When he entered my fifth-grade class at a public school in Southeast Washington, there was an unsettling cynicism in his serious brown eyes, a wariness and watchfulness in the set of his shoulders. He seemed weighed down by negative expectations -- from previous teachers, his mother, his classmates. My other students were eager that first day of school; he was resigned.
I watched him along with my other students, getting to know each one of them. How did he learn best? Which subjects excited him? Did he work better with others, or alone? Was he the cause of the conflict that seemed to erupt when he was around other students, or was someone antagonizing him? This was my second year teaching at an inner-city elementary school, so there were other questions I had learned to ask. Was he hungry? Did he flinch when an adult reached out to touch his shoulder? Why didn't he ever have his homework or a pencil or a backpack? Why were his shirts sometimes clean and sometimes not?
Initially, I spent a lot of time breaking up fights that he was involved in and trying to get to the bottom of what appeared to be a stubborn refusal to apply himself to his schoolwork. "You can't reach every child," veteran colleagues said as they watched me struggle to connect with him.
I learned that he was brilliant. A combination of natural intellectual ability and early acquaintance with cruelty and neglect had given him a level of insight that most of his peers lacked. One Monday, I was trying to teach the concept of metaphor. The children were very literal and had trouble understanding how sunrise, noon and sunset could be a metaphor for human life. Just when I was about to give up and explain it, my protege flung his arm into the air, sitting up straight, face aglow, in a rare posture of excitement.
"I know, Miss Hardy! Sunrise is like being born; noon is the rest of your life; sunset is like your life is ending."
I was speechless, then ecstatic. "What a wonderful answer, what great thinking!" I enthused. That afternoon, while the children were reading silently, I leaned over and whispered to him: "You are so smart. That was really high-level thinking, and I am so proud of you." He shrugged off the praise, but there was a trace of a smile on his face.
It was a wonderful year, even when he'd have a relapse and I'd be called down to the art room because the teacher had put him out for fighting, or when he'd show up late to school and be sullen and unresponsive. Yet there was a desperation to our relationship, because, as he put it, "Miss Hardy . . . I'll probably never learn anything again after I'm out of your class."
He went on to sixth grade, and I went on to law school. But letting go proved more difficult than I'd imagined, so I volunteered as a mentor teacher. I was able to keep an eye on him, to pull him aside for a pep talk when I saw his eagerness to learn dimming in the chaos of a sixth-grade class that lacked a teacher for the first two months of school. I offered him books and encouraged him to read when I peeked in his classroom window and saw him slumped in his chair in disgust.
I also tried to keep in touch with him outside school, as I did with many of my other students, gathering them together for trips to museums, or to play basketball and have dinner at my house. But he stopped coming with us. More than once, the other children and I drove to his house and around his neighborhood, looking for him when he failed to appear at our designated meeting spot. The last time I saw him, he was on the other side of a chain-link fence, sitting with some dangerous-looking older boys. He turned his head and looked at me for a moment, then resolutely turned away. I walked back to my car.
Later I heard from one of his neighbors what happened next: He'd been arrested for murder and thrown into a correctional facility. I was too stunned to press for details, though the neighbor did tell me that my student had been trying to cover for his brother. I called the jail where I thought he was being held, but he wasn't there.
I haven't given up on him. He wasn't my best student. He wasn't my sweetest, funniest or most affectionate student. But he was the one who touched me the most deeply. And that's why I am still holding vigil for him. I believe a spark as strong as the one he possessed cannot be completely extinguished. I continue to harbor dreams -- college, a home, a loving family -- for a young man still in the sunrise of his life. And I hope to be there to see it.
Chanelle Hardy taught in the D.C. public school system from 1999 to 2001 through a nonprofit program called Teach for America. She's now a legislative counsel at Consumers Union.