* We Meet Patrick * His Background Presents Challenges * Things Get Unpleasant Quickly *
Patrick had a file that followed him around from school to school like a shadow. He was just entering the ninth grade, a good looking young man with a winning smile on his face, braids on his head, and nice new clothes on his body every single day of the week. From the looks of him, he was pleasant, nonthreatening. I was handed his file during the first week of school and told that I had been assigned as his case manager. I would see Patrick daily in English class, where the school had scheduled me, the Robin to the English teacher’s Batman, a co-taught classroom for a mixed group of students, some deemed normal, others who were said to need more help, like Patrick.
Sounds good, I told my department chair. I wrote up a brief letter about myself (I had his file, why not give him something on me), and stuck it in a folder, along with a contact sheet for the parent to fill out and return. Any time I was assigned a new student, I’d always meet with the kid right away, introduce myself. I went up to Patrick before class and knelt down by his desk. I shook his hand and handed him the folder. He took it, very nonchalantly, and threw it on the floor.
“I don’t need that bullshit,” he said. I looked at the folder and then told him to pick it up. He told me to fuck off. I put the folder back on his desk and said, in a rather loud voice, “Is this how you want to start? Because I’m your Case Manager and I’m here to help you.” Patrick took the folder, laughed, and threw it back on the floor by my feet.
After class, Ms. Bacon, the English teacher, approached me. “You shouldn’t have done that in front of the class. It might have really embarrassed him.”
I hated to say it, but she was right. I lost my cool a little bit. In the three years I’d been doing this, I’d never had a first hello go so badly. Patrick’s file should’ve been a warning. It painted a very different picture from the person I’d seen the first day of school. He’d been a major behavior problem for ages. Patrick qualified as a special education student, under the category of “Behavioral and Emotionally Disabled.” His intelligence was no better or worse than any other kid, but he’d failed the bulk of his previous classes. He’d been sent to an alternative school multiple times, the school for kids who didn’t fit in. The screw ups. Bad Boy School. In fact, the only way he got to high school in the first place was by passing his classes there, at the alternative school, and everyone knew how that went. They passed everybody. Some of my kids in the past would go and do crazy shit on purpose, wanting to get sent there because it was the only way they wouldn’t fail their grade.
But no worries. Didn’t matter, stay confident. I was young, hip…of course I could connect with him. (This is the part where I show how naïve I was. It’s foreshadowing, and it means that I’m going to fail miserably.)
Patrick had me pegged from the start. He saw me as his enemy. One time, I was in front of the class, teaching a lesson, and he started laughing loudly. “Nobody in here respects you!” he called out. “We’re not listening to you.”
“Can you please be quiet, Patrick.”
“Fuck you. Nobody gives a fuck about that shit coming out of your mouth.”
I told him to leave the room. I didn’t know what else to do. I had a class of 35 kids and didn’t want them to start looking at me like a doormat. Afterwards I tried to talk to him. He never made eye contact and laughed the entire time.
“Nobody respects you,” he just kept repeating it, over and over.
Sadly, that was about as good as things were to get.
We Meet Patrick’s Mother * Patrick Finds a Supportive Teacher * Behavior Problems Lead to Trouble at School * The Past Is Either Enlightening or Just Plain Depressing
Nearly every day, Patrick did something bad. Or multiple things. He was failing all his classes miserably, refusing to do any of the assignments, disrupting them, skipping them from time to time. His Creative Writing teacher, a pretty African-American woman named Dana, couldn’t stand him. He was vulgar, disrespectful. She’d been cursed out one too many times by him and was sick of it. Patrick had also decided that it was him against his World History class. That teacher didn’t know what to do with him either. He’d formed a one man alliance against the other boys in class, angry and aggressive, and it seemed like only a matter of time before things got violent.
I was concerned, and so I did what seemed logical. I called his mama.
