Holding on to James

Cultural Chasm

Editor's note: When George Williams joined Teach for America, he knew he would be working with children in a disadvantaged region. But nothing fully prepared him for East Feliciana Parish, in south Louisiana, where his first-graders--mostly black, mostly poor, many from fractured families--seemed cut off from opportunities that much of the country takes for granted.

We heard about Williams through Kenyon professors and friends who were receiving his journal in regular e-mail dispatches. They were struck by his enthusiasm, his frustrations, and his sense of humor as he wrestled with the needs and antics of two dozen children, amid bureaucratic constraints and social ills, in a culture he came to love.

Much has been written about Teach for America, the idealistic program that sends new college graduates into troubled urban and rural schools for two-year stints. But rarely do we get a picture of their experience up close, day to day. With many Kenyon graduates working in the field of education, we felt there would be a good deal of interest in Williams' journal.

The complete journal is a vivid, often moving document offering not only a chronicle of one young teacher's experience but also observations on school policies, societal problems, and the Deep South. The excerpts here come mostly from Williams' first year and focus on his struggles with a boy who seemed fated for trouble.

August 4, 2006 - Today was my first day of school, and I don't even know where to begin in explaining how I anticipate the remainder of the year going. The best place probably would be to introduce you to one of my children, James*, who told me that he was going to shoot me and the entire class. James is seven years old. Other than that brief altercation, which resulted in James going to the principal's office, I would say that the day was a fairly normal first-day-on-the-job. Frustrating, ominous, anxious--and, more than anything, long. My spirits are high, however. I have twenty-four students, two of whom are white, and all of whom are adorable.

August 10, 2006 - It is the end of my first full week of teaching, and thank the Lord that it is finally over. I went into the year with the mindset of never raising my voice, but I regret to write that, after the first day, I failed. It is strange, or maybe it isn't, but the teachers who seem to have the most control are the black ladies who speak to their children like I imagine their mothers do. They yell and threaten, where I raise my voice and clearly lose control of the situation, because of my own frustration over my lack of control. My week had many moments of anger and chaos, and one day of relatively smooth sailing.

James showed some improvement during the week, but once again failed to make it through a whole day without being punished. He behaved well all day on Monday, and I made a conscious effort not to give him a check [a demerit] because I wanted him to realize that he was able to stay in gold for an entire day. [Williams had a color-coded system to track student conduct, with gold being the best, red the worst.]

When I caught him drawing in pencil all over his desk, however, it all went downhill. I gave him one check, and in the next forty minutes he proceeded to do everything possible to try and anger me. Within a brief period, he made it all the way down to red and the principal's office again. To make a long story short, the week with James was frustrating. It ended with him punching a little girl and then flicking me the bird directly to my face for reprimanding him.

James says he wants to become a gangster. He pretends to smoke cigarettes. He repeatedly threatens the class and me. Unless I can do something for this boy, he will most assuredly end up in jail at some point in his life.

August 16, 2006 - Elementary school, ah, elementary school. Things never change. Girls are still playing patty-cake in the bus lines, boys are still peeing all over the bathroom floors, and the classic game of cat and mouse on the playground continues strong.

So does the tendency for young ladies to love the fact that a male teacher is in their school. The other day I was sitting in my classroom at 7:00 in the morning preparing for my students, when two girls from an upper elementary grade walked into my classroom. I said hello and asked them how I could help them. Without a word, they came up on either side of me and kissed me on both cheeks, said, "Hello, Mr. Williams," and casually walked out of the classroom.

August 24, 2006 - Even on the hardest of days, I have been able to look back and smile because of the reality of what I am in the process of doing. Today, however, was the first day where I honestly wanted to pick up my keys and make a beeline for the door. Furthermore, I wanted to take out a few of my students along the way. It was a frightening feeling. I didn't trust myself, and the fear of doing something that I would regret for the rest of my life haunted me for hours after school.

It all started when the music teacher told me that my kids behaved terribly during her class. No matter how bad the previous day was, I always seem to trick myself into thinking that my inspirational speeches to the kids before their activities period will spark something in their brain that makes them behave. No such luck. I won't rehash every detail, but everything culminated when I was lecturing at the kids and they started laughing at me. Nothing is as frustrating as having a class full of six-year-olds laugh at you when you are at the end of your rope.

September 4, 2006 - It is progress-report time, and I must say that, as far as improving my kids' grades go, I have made very little progress. We have made leaps and bounds in terms of classroom behavior, but the grades just aren't there yet.

