Decided it was time to organize my clutter from years of teaching. The plaques, the precious ‘thank you’ cards from parents, the letters from many students that I just kept ‘re-boxing’. And the hundreds of photos. The job has taken me days, as I have to sit and re-read each correspondence as if it is new mail. And it kinda is….since my memory is, umm what was I writing about? It was a walk down ‘I Am Trying to Remember Lane’. I sat on a kid’s chair in the basement lost in the days when teaching was a grand adventure. My, how I was blessed in that classroom day after day. So many students, so many stories, so little time.
And then I saw him. A crooked, sheepish grin looking up at me through the ages. It was the nineties, and a little boy was placed in my second grade classroom. His name was Joey D. and if he might as well had the words: Failure to Thrive, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Special Needs (IEP in place), Neglected, CHiNS (Child in Need of Services), Emotionally and Mentally Handicapped, Indigent, Foster Care Child, Runner, Abused, Thief, Juvenile Delinquent and one day, Murderer etched on his forehead. Because all of these labels would tell his story. Now….let me tell you Joey’s story; because I am the one who came to love him.
Joey was placed in my classroom, shortly after the school year had started. I only had him one semester as he would ultimately be placed in a full-time special needs classroom, as the “least restrictive environment” would create chaos for this young soul. He came to me from the state of Florida, where his mother had killed his father’s girlfriend. But when I–or anyone else asked him what happened, he would furrow his brow, and mumble, “Trouble came.” I had been told the story from his caseworker; I watched it unravel his young life.
So, Joey and I settled in. I taught him to write his first name. He now had four letters under his belt. He could not name the color red, but he would match it up to my nail polish! Yeah, I stuck with red for many weeks, just in case Joey needed that color crayon. He sat right next to my desk so the other children would not be disturbed by his outbursts of crying, anger, and overall sadness. While the other students floated by with the standard second grade curriculum, Joey and I fastened our learning curve on letters, numbers, social skills, and survival. Joey became my personal exercise regimen for those months, as I would chase him when he bolted from my classroom to hide. While I would smile when I saw the toes of his shoes from the boys’ restroom stall or janitor’s closet, inside me I would weep. If only running and hiding could help him escape from what his sorry life had lived in eight vicious years, I would have hidden him myself.
I found the photo of his last day in my class. The students had covered his desk and chair with notes of “Good Luck, Joey” “We’ll Miss You” and such. He flashed that crooked grin. A new adventure, although he did not want to leave my class. I rode in the car with his case worker and bought him a McDonald’s Happy Meal as we went to his new school. That was back in the time when principals cared more for the child than his/her test scores, and mine allowed me this freedom…to ride with Joey to his new school. This would be a tough goodbye.
Joey jabbered more than ever on the ride, savoring his sandwich. I knew how to fill in the gaps and answer his questions, yet I wondered if this would not simply be one more round of abandonment from his skewed point of view. I felt guilty for all of the moments I prayed for a calm classroom–one without Joey. I came to understand how one child can tilt a balanced place of learning into pandemonium. Anyone employed in a school is shaking their heads in agreement. I assured him he would be fine. Hmmm…was I trying to convince him or myself?
My favorite photo of us depicts my arms around Joey reaching across his chest. I am smiling and he is, too. A closer look from a trained eye would probably see a therapeutic hold; too much affection was confusing and dangerous to him. I would look at that picture years later and wondered….”Whatever happened to Joey D?”
In the 2000’s, the Indianapolis paper revealed that a 54 year old woman was found guilty in the of slaying of a high school student. Seems this mother and her son had walked up a stairwell. She had bumped the student and he had made a comment for her to watch where she was going. Angered, the mother encouraged her son to burst into the apartment and shoot three bullets into the student, resulting in his death. More stories would show that this son was mentally incompetent to act on his own.
I knew this to be true. I had taught him to spell his name and recognize the color red, though he had trouble retrieving the name for it. Ironic, that blood is red and that is one color he knew. One may ask, “What kind of mother would set her son up for murder?” The kind that had killed his future years ago.
I don’t know if Joey is still living, is incarcerated, or what. I do not stand in judgment of how his life played out. But for one short semester he owned my heart and I rescued him every moment I could–and when he would allow it.
“Trouble came.” Indeed.
And never left my Joey D.