His mother was unbelievably nice. Absurdly friendly, an angel. To be honest, she wasn’t what I expected. In fact, I might say that his mother was the nicest parent I’d ever worked with. Patrick’s father was mostly out of the picture, having moved to Ohio. He’d call, keep in touch. Patrick wanted to go live with with his dad, and was mad that he couldn’t. He told his mom constantly that he didn’t want to be there, with her. And she had lost control of him. He’d joined a gang and would stay out through the evening and into the night. Some days she’d barely see him. Other days he’d be there, at home, treating his mother the same way he treated Dana the Creative Writing teacher. It wasn’t pleasant.
About a month went by, maybe more, and the only person at the school who seemed unfazed by him was Ms. Bacon, the English teacher. She was white, in her forties, and her husband made a lot of money, so she was a bit different than the other teachers, who were generally young and broke. Ms. Bacon had a very kind heart and treated her students like they were her own kids. Always giving them rewards, candy, baking for them. On test days, she’d help students work through questions because she thought bad test scores didn’t do anything but hurt self-esteem. She didn’t follow school rules and allowed her students to use their cell phones and Ipods in class. This kind of leniency carried over to how she dealt with Patrick.
“Good morning, Patrick!” she’d say enthusiastically as he walked into class fifteen minutes late. “What would you like to do today?”
“Man, Miss Bacon, I can’t be doing this work. Can I get on your computer?”
“Of course, Patrick. Have a seat!”
She’d go and log him onto her computer, and he’d surf the Internet or play video games, listening to his MP3 player, while the rest of the class participated in the lesson, often glancing over at Patrick enviously. Ms. Bacon said that it was important for Patrick to feel safe, unthreatened. Create the right environment, and eventually he would come around.
As for Patrick himself, his gang affiliation became the thing he was most proud of. He’d brag about it. He started calling himself ‘Lil Pat’ and offering both his teachers and his classmates helpful assistance. “Yo, you ever end up in the hood, your car breaks down or something, and people start fucking with you, tell ‘em you know Lil Pat. They know me. They’ll leave you alone.”
The offer didn’t extend to me. “Yeah, fuck you Mr. P. Stop calling my mama. She don’t know nothing. If I see you in my hood, I’ll cap your ass.”
So, I wasn’t really connecting with him the way I’d hoped to. And things kept getting worse and worse. He got suspended for cursing at school staff. Then, when he came back, he beat the shit out of a boy in World History class. Suspended again. Because he was a special education student, by law the school couldn’t suspend him more than 10 days for the entire school year. Check that – they could, as long as we had a meeting about it (called a “manifestation determination”). Patrick would skip two classes a day and then the school would suspend him again, which meant his mother had to come in and we’d all sit down at a big table, me, mom, the head of the special ed department, his teachers, and the vice principal. We’d all discuss what the hell we were going to do with him and then sign off on paperwork, which allowed the school to legally suspend him some more.
The big question, one he wouldn’t answer, was where he was going when he skipped class. Nobody knew. What was he doing? Was he off in the woods, drinking and smoking? Was he wandering around the hallways or chilling with his gang buddies? It was a mystery, until one day I went to ask Ms. Bacon something and found Patrick in her classroom, on the computer.
“Wait, you mean he’s been with you?” I asked. “He’s supposed to be in Creative Writing.”
“Well, that teacher hasn’t done anything but make him feel unwanted,” she said. “He can’t succeed in an environment like that.”
Patrick glared at me from over the computer monitor. Beams of hatred shot from his eyes. I’d caught on to what was happening, discovered his secret hiding place.
Not that I knew what to do next. We all wanted Patrick to feel loved and to have someone to go to. Ms. Bacon was clearly that person. At the same time, she seemed to demand nothing from him and it was contrasting badly with his other teachers. It was tough to say if she was helping or enabling.
While Patrick and I weren’t getting along, his mother and I were becoming best friends. We talked on the phone all the time. I guess I was providing for her the kind of support I was supposed to be providing her son. “He’s my baby,” she told me. “I’ll always do my best to love him. I know I did him wrong before.” Then she told me about all her guilt. She was drinking heavily when she was pregnant with him. Did a lot of drugs. An addict. It took her years to put herself together, and she would pray that it wasn’t too late. She was finally ready to be a mother, and it hurt her inside, so badly, knowing what she’d put him through.