On Friday, Caitlin [Williams's girlfriend] and I went to my first rural Louisiana high school football game. The Chiefs (our team) lost badly, but the experience was nevertheless one to remember. A few of my students were at the game, and it was nice to see them in a casual atmosphere. That's the great thing about first-graders--you yell at them all day, but when it's all over they embrace you like you're their best friend.

September 15, 2006 - After weeks of hard work with James in an attempt to curtail his poor behavior, I must report that thus far it appears I have failed. He spent one entire week in the gold and several others with only one or two checks, but this week all progress was flushed out the door.

James' behavior problems are tied to the medication he takes for ADD and ADHD. Up until about 1:30, he often stands out as a model of good behavior and consistently focuses on trying to learn. He is a special-education child and has some learning disabilities, but in the morning James seems determined to "work hard and get smart."

At or around 1:30, however, James' medicine wears off and he turns into a complete maniac. There is no other way to put it.

On Tuesday, James spent the last part of the afternoon picking fights with children at his table. During dismissal, he took his shoe off and threw it across the room before running around wildly, hitting anyone he passed. I grabbed him, and so he hit me. It all ended with James outside threatening "to cut" someone with his scissors.

The next afternoon, he was having fun pretending to shoot people with his pencils, so I took them away. He proceeded to stick his finger in my face and tell me that he was going to give me one more chance to give them back, or else.

The next afternoon was even worse. He told me that I should be on medicine and that I was a bastard. "Yeah, that's right, I said bastard," James said to me after I asked him to say it again because I couldn't believe what I had heard.

At least it was Friday. I have a conference next week with his family, the parent liaison for the school board, and the principal. We'll see if we can get James a dosage of his medicine for the afternoon.

September 21, 2006 - Today took the cake for the worst day of the year. Besides the fact that my kids did nothing I asked of them, James had his worst day yet.

At 2:00, after he hit De'Andre in the head while I had my back to the class and then proceeded to spit repeatedly on his desk, I sent him to the office. As he was leaving, he broke out in tears and kicked a hole in the hallway wall. He came back an hour later, and I made him and seven other children sit out of recess because of their behavior during the day. To make the punishment even worse, I went to play with the other children on the basketball court.

I looked over at James at one point and he was whipping De'Andre with a four-foot root he had pulled from the ground. I went over to make him stop, and he threw dirt at me and kicked me as I wrestled the root from his hand. I threatened to take him back to the office and under school rules should have, but I wanted to see if we could make it to the end of the day.

Two minutes later, James is whipping De'Andre again with another root, chasing him around the time-out area. I go over, wrestle the root from his hand again, and tell him that it is time to go back to the office. I let go of his arm for a split second, and he bolts to the doors and takes off through the building.

What do I do? Watch my twenty-three other students during recess and let James roam the hallways freely, or leave them and take off after James? The answer was obvious: get James.

I find him in the hallway near our room. He goes limp and begins kicking and screaming. My only solution at this point is to drag him into my room and buzz the office for some help. The instant I let go of him, he begins throwing the chairs around him, knocking over the desks, and pulling stuff from the walls. I pin him as best I can. The secretary comes and removes James, and I get back outside to deal with the rest of my class.

Later, as we were all packing up to go, James walked back into the room and calmly handed me a sheet of paper. He had no idea what the note said. It was from the principal, and it prohibited James from coming back to school until his family had dealt with his issues.

It nearly brought me to tears. Here was this poor seven-year-old first-grader who for the life of him just could not control himself. It was not his fault that he acted this way. I just felt terrible. I looked at James and asked him if he would come over to give me a hug. I wanted to let him know before he left that I loved him and that I wanted him to be at school with me. It was a difficult moment, and one that I suspect will stay with me for quite some time.

Once school ended and everyone left, a representative from some state education program came to speak with me about my day. She explained how the other teachers absolutely refused to have James this year. They would take several other troublemakers over James.

I answered her simply, telling her just one thing: I want to keep James in my class.

[After a meeting with James' parents, school officials allowed him to return to class.]

October 24, 2006 - During our math independent practice, I was milling around the classroom helping people who had not quite grasped the concept of subtraction or "take away" yet. All of a sudden, Doneshia blurted out the three most dreaded words a teacher can hear. "I smell doodie."

