In 2013, after finishing my graduate studies, I accepted a job as a paraprofessional at an elementary school, working with special education and emotionally disturbed children in the Blue Valley School District.
I worked with W in the mornings. He was a friendly, energetic second-grade boy, skilled at math but slow at reading and writing. His ADHD was untreated. At his best, he was a creative spirit who loved to talk to adults and students alike. At his worst, as with all our kids, he refused to accept adult authority or complete his assignments. He would often kick his desk in anger, scream, cry, throw things on the floor. Once he became so angry he jumped on a table and bellowed like an animal. At times like that he was physically removed from the classroom and placed in our “quite room,” a padded room where our students were put when they become a danger to themselves or others (though our kids also used it to relax or nap). In this room, he once shrieked that he would kill me. But when it was over and it was all out of his system, he was quickly happy again as if nothing happened.
W, after the trauma of his parents’ divorce, was savagely raped by his new step-brother, a boy of 13. W likely has PTSD. He was terrified of and idolized his brother. One day he brought to school a drawing his brother made of himself, and all W wanted to do was stare at it. I was finally able to convince him to put it away so he didn’t have to think about the event his whole day. He was in therapy, but as a victim he will nevertheless be more likely to molest others when he is older.
I also worked with N in the mornings. He was a fifth-grade boy with Autism who had an incredible memory, excelled at math, and loved to clean. His mind was terribly logical, and he needed his day structured, with a minute-by-minute routine carefully followed. He was terrified of fire alarms, and I left the building with him before any drill. N often spoke in hypotheticals like:
If I was getting physically aggressive and was being destructive of property, would you get your walkie and say, “Could the principal come to C pod? I’m having trouble here.” Would you say that?
N accepted the consequences of his actions well, because he cared deeply about rules. But he also seemed to get a bit of a high breaking them. He was obsessed with curse words, enjoying the shock and awe of blurting out a random “fuck!” in class, and used Google to try to find new words to use (and he once searched for porn while at school). He sometimes encouraged our other kids to swear or throw rocks at recess, delighting in the rebellion. He loved to say things like “Shut up!” and “Zip it, happy meal!” He would sometimes throw chairs and become physically aggressive toward peers and paras, but this wasn’t common. N had a good home life; he was thoughtful, curious, and creative, and we enjoyed each other’s company so much I ended up being his para at summer camp after that school year.
I worked with L in the afternoons. She was the sweetest child I ever met. Her mother drank heavily (and was likely on drugs) while pregnant, so L had the cognitive functions expected with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. She was a third grader with the mind of a 4 or 5 year old. She could not remember 1 + 1 or 1 + 2; it had to be shown to her using manipulatives like blocks or fingers. We usually drew dots on white boards together, and either added more or erased some. L was a decent reader and writer, struggling with spelling on par with other third graders. Her loving grandma, whom she lived with, owned a horse and L knew how to ride. Horses were her thing. She was not violent in any way, though she did throw her math notebook on the ground once in frustration.
Her energy was extreme. She would race about the room, laughing maniacally. When I first met her, she was shy and terrified of me, but also very sober due to meds. After switching to new meds she was more vocal and spunky, and being used to me she was soon unafraid to yell “OK, we’re done with math now!” two minutes after we began, slamming her math book shut, cackling with laughter. I think what made L so cute was she repeated things you said to her to help her process. She spent most of her day speaking to herself:
I’m going to draw on this white board with permanent marker. No! Don’t do that, sweetie. You have to show positive behavior to get a happy face for this part of math. If you don’t get enough happy faces, you don’t get the prize box!
We eventually decided she had a voice or two in her head. One of them had a name, and when I asked L about this she grew embarrassed and secretive.
There were a few kids who needed hospitalization and residential care. Two girls, N and R, had psychological problems too severe for our setting.
Then there was T, a fifth-grade boy abandoned by his parents, living with an unloving foster mother. He was on the verge of being adopted in third grade, but at the last moment the couple changed their minds. When T received low marks, his diet was restricted at home and he was made to stay in his room, which reportedly had next to nothing in it. T always made sure to have a book with him — it would sometimes be all he had for the night. He loved to read; I gave him a copy of Redwall. His foster mother disliked him, but the way she treated him was not severe enough to have him removed by social services. T weighed as much as I do and was nearly as tall, so when angry he could hurt people. He screamed and tore apart classrooms, and when we restrained him he bit. He threw a textbook once to strike another child in the face. He sprinted from the building. Usually, his breakdowns occurred at the end of the day, when he realized his score was low and there would be repercussions at home. He dreaded going home, causing him to go ballistic. We suspected T was abused as well at some early point in his tumultuous life.
There were others. K was a cute kindergartner with Autism, who when upset screamed, bit, kicked, and grabbed the front of his pants to expose himself to adults. There was M, a sweet boy who was Autistic and for years, I was told, was a self-mute. He was vocal when I came along, but when angry and defiant simply sat and refused to move or speak. Happy or enraged, he always had that same goofy smile on his face. Sometimes, when really upset, he crawled under his desk, or slowly plucked things from the wall and set them on the floor, or took a chair and carefully tipped it over until it rested comfortably on its side. But he was in love with L, so often when she insulted him or didn’t want to play he charged her and angrily waved a fist in her face.
Another boy named M, a kindergartner, lived with grandparents who thought it wise to let him play Grand Theft Auto, and thus he loved guns and tried to talk about shooting cars and cops in the game before teachers cut him off. His father was decapitated by a train.
Finally, there was C, a girl with Asperger Syndrome. She had a terrible bowl haircut and large grey eyes. But she loved learning (I taught her social studies), was very bright and thoughtful, and enjoyed Karate (sometimes threatening to use it on adults, but in general remembering to only use her powers for good). She was known to elope from the school, but was usually not physically aggressive.