Another month had gone by. Patrick would sit in the back of the classroom, his eyes directed at me. He’d make a gun with his fingers, aiming at my head, pulling the trigger and yelling BLAM! Over and over again, spraying me with invisible bullets. It was a bit jarring.
I played cool. I wanted to help him, but he was killing me.
Patrick Gets Locked Up * A Decision Is Made * Drama Unfolds * The System Fails * Patrick Now * Closing Thoughts
Patrick got arrested around the end of the first semester. No one was surprised. He was being held at the prison and his mother wasn’t bailing him out. I didn’t know exactly what happened, but it had something to do with her. He’d lashed out and ended up in handcuffs with an assault charge. While he was locked up, his teachers experienced what is definitely the greatest source of guilt any educator can go through: that sense of relief one gets when the student from hell isn’t around any more.
Hey, we’re not supposed to have favorites, let alone least favorites.
In the month leading up to his arrest, I’d been under a great deal of pressure to do something about him. The school had absolutely had enough. Administration was fed up. I sat down with my department chair and talked about options. Nothing in his current IEP was working. We had one essential question to start with: Can this boy function in a regular school setting? He couldn’t go a week without getting suspended, was going to fail all his classes miserably…what chance did he have of eventually graduating high school? He had so many needs, was our school even equipped to deal with them?
Our talks ended up including administration, his teachers, and his mother. At the end of the discussions, we came to the conclusion that the best we could do for him would be to place him in a separate classroom specifically for boys with emotional disabilities. He would stay with one teacher all day, in one classroom, occasionally transitioning with his teacher to go to electives and lunch. There would be assistants in there with him. All of his academic work would be delivered in this setting, and there would be minimal distractions. He would never be without supervision.
To some this might sound like help. A solution. To Patrick, it was just another version of prison.
The only thing he liked about the idea was that it meant he’d have to be transferred to a different school. He’d be going from our school (low income, gang problems, rated badly by the school system, graffiti of a penis drawn across the door of the teacher’s restroom), across town to the more hoity-toity high school (higher income, kids on honor roll instead of in gangs, rated very highly by the school system, if penis drawn on door they washed it off as opposed to leaving it there for two years). We’d be sending him to the kind of school all parents want their kid enrolled in. So, in essence, yes, we were kicking him out of our school, but since he was getting booted over to a better school, it was okay.
At least that’s what I told his mother. I said that this move would help him, both with his grades and in dealing with his problems. She was so sick of hearing from the school at this point, she would’ve signed off on anything.
But we couldn’t simply send him off. A school doesn’t have that kind of power. Only the people from the school district had that authority, and so we would have to present our case to them and hope they ruled in our favor. Thus I started collecting documentation on Patrick’s behavior. His teachers would write a report after every class, detailing what work he refused to do and what kind of language he used and anything else that demonstrated he didn’t belong. Administration kept meticulous paperwork of all the suspensions, and I photocopied all of his past mess-ups from his folder (fights in middle school, being sent to the alternative education program). I ended up with an enormous binder, full of damning evidence. The thing was the size of a microwave oven; I seriously felt like I was Eliot Ness trying to take down Capone.
One night, near the end, Patrick’s mother went to the courthouse because there was some kind of hearing regarding the arrest. We still talked on the phone a lot, but I never asked her too much about the entire situation. It was none of my business. I wasn’t even sure where Patrick was staying. Anyways, the night of the hearing, his mother called me in tears. I’d never heard her like this. She was extremely upset, enraged. “I’ve been robbed!” she said. “They took everything! My TV, all my jewelry…everything!”
“Wow, I’m so sorry to hear that…”
“It was him,” she said. “At the hearing, he kept looking at me and laughing. Had this big motherfuckin’ smirk on his face. I know what he did. He told all his little gang friends that I wouldn’t be home. He knew what time, how long it would take…he did this.”
