Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Throughout the course of a career, teachers most definitely come into contact with more people than the general public. Dontcha think? Except for maybe nurses. No, I think teachers still see more....classrooms full of 25+ students each class, half a dozen classes a day, 180 days a year over a 20 -40 year teaching career? Plus their parents...that's a lotta people.

Those of us in alternative education and special education probably see more heart-breaking cases "per class-pita" (like per capita, but per class...I made it up. Don't hate.) I'm talking about really depressing family-like stories. And I've had my share of students who've lost parents and even a sibling. But today is the first time I'm dealing with a student's death. He's a former student but certainly a stand-out.

Joe came to our school will really long hair, physically fit, didn't smoke (anything) or drink. He'd been expelled for being behavior problem and cussing out a teacher. I got to know Joe really well and simply couldn't believe he would ever utter a foul word. He was the kind of student who would get angry if someone said something nasty about a fellow student. He was smart. He was pretty shy. Of course I understand that he knew how to "work" the teachers and put on a sweet front when he needed too, but he also was genuinely a kind boy. Lots of the girls had crushes on him but he never took advantage of that (and these girls are some times easy pickin's); I think he thought of his female peers at our school more like siblings.

Rough home life, his dad wasn't real nice and spent quite a bit of time "away from the family"...if you know what I mean. All I knew was that dad drank a lot and fought a lot with mom. Joe was very athletic but wouldn't go out for sports because his family was poor and he didn't want to tell anyone that he couldn't afford the athletic fees. He was very distrusting of adults. I got the feeling he'd been lied to or had promises broken so many times that he just gave up on grown ups. He would tell me that he didn't drink or smoke because of his dad.

I really liked Joe and thought he was a pretty neat kid. I complimented him on his manners and talked to him an awful lot about his family. Joe has a VERY ethnic last name. He does not have very prominent features or look the way people around here think he should look because of his last name. Even so, Joe told me that it was commonplace for other students to toss racial slurs his way. He said he was used to it and didn't care. Right. He had an older brother he loved fiercely but with whom he fought like crazy and a younger sister he looked out for constantly.

He had a really bad attendance problem. For the first semester he was in our program, he just wouldn't come to school. No phone at home and no cell so it was easy for him to get away with it. Once we got to know each other, I'd make him a deal that if he came to school, I'd give him a ride home. He didn't like taking the bus home after school because it took longer than the ride in the morning. I'd tell him that if he came to school all week, I'd give him a ride home on Friday. The other good thing was that on Friday's, I ran errands (school stuff, of course) and I'd take Joe with me. So, he got to leave the building early, but he didn't really go home early. He also said he didn't like any of the kids at our school because they were all 'druggies'.

My bribery worked, though. His attendance dramatically improved and he started making friends and continued getting good grades. He would still come find me during the day to say "Hey" or talk during lunch but it wasn't as much. He excelled at sports and became the "jock" of the school...all the kids were impressed with his athleticism...and that's saying something for a bunch of alternative school kids to give a crap about another kid's athletic talent!

It would be great to say that Joe remained steadfast about not participating in all the things his peers were into. But it's kinda rough when you're in a school of less than 50 and the vast majority of your classmates were introduced to those things by their parents or other family members before they graduated middle school. (Seriously)

I did tell Joe that if he wanted to play football, he could play football once he got back to his 'home' school. I told him that if he wanted to sign up for football and needed someone to help him talk to the coach or the Athletic Director about being broke, I'd do it for him. Hell, I broached the subject of letting him stay with us with my husband. (The boys were a couple years too young to take that on.)

Joe's family lost the house they were renting. The landlord sold it and the new owners weren't going to rent it. Mom doesn't work. They moved to Iowa. We got a call at school from the Assistant Principal at the school in Iowa about allowing Joe to participate in sports. Technically speaking, since he had been expelled the previous year and wasn't a student in good standing in their district, they shouldn't let him play football. She asked me what we thought. The coach really wanted him to play. Joe had been in her office and wanted to play. I talked to her and vouched for him and said I thought he needed a chance. She agreed. He played.

For a while.

But as seems to happen, he sabotaged himself. Instead of cooling off and talking to the coach, he probably got mad and walked away and assumed he could never come back.

After Christmas I heard that he was in legal trouble and was facing incarceration. I tracked him down online several days before his court date and he was worried. I later learned he got probation and wasn't in jail. This spring he and his brother wanted to come back to this area from Iowa.

And now he's dead. Drowned in a river.

This is the first time I've had a front row seat at the beginning and end of some kid's arc. The system failed this kid. Oh, sure, he did his best to muck it up himself. This young man had no one but himself, his kid sister and brother. He'd been on his own for years and years. Sure he had a home...but really.

I want to go back through the years (I met him as a Freshman)...I want to find his teachers from about 4th grade through 8th and ask them if anyone had ever taken the time to talk to him and hear about what was going on. Did anyone else know? This is a kid who, when he skipped school, would simply walk back home and hideout in the attic of his home. He wasn't skipping school to go get high, screw his girlfriend, steal from Wal-Mart. He went home. I wonder why he went home? Maybe he went back so he could keep an eye on his mom?

Didn't anyone wonder why a kid like Joe was always so angry? Under different circumstances, he would've been a star quarterback.

The last time I saw Joe was when I was driving with a friend and we stopped at the ATM in East Peoria near Avanti's. I spied him walking with a friend and smoking a cigarette...as soon as he saw me, he tossed the cigarette hoping I didn't see. I gave him a hard time, he told me he was in town and was trying to get back to Iowa, I gave him my number and told him if he didn't have a ride to call me.

I caught up with him online after the jail scare and again told him to call me if he needed anything. He teased me for worrying about him and I gave him a hard time for smoking the last time I saw him.

I hope that once I learn more, I'll learn that Joe was enrolled in a GED class had a job. After the jail scare he got right-sided again and was on his way. Maybe he was out having fun with some new friends after work; they were hanging out at a local swimming hole and that no one realized that rain had made things dangerous. Maybe everyone was nervous and Joe just wanted everyone to have a good time so he jumped in first to show them it was safe.

That story fits with the boy I knew.


Katie said...

I'm so sorry, Rix. You did a wonderful thing for Joe and I'm sure he knew how much you cared. I wish his story had a better ending. Let me know if you need talk.

Rixblix said...

Thanks Katie. It will probably be tough again once school starts and all the kids are around talking about him.

Emerge Peoria said...

What a sad story. I'm so sorry. It seems he slipped right through your fingers. :( Poor Joe, what a hard knock life...

Rixblix said...

I did learn that Joe was out with family and friends. Despite his athletic prowess, he wasn't an experienced swimmer. I know it's a right of passage and an everyday thing for kids to swim in the river. No one ever thinks they'll be the ones affected by an accident like this. Joe was a really, really great young man and I wish I'd been able to do more.