It was hard to say goodbye to them.
The next year I took a similar job at a Grandview grade school that offered a higher income despite being a poorer district. While the classroom in Blue Valley was evenly mixed economically and racially (far more racially diverse than the school as a whole, which made me worry about the perception of the hundreds of white students: why are the only black kids in the school in the naughty classroom?), the Grandview class was mostly poor black boys. Two or three times that year I found myself discussing race with them when they raised the topic; one amusing moment I won’t soon forget was when one inquired about a girlfriend of mine. He asked, “Is your girlfriend black, Mr. Griffin?” I replied, “No, I’ve never had a black girlfriend.” “Ha!” another laughed. “Mr. Griffin can’t have no black girlfriend! There oughta be a law against that!” “You know, it wasn’t that long ago that…”
The boy who found the thought of me with a black woman so hilarious and strange was a large, round second grader named C. From what I could gather his home life was pleasant enough, but he had great difficulty with authority and loved being in charge. He apparently ran the show at home and had trouble changing his attitude at school (days with a substitute teacher meant he had to be carefully monitored or he would attempt to take over classroom leadership). C, despite being a football player and knowing full well how much bigger and stronger he was than all the other second graders, was not one for violence. A gentle giant. He would threaten to beat kids up at times, but when angry would simply refuse to move and let two or three adults struggle to carry him to the private cool-down room (no padded room this time; students had to be held until calm). But he was delightful to teach, loved learning and excelled academically, and would often have us adults trying to suppress gales of laughter at his wit and flamboyant personality (“He’s more of a sista, really!” as one of my black co-paras put it). When C danced at Friday dance parties, however, there was no hiding our mirth.
The class was mostly second graders. There was R, who was always kind, calm, and thoughtful but struggled with academics, especially reading. I heard he brought a knife to school once, however, before my time there. M was almost certainly Autistic, though his mother didn’t want him tested. He was sweet and full of boundless energy, but could throw quite the tantrum — and sometimes objects. His meltdowns were always more “sad crying” than “angry crying.” He often spoke to himself, and I remember him saying “Oh, snaps!” when surprised. P came from one of the poorest families. He barely spoke at first and remained quiet throughout the year, usually a rather serious look on his face. For being skinny he put up quite the struggle when he had to be removed for not following directions or misbehaving, such as when he shouted “nigga!” at recess. He also stole from time to time, and even committed sexual assault — exposing himself and thrusting against a girl. Again, he was a second grader. And again, possibly abused himself.
There was a kindergartner, Z, who when upset always spoke of hurting or killing his cat. I often told him how much I loved cats and asked how his was doing, hoping to encourage peaceful interaction; abuse of animals can often predict worse acts later on. A white third grader named Z was abandoned, at least for a time, by his mother and lived with relatives, as did other boys. A black third grader named Z came from an extremely poor family. His father was a Burger King worker. Z was prone to screaming when having a breakdown, shrieks that could be heard throughout the school. L, a third grader, was sweet but very talkative, a bit nervous and socially awkward — sort of a chubby, white, human C-3PO.
An adjacent classroom had our older boys: a fifth-grader who was friendly and witty but often refused to do schoolwork and liked to challenge authority (he was held back, and resented being sixth-grade age in an elementary school); a usually stoic fourth grader who had few social skills, lived with a schizophrenic mother who lived by welfare alone, laughed uproariously at anything related to private parts (he may have been sexually abused), and often reeked of cat urine; a fourth grader obsessed with Minecraft; an ultra-sensitive fourth grader with a mohawk who was stained by secondhand smoke; and a fifth grader who lived with a grandma who told him she didn’t want him, had a brother in prison, once cut up his hand by angrily punching a window at home, and put me in an odd spot when he tried to physically barrel his way past our principal to escape the building, prompting me to restrain him while a black parent in the office next door recorded what she called white brutality against black youth. That was not a pleasant experience, to say the least.
I have many fond memories of my boys, such as drawing them pictures of superheroes, villains, and monsters. I loved teaching them and watching them learn. Taking them to specials (art, gym, music, etc.) was always a joy, and helping them practice controlling their anger and letting adults be in charge were powerful moments. Other experiences, such as daily supervision of hygiene (mouthwash, deodorant) or riding the bus with them to make sure they got home safely, were not so happy yet still made me proud to be doing good in the world. (On the bus I saw their homes: some modest houses in pleasant neighborhoods, others tiny, crumbling, crime-ridden, roach-infested apartments.)
I loved all the students I worked with those years. They were rebellious of authority in their own ways. Like other kids, they could be selfish or nasty. They would act poorly just to get attention or avoid schoolwork. Some could grow violent when enraged. They experienced trauma, loss, abandonment, hunger, anger, verbal, physical, and sexual abuse, extreme poverty, physical and mental impairment, and psychological and emotional disorders of the worst kind. Most of the fathers of my Grandview boys were in prison. Some of these children are the most likely to commit awful crimes and go to prison when older (a grisly rape-murder in Kansas City a couple years ago was committed by boys who formerly attended the same special education classroom in which I worked). But they were sweet children. They knew how to treat others with kindness. They would share, compliment each other, laugh and play and sing together. When they did so I reflected on their resilience. Life dealt them horrible hands, yet they found joy where they could. But when they were upset, when I struggled to hold them as they flailed, screamed, and wept, I marveled at how they functioned at all. How they tolerated a single math problem we asked of them, after what they had been born into and experienced! Truly, their rebellion against authority was an effort to control something — anything — in a life as turbulent as the sea, their misbehavior a product of factors beyond their control. When they broke down, after the anger passed, they would often sob uncontrollably, for far longer than the incident or infraction warranted. When I held them, now to comfort and not restrain, I thought I knew why they wailed. They wailed against an unfair life.