I scanned the classroom for guilty looks. I didn't have to look long before I noticed that Ja'Vante had poured a thick layer of Germ-X hand sanitizer over his seat. I brought Ja'Vante to the side and asked him if he had gone number-two in his pants. He nodded yes, then showed me his hands. I told him to go to the bathroom and clean up. Just then, I realized that I had seen Ja'Vante at my desk a few minutes before. I walked over to my desk to find poop smears all over my tissue and note card box. To make a longer story short, I got my baby wipes and proceeded to scour my desk.

Gross, yes. But what can I say? All part of a day in the life of a first grade teacher.

December 9, 2006 - This past week has been the best week of the school year. It reminds me of the Seinfeld episode in which George Costanza finds success by "doing the opposite" of his natural instincts. I decided that I was going to throw everything I thought about classroom management out the door and start anew.

What did I change? My tone of voice. I decided not to raise my voice, even when the situation seemed to warrant it. I had tried this earlier in the year but failed miserably. I had even convinced myself that although this might work for upper-middle-class households, where there are high expectations, a different approach was necessary here, where expectations seem nonexistent. In fact, all the teachers at my school raise their voices regularly, and the norm for parents is to deal with misbehavior through corporal punishment.

But this week, "doing the opposite," I found perfection! When a situation arose when I would usually raise my voice, I calmed myself and pulled the child aside to resolve the issue, instead of making it a crisis for the whole class. When I didn't want to interrupt the lesson to do this, I would simply put my finger up to my mouth, stare at the child, and say words without actually making any noise. Who knows if they actually knew what I was mouthing? But it worked; the child usually shut right up.

Respect is the revived theme of the classroom, and I am confident that we will be able to ride with this new-found classroom culture. To celebrate our week, I brought in brownies that I had made and "cold drink" (soda) to reward the children for their incredible, nearly flawless behavior.

January 17, 2007 - Until this week, I thought James' behavior was simply a matter of his medication wearing off. But a fuller picture emerged this week, during a meeting with me, the principal, a special-education teacher, James, and James' parents. The parents began to blame each other, and it became clear that their inconsistency is part of the problem. If James behaves poorly at school, he "catches a whupping" from his father and loses some privilege around the house. His mother hates to see him unhappy and gives the privilege back. I suspect that James associates being "bad" with a way for him to get something from his mom.

Watching the parents feud, I felt a deep sorrow. Here we were, five adults discussing the path through which to steer James, and this poor boy is standing there confused. He was getting three different messages--from school, from dad, from mom.

March 2, 2007 - After returning from recess today, we began our twenty minutes of Sight Word Challenge, a game the children absolutely love. I call on individual children to come to the front of the classroom to read twenty-five words that correspond to their specific reading level. As their abilities progress, so does the difficulty of the cards. In the meantime, everyone else watches silently in order to get the sticker I give to the best watcher.

The first child I called was Darnell. Having fallen down during recess, Darnell had a large mud stain on the back of his pants. As he approached the front of the classroom, the rest of the class noticed and began to laugh. Darnell hesitated, and started timidly back towards his seat. I shot a death stare at the class, silencing them, and with a new sense of security Darnell turned around and headed back towards the front of the classroom. But the children began laughing again, and this time Darnell's face turned sad and he went back to his seat, putting his head in his arms as he began to cry.

Silencing the class again, I began one of my lectures on respect and courtesy. I had given a similar spiel hundreds of other times, but reinforcement is the name of the game in first grade, and I had become quite good at laying on an effective guilt trip.

As I was speaking, though, Darnell looked up at me from the back row and began to laugh. Out of nowhere, the entire class erupted with laughter. My class had played their first practical joke on Mr. Williams. They were laughing hysterically, and I stood there unable to keep the smile off my own face. I'd been had. They had been able to shut Mr. Williams up during one of his predictable moralizing lectures.

The best part, however, was the communal feeling I realized that our class shared. They knew me, like I knew each of them, and we were all able to laugh at one another's personalities. I am glad that my children feel comfortable enough to laugh at me.

I realized that I had set a good and consistent example for my children; my speeches on kindness were just Mr. Williams being Mr. Williams. What I say to my children may not resonate with them throughout their lives, but if they remember me instead as an example of this code of conduct, then I believe I have succeeded as a teacher. Respectfulness, kindness, responsibility, and love are what I want them to know when they leave my class.

April 25, 2007 - Until recently, I have been able to control James' behavior to a degree through the cooperation of his parents. This all changed recently, when James was suspended for three days for hitting me. To relieve the school of a potentially disastrous situation arising on our upcoming field trip to New Orleans, I prohibited James from attending the event. His parents read this as a sign that I no longer wanted James in my class.

