Two weeks ago I had a gig at a school I’ve been to more than a dozen times this year, for a teacher I’ve subbed for many of those visits. She is a master teacher and mentor and also serves as the schools testing coordinator, so she has called me in to take her class a few times during key testing periods to help ease the load a bit.
One of her students is a kid who I have come to know, and who has definitely changed over the course of the year. ‘Johnny’ is a generally pleasant young man, who seems to be quite bright, but does not apply himself; indifference would his primary stock in trade. Early in the year he was defiant with me, walked out once or twice, but no major discipline issues – just a ream of write ups on basic crap. He is a junior, but should be a senior, and is less than a full year of credits away from graduating. Early in the year, attempts to engage him would result in some very elaborate and creative excuse making and not much else. As the year progressed and I returned more frequently, I noticed he was more inclined to actually produce work – although my conversations with him were still a little bit ‘out there’.
I hadn’t been at the school for a month or so when ‘Ms. D’ called me in to take her class for a few days so she could assist with the all-important year-end testing. Day one, Johnny arrives to reading class, says “Hey Mr. Lucker” and sits down. He has ear-buds on and, against school rules, is listening to his IPod. He is not being disruptive, so I decide to let it pass. I get roll taken, introduce Ms. D’s assignment – Johnny is one of only two of the twelve kids who is actually doing the work. After a while, he finishes, raises his paper in the air, and I come to take it.
The assignment is completely done, and is pretty good work. It was a read-and-respond thing, and his responses are complete, well thought out. He spends the rest of class quietly listening to his music. When the class leaves, I say “Johnny – nice job on the assignment”. He nods, replies, monotone, “Thanks Mr. Lucker” and walks out the door.
Later that day, he is back in Ms. D’s classroom for English and the same routine transpires; Johnny walks in, says “hey”, sits down, does his work, listening to his music the whole time, turns in completed assignment. This time though, there is a fair amount of time left in class, and I walk over to Johnny to talk.
“Hey, Mr. Lucker”. He takes out his ear-buds.
“Hows it goin? Nice work today”. I sit on the desk next to his.
“Thanks” he pulls a folded up piece of paper from his pocket, hands it to me. “Can you sign this for me”?
I have signed probably fifty of these things this year; it’s a daily report that kids who are on probation need to have signed by each teacher daily, then turned in to the school and their probation officer at week’s end. It is a simple, four-column sheet of paper listing each period of the day, then has a space for classroom work, daily behavior, and then the teacherscomment and signature. A pretty basic form, but with big implications.
“Sure. I’ll sign it”. I write a large ‘A’ in both the work and behavior boxes, then sign my name, adding, ‘substitute for Ms. D’ and hand it back to him. He glances at it briefly, folds it back up and sticks it in his pocket.
“Thanks, Mr. Lucker”.
“No problem. How’s it going these days”?
Johnny lifts up his left leg, plops it on the desk, pulls up his pants leg, revealing a monitoring device attached just above his ankle. I have seen plenty of these things on students in my first two years in New Orleans.
“See this”? He taps the shiny black piece of plastic with the small green light, looks up at me.
“Yeah, I see it”.
“Well, I aint ever wearin’ it again”. His tone is hushed, not agitated.
“After I see the judge next week, and takes it off, I ain’t never wearin’ one again”. He is speaking quietly, delilberately – not something I am used to with kids wearing these things.
“That’s good” I say – hopefully affirmingly.
“I mean it, Mr. Lucker. Once this thing is off, I ain’t nev-ver goin’ to wear one of these things again. I won’t need to”.
“No, Mr. Lucker – I really mean it…” he is as sincere as any kid I have dealt with, and obvisouly wants me to believe him. I do. “ I…really….mean…it. I am not gonna be where I got to wear this again”.
“ Good for you. I know you can do that if you really want to”.
“Oh, I really want to, Mr. Lucker – and I will”. Johnny has barely raised his voice, but I can hear the determination in his matter-of-fact-manner promise. “I aint gonna wear this no more'”.
“Very cool, man”. A student is calling to me from the other side of the room, and I stand up. Johnny sticks his hand out, I give him a sideways hand slap and walk away.
As class ends, I tell the kids I’ll be back tomorrow for Ms. D. As they file out, Johnny stops, pulls out one ear-bud. “See ya, Mr. Lucker. Thanks for signin’ A’s on my paper”.
I shrug. “Don’t thank me, you did good today”. We share another light ‘side-five’ and he walks out into the hallway.
At the end of the day, Ms. D returns from testing and I describe my encounter with Johnny. She nods. “I know, since we got back from Mardi Gras break, he’s been doing good work, staying out of trouble. I don’t know what’s going on with him, but I’ll take it. Its like we talked about early in the year – if he gets his s*** together, he could do great things”. And, she added brightly, with a hint of surprise, “And he didn’t chew your ass anymore”?!
The following day, the pattern repeats. Johnny comes in, does his work, listens to his music and keeps to himself. I sign his paper again – four A’s worth; two each for work and behavior for two different classes. The worst I have seen on the form over the two days was a couple of B’s for behavior, one C for work. Johnny seems to have it going on. At the end of the day, he walks up to me, pops out one ear-bud, sticks out his hand, we do the cupped-finger, fist-bump, finger-point handshake thing silently.
“Hey, man. Keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll be okay. And if I don’t see you again before the end of the year, have a good summer”.
“Thanks, Mr. Lucker. You too”. He gives me a short smile, and heads down the hallway. That was two weeks ago.
Fast-forward to this past Thursday. I am back at Johnny’s school, though in a different class, and an entirely different part of the building, the ninth grade area. It is the last day of class for students, kids are roaming everywhere, messing around, and my instructions for the last day from administration were to “simply keep the peace” – quote, unquote.
Standing outside my classroom during passing period, I see Johnny approaching from down the hall. As usual, he is by himself, listening to his music, in his own world, not interacting with the craziness in the hall around him. He is three classrooms down when I make eye contact, give him a quick wave. As soon as he sees me, he raises his right hand, like a bicyclist signaling a left turn, and from about sixty feet away, veers my direction, hand in air.
As he approaches, I raise my right hand as well. Johnny clasps, it, gives me a little right-shoulder-to-right-shoulder bump/hug, while reaching around with his left hand to pat me on the back. We speak simultaneously; “Hey-Johnny-how-ya -doin?-Hey-Mr.Lucker” all strung together over each other as he walks by, slowing but never really stopping, as he was headed for the stairway doors just to the side of my classroom.
Then he was gone.
The rest of the day passed, nosily, but uneventfully. As I was leaving the office after signing out for the final time, I stopped to talk to a teacher I know slightly. Coming around the corner was Johnny. As he approached us, he again extended his right hand, for a final ‘side-five’. I said, “Hey, man – take care of yourself and have a good summer”.
Johnny paused, for just a moment, smiled. “You too, Mr. Lucker. You have a good summer, too”.
“I will. Take it easy”.
Then he was gone again. I doubt I’ll see him again, but who knows? The teacher I was speaking with looked at me, puzzled. I told her to have a good summer, she mumbled “you too” as I walked toward the front doors. I put on my sunglasses, stepped out into an unseasonably warm and humid New Orleans afternoon. It all felt pretty good.
A fine afternoon it was.