for two months. I never saw Mike the next year, either, though, and I have no idea why he never came to see me again. What happened in his life for the next three years I have no idea. But I do know what happened when he was 18 years old.

Three years later, when I got home from school one late afternoon, I was reading the Omaha World-Herald newspaper, and there it was, a small item on the 3rd page. This same Mike, my Mike, had a girlfriend. She lived in Omaha, Nebraska. One night he pounded on the locked door of her apartment, but she wouldn't let him inside. There was screaming and yelling back-and-forth, and Mike, crashing against the door until it started to splinter. The girl had a shotgun inside her apartment, and she pulled the trigger. Mike was killed. End of Mike. End of his story.

You're probably wondering why I even bothered to write this for you to read. What did you do for that poor kid, Terry? He was born into a no-win life. So, he visited you. Big deal!!! What did you do for him to help his situation, after all, Terry? Nothing… nothing, but I remember Mike. Always will…

The point is that when I wrote about Pat, I got the nicest comments from a couple of people about how sad it was. The sadder part is that Pat and Mike were only two out of hundreds of my ten thousand students who had tragic ends. I could write at least 100 more of these sadnesses, but I won't! Just know, reader, that teaching school professionally isn't merely teaching "the curriculum." If that's all it were, I'd have quit looong before I retired.             


  1. He was lucky to have you as his teacher, Terry. Teaching sounds very challenging, sometimes. I don't think I could have done it.

  2. Thanks, Cindy. We were told once by the police "gang patrol" guy to always remember that, for some of the kids, our classroom was the only safe, secure place for them in their whole day. I was soooo lucky to get to be a teacher. I only wish that ALL kids could be born into loving homes...