Three boys were being raised in a motel room by their mom who was a junkie and who turned tricks to support her habit. The boys were often right there when she conducted her business. Eventually, they were removed from her custody and put in the care of a second or third cousin by marriage.
At our school, we knew the cousin and his family, because all four of their children had come through by the time the two oldest of these boys were enrolled when they were in sixth and eighth grade. That's right, they were 11 and 14, and their little brother was 9 already.
It wasn’t too long before we started to wonder just how things might be going in that home. Even though the family was collecting social security and receiving payment for fostering the boys, they told the school that there would be no holiday gifts for them unless somebody donated something. Not so for their own kids-- they were always well-dressed and in style, even though their cousins often wore the same pair of jeans and dirty t-shirt to school. In addition to other academic issues, the boy who was in my class that year was always sleepy. “My uncle doesn’t care when we go to bed,” he told me. "I can stay up as late as I want."
Things never really turned around for these kids. The next year, one was removed from the home for sexually assaulting another, and eventually all three were taken from the custody of the family, because of physical mistreatment, and placed with separate foster families in another county.
As teachers, we sometimes learn things like this when we're teaching the students involved, or sometimes we find out later, and although such information may give us pieces to a larger puzzle, if we are able to approach each of our students with empathy, facts like these are secondary. I taught two of these boys-- the middle and the youngest-- and yes, it was tough sometimes. Distractable, insubordinate, and therefore disruptive, they presented challenges daily.
Sometimes the greatest gift we can give to kids like this is to like them in spite of all the crap. As annoying as their antics can be, we must try to have the patience to not allow the behaviors to define the person. That's exactly how it was with these guys: I tried to let them know I genuinely liked them no matter what (and trust me, there was a lot of what), and I believe that as a result, they learned in my class.
Walking out of a crowded movie theater this afternoon I was thinking ahead to a busy evening when I realized that someone was calling my name. I turned around and squinted in the direction. After a minute, I recognized my former student, the middle brother. It had been four years since I had seen him, and he was older and heavier, but who isn't? I went back and sat on the bench with him for a few minutes. I had kept up with him as best I could, and I knew of many mistakes that he had made in the time since sixth grade. Even so, he told me he and his brothers were doing "a'ight."
Kids can surprise you with their resilience, but I didn't feel very hopeful as I sat there next to him. Something about his demeanor worried me, but I did feel the warmth of that old affection, and I told him so. Thinking about it later, I wondered if it could possibly still matter, and I really hoped it might, because it was all I had to offer.