For two decades Ellie Herman was a writer/producer for television shows including “The Riches,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Chicago Hope” and “Newhart.” Her fiction has appeared in literary journals, among them The Massachusetts Review, The Missouri Review and the O.Henry Awards Collection. In 2007, she decided, “on an impulse,” she wrote, to become an English teacher and got a job at a South Los Angeles charter school that was 97 percent Latino and where 96 percent of the students lived below the poverty line. She taught drama, creative writing, English 11 and 9th grade Composition at a charter high school in south Los Angeles until 2013, when she decided to stop teaching and spend a year visiting classrooms and learning from other teachers. She is chronicling the lessons she is learning on her blog, Gatsby in L.A., where a version of the following post appeared. The names of the students have been changed.
By Ellie Herman
Gio was that kid. The one who could bring my entire class to a standstill by taking a half-eaten pear and mashing it into the floor with his shoe, muttering profanities and slamming the door behind him when I threw him out of class, and then infuriate me further an hour later by turning up in the parking lot and putting his beaming, delighted mug in my windshield.
He was that kid, who during class would not stop pestering the girl next to him by drawing all over her notebook. And who repeatedly shouted irrelevant, annoying questions. And who enjoyed announcing loudly that he hated most of the people in the class, especially the quiet, nerdy boy who had been kind to him all week.
Every year I had three or four of them, students who occupied about 3 percent of the actual population of any class but consumed about 50 percent of my energy. That kid! The one who made my whole body tense up, who could shut down an entire class for minutes at a time with his demands, accusations and outbursts, whose absence, I’m ashamed to say, would cause a wave of relief to wash over not only me but all of the other students in the class when we realized we were actually going to have a Gio-free day.
I suspect every teacher at one time or another has that kid. Our school always had a short list of students with extreme behavior issues; they were like mini-celebrities, occupying our lunchtime talk, populating our nightmares, inciting our migraines. In any given year, of my six classes, usually around three of them had at least one kid with extreme behavior issues. I’m not talking about kids who are chatty or can’t focus. I’m talking about kids who aggressively, compulsively and continually seek negative attention. Sometimes you’d have two kids with extreme behavior issues in a class, which was really difficult because they’d trigger each other, causing an exponential escalation of problems. Once, I had three in one class, turning it into a Lord of the Flies situation with clusters of high-achieving girls taking me aside in a weeping, enraged circle and demanding that the three boys with extreme behavior problems be removed permanently from the class.
These kids weren’t always boys, though often they were. They didn’t always have learning disabilities, though sometimes they did. Here’s what they always were: smart. Often, these students were especially bright, which is what made them so good at driving an entire school full of people completely crazy.
Did they come from terrible home lives? It would be simplistic to say so. Many of our school’s students came from very difficult family situations, and the overwhelming majority did not have extreme behavior issues. But for whatever reason, nature or nurture, in my experience, these particular students seemed to be driven by overwhelming feelings of shame, failure and above all, loneliness, making them lash out in ways that cause them to be rejected further, a vicious cycle re-enacted daily. In the inspirational movie version of this narrative, the presence of a stable, caring teacher would break the cycle. Sure, there’d be a few bumps along the way, but by the end of the year, after a lot of weeping heart-to-hearts, a rock-solid behavior plan and some crackerjack lessons in goal-setting and relationship-having, the kid would turn his life around, graduate and go to college.
These turnarounds actually happen. I saw very difficult kids turn their lives around, and these were among the most rewarding experiences of my life. There is nothing on this earth more miraculous — I simply have no other word for it — than to watch a human being find the determination, patience, strength and courage to change.
But a turnaround like that takes years. Years and years of imperceptible growth, of the kid being thrown out of class every day, of parent conferences and arguments and lost tempers and forgotten promises. Often, as a classroom teacher, you’re not there for all of those years. Sometimes you just see the first year, which feels like complete failure.
And it doesn’t always happen. It’s a sentimental fantasy that every kid’s life can turn around if enough caring adults just stay in the game, breathing deeply and sticking to their values. The rougher truth is that yes, those caring adults can make it possible for a child to make a breathtaking life turnaround. But the fact that such a turnaround is possible does not make it inevitable. For every Gio who turned his life around, there were other Gios who dropped out and disappeared. I’ll never know what happened to them.
I’m thinking of Gio today because in Cynthia Castillo’s class, I saw a boy who was that kid, acting out, talking constantly, making continual demands. And I braced myself instinctively — a body memory, thinking of Gio and all the others who were that kid. I thought of Fernie, who was kicked out of every single class he ever took, who cursed at me, whose eyes filled with tears when his mother told him for the first time that she loved him, who walked the stage in cap and gown this past June. I thought of gum-chewing Tiffany with the big earrings who couldn’t stop swearing, never did pass a class, and left our school.
I thought of Peter, my most difficult student ever, who alternated between charming conversation and uncontrollable, profanity-laced outbursts of rage, who once shoved a teacher into a wall and who, God help me, was in three of my six classes one year. By some miracle, Peter managed to graduate. After graduation, though, he floundered. I know this because he continued to visit me. As far as I could tell, all he ever did was work out; though he’d been a lanky beanpole as a teenager, as an adult he bulked up and became gigantic. He never signed up for community college but hung out at home, breaking his hand one day when he punched his fist through a wall after a fight with a family member.
My father died after a brief illness in 2012, and in the weeks after his death, I found myself working late night after night in a vain, numbed-out attempt to catch up with the paperwork I’d missed. One evening around 5:30 p.m., Peter walked into my classroom.
I could hardly bring myself to feign enthusiasm. He was the last person I wanted to see. But I knew the bus ride from his house had taken at least half an hour. “What’s up?” I said, managing a faint smile.
“I heard your dad died,” he said. “I just wanted to give you a hug.” For a long moment, he enveloped me in an enormous, silent, heartfelt bear hug. “Okay,” he said. “That’s it. You probably wanna be alone.” And then he left.
I think of the Rumi quote: “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” I think of my most difficult students, and how that field might be where I need to meet them. Maybe learning involves a growth in knowing but also at times an embrace of not-knowing, of accepting, even in the absence of evidence, that a human connection is of infinite, indescribable value.
“Teaching,” Cynthia Castillo told me, “is an act of faith.” I remember. I hope to get there.