James now believes that I am the enemy and am simply choosing to "harass" him. Although he doesn't really know what "harass" means, he has explicitly told me several times that "his mom and dad say that I am harassing him," and that "that teacher needs to get his white butt out of there."

[The school year ended in late May. Williams spent the summer traveling, and relaxing at home in Bethesda, Maryland, before returning for his second year of teaching in early August.]

August 29, 2007 - We are now a few weeks into the school year, and several of my old children continue to pop in my classroom every morning for their daily hug on their way upstairs to the second grade classrooms.

I have been thinking about how things went last year. We had some failures--several children still cannot read; James seemed to still hate the world--but we also had many successes. Ja'Vante, one of my most difficult children during the year, has turned a corner and now appears to be one of the best-behaved second-graders. Our class as a whole achieved nearly 1.75 years of reading growth. It's also sad to think about this, but maybe for the first time in some of these children's lives, they felt what it was like to be loved by a male figure.

I would rate myself a "C" teacher in terms of teaching content, which is probably due to my lack of creativity and my newness to the job. But in terms of creating a classroom culture and making these children believe that they were part of a family in room 106, I give myself an "A."

November 10, 2007 - During the summer I wondered what James would think of me when I came back. Despite the problems of last spring, I knew that he appreciated me. It was I who had fought to keep him in my class, it was I who had worked with him one-on-one despite his outbursts, it was I who had physically restrained him over two dozen times to calm him down, and it was I who would still tell him that he was special and smart even after the atrocities he committed.

This year started out well with James. Whereas many of my children from last year visited me some mornings, James came in every single morning. Every day at 7:30, James walked through my door and gave me a hug. His behavior also improved greatly. His new teacher, Ms. Burton, told me all the time how well he was doing, and our administration even chose him as student of the week last month. It was touching, to say the least, and gratifying to know that I had made an impact on him.

Then tragedy. A shock, like a smack in the face. I'm reeling. This evening a call came. About James. There was a car crash. And James, poor James, this troubled boy, was dead. I don't know what to say. I feel something like what a father must feel after losing his own child. Here I am, a foreigner, come down to make a difference in children's lives, and my fairy-tale experience with James ends in tragedy.

Life was never fair for James. He was raised by parents who struggled with his problems, and was treated as an outcast by both his peers and the faculty. Children looked at him and his actions in confusion. He was a black sheep in the class.

I am heartbroken. I don't know what to say other than that I love him and pray to God that he is finally at peace in heaven.

November 16, 2007 - When I got to school Tuesday morning, wearily wondering how the school would deal with James' death, my principal asked me immediately if I wanted to speak at the funeral. Without thinking, I said yes.

And then the idea sank in. His parents hate me. The funeral will be at a black Baptist church, and I am white. The vast majority of my experiences with James were largely negative. How could I possibly speak at his funeral? The last thing I wanted to do was upset his parents, either by being there or by saying something that might disturb them. The situation seemed impossible.

On Thursday, James' mother came to my room around lunch time to say hello, and I gained comfort in knowing that at least we were on good terms. I hugged her, let her know how much James meant to me, and gave her a present from my class and me, in James' honor. She gave me her blessing to speak at the funeral.

When I came through the funeral home doors, the first thing I saw was James' body lying in his casket. I approached him with a few children from my class last year. We stood in silence as we took in what we were seeing, then sat down and awaited the family's entrance.

I had never gotten along with James' father. But, walking with his wife down the aisle, he left the line to come and shake my hand and say thank you. We looked each other in the eye, and it suddenly became apparent to me that all we both really wanted for James was a warm environment where he could thrive. Now, with James' death, we found ourselves united in a common love for him.

Soon it came time for me to speak, and I went up to the lectern. Looking out, I felt honored. Less than five feet from me lay James, a boy who had defined my previous year. Beyond his body, a crowd of more than one hundred family members and friends, black Baptists, who welcomed me into their church and community. For the first time since coming down to Louisiana, I felt part of the culture. I had been accepted, and it was my turn to give recognition to the child who had helped make my experience so rewarding.

"I consider myself privileged to have taught James," I said. I spoke about our ups and downs, and about how James was changing. "We came out of our trials together as close friends," I said. And I told how hard it would be, not being able to watch this boy grow into a man. Most of all, I tried to give thanks. "Thank you, James," I ended, "for everything you gave me and the children of room 106."

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