“Well…we don’t know…”
“Oh I fucking know damn well he did! He set me up! That’s why he was all smiling at me. I can’t fucking take this shit anymore! I got my gun and I’m waiting for him. I swear to God, Mr. P, if that boy comes around here tonight, I’m gonna shoot him. I don’t give a fuck if he is my son.”
“Okay, calm down. Please promise me you’re not going to do that…”
I didn’t talk with her much longer, and I didn’t do anything afterwards. Thought about calling the cops. Didn’t. I’d spend enough time with her, in my heart I really didn’t believe that she would go through with it and actually shoot him.
Thankfully, Patrick never returned to the house that night, so we’ll never know if she would have or not.
About a week later, the woman from the school district came for our kick-Patrick-out meeting. Everybody was there, a big party, mom was back, I was there, Ms. Bacon, the vice principle…everyone except for Patrick. He was sitting outside the school on a bench. His mother and I went out to see him. “Patrick, come on now, we’re about to have your meeting about going to the new school,” his mother said. “Don’t you want to be there? It’s about you…your future.”
He didn’t look at either of us. “Nah, I don’t care,” he said. He kept looking down at his feet. Didn’t say anything else, just kept sitting there, thinking.
And that was it. Well, kind of. The papers were signed and he was off. I had to go to the new school and meet with the teachers who would inherit him, the ones who taught the self-contained class for boys with emotional disabilities. They leafed through the colossal Al Capone binder. One of the teachers shook his head. “I don’t know how we can handle another one,” he said. “Today we had a kid throwing desks across the room. It’s a nightmare in here.”
“Well, he doesn’t throw desks,” I said, trying to sound encouraging.
Three days later, I got another call from Patrick’s mother, and again she was furious. The difference was, she wasn’t angry with Patrick this time. She was angry with me. “You lied to me Mr. P!” she shouted over the phone. “What happened? Explain to me what happened?”
I had no idea what she was talking about.
She kept on. “You said you were gonna help him! How is this helping him? He’s right back where he started! This ain’t right! You all lied to me, and you lied to him!”
Later on I found out why she was so upset. Three days at the new hoity-toity school, and they kicked him out. Gone. He was sent back to the alternative learning program where he had finished his last year of middle school.
“Wait,” I said to my department chair, “I’m baffled. How can they do that? You’re telling me that they got the school district to approve something that said Patrick was too emotionally disabled to be in the classroom for boys who are emotionally disabled?”
“Yup,” she said. “Technically, it says that his behavior doesn’t stem from his disability, and he doesn’t belong there.”
“But it took me two months to compile all that paperwork to get him put in a separate classroom. Three days and they got someone to reverse all that? How could it take me two months and them three days?”
“Because we are who we are, and they are who they are. All that principal had to do was make a phone call.”
In all my years of teaching, Patrick remains, without question, my biggest failure.
Before I wrote this, I looked Patrick up on Google, curious as to what happened to him. I learned that this past year, 2012, Patrick was arrested 4 times. Larceny. Stalking. Assault on a female. Assault by strangulation. Assault and battery 3rd degree. Some other charges. He’s an adult now. He looks a lot different from when I first saw him, with his smile and his new school clothes, all those years ago.
* If Patrick’s story is meant to illustrate anything, it’s that we have a very confused system in place right now for dealing with young people suffering from mental health problems. In this (true) story, a lot of people tried to help Patrick and nothing worked. Nothing. Patrick is an example of a person who walked through the system, waving red flags, and came out the other end of it unchanged. In the wake of the recent tragedy in Connecticut, mental health issues are at the forefront of the conversation. What we absolutely don’t need is vague support in the shape of more money, increased medication, and an acceptance of thought policing that further isolates troubled individuals. Basically, we don’t need more of what we already have. We need real ideas, policies, and plans to be developed by professionals and put to use in our schools and by parents who don’t know where to start. And I think it’s important to look at stories like this one and ask, what could we have done? There are a lot of Patrick’s out there. How do we help people who do whatever they can to reject that help? I wish I had answers, but I don’t.
Whew! Thanks anyone who read that whole thing. Cheers and God bless from Topiclessbar. : )