By Graham Danzer
Not a chair squeaked. Not a paper rustled. Not a muscle moved. In Kerry’s classroom, silence and discipline were law. Kerry was a teacher at juvenile hall-based alternative education site where youth were sent in exile, as their last stop before being in custody. They had all been expelled from public schools for a great multitude of severe offenses, one youth for beating up his mother on his former public middle school campus, another youth expelled for stealing his math teacher’s car, another for bringing a gun to school. These kids were the bottom of the barrel, that much they knew. They were poor, dangerous, unwanted. Keep them away from my kid, said parents of the majority of “normal youth.” Kerry’s kids had been given up on by the world at large, by their parents, and by themselves. But not by Kerry.
No. Even in these darkest of realities, 15 of the most out of control, lawless, and dangerous youth in the entire surrounding counties, Kerry, in the words of Jesse Jackson, kept hope alive. These 15 boys came to school with little to believe in. Their parents mostly alcoholics, drug addicts, street criminals, promiscuous, like their sons and daughters were fast growing into as they approached adulthood. These kids had suffered, like their parents before them. Kerry more than knew it, he saw it. Saw these kids get dropped off in front of the barbwire gate outside of school, slamming the car doors on their parents still yelling voices out the passenger side doors. The parents shaking their fists through half rolled-down car windows, kids cursing, slinging backpacks over their shoulders, middle fingers in the airs.
Kerry glared in outrage. Unbelievable, he used to sputter, glaring harshly at how these kids could treat their parents so. Their parents who gave them life, who provided for them. Sure the kids had been treated badly, been through a lot. That don’t mean their folks have all that coming neither! Kerry used to say in his quest for these kids salvation, against all odds, as many other crusading adults had failed before Kerry in their attempts to turn these kids’ lives around. Many other well-intentioning adults, in Kerry’s place, failing before; people who were motivated, trained, and patient. Good with kids. But where their sympathies and compassions had failed, Kerry’s would succeed.
Every so often, very slight whispers began to eek out from behind the confines of Kerry’s desk, large and methodically oaken, as if beholden to a judge. BOOOOMM!!! “HEY!!!!” Kerry bellowed, snapping to attention at his feet and slamming his palms, hard from years of labor, down with a hollow echo atop his desk. Every kid in that classroom equally snapped to attention, backs straight against their chairs, heart’s racing, fear wafting in the air. Kerry took a breath, ready to continue, gazed ominously around the room, and seeing wide eyes, closed mouths, and at risk youth on the edges of their seats, Kerry knew he had restored of order. Thus he returned to reading his newspaper, always able to unrelentingly demand compliance, and to then reel himself in when no more exertion of effort was required. One of his deafening bellows was usually well enough to restore peace to his galaxy. After another second of heavy breathing, his kids slumped back into their seats, returning to their work, in silent indignity. Their young male pride and egos stampeded on by the herd of Kerry’s stampede for order.
And this was Kerry’s way of instilling hope in his kids. His way of teaching them something. Of helping them to rise above the bondage of confinement and unrest. It wasn’t exactly evidence based practice, not considered by most to be empathic, but where his critics of many failed, he succeeded. All the school principles with their pretty speeches, probation officers with their handcuffs, Marriage and Family Therapists, or MFT’s, with their brown fuzzy boots and sympathetic smiles. Kerry’s instillation of fear and rigidity had its controversy. Too harsh, yelling at kids who have problems because they have been yelled at all their lives. But where his means were controversial, his results were anything but.
Each of those kids, all 15, who had a combined average grade point average of less than a D, had completed more work in the last 6 months than they had in years of schooling. Kerry had not expelled one youth from this alternative education program. Amazing. Over 30 expulsions and 50 arrests combined for all these kids in their previous settings. And here, in Kerry’s classroom, gang members, woman beaters, gun totters, kids in danger and dangerous kids, each kid owning both labels alternatively, was succeeding at levels which no one had previously thought possible. Each kid made indisputable progress, which no one could see as anything like reality. Not their parents, not their probation officers. Not the boys themselves. But Kerry always knew. And Kerry believed. Kerry kept hope alive, whether the world around him had it or not.
Kerry believed in all of his boys. Just like he believed in Joey: A 15 year old white kid expelled for bringing a locking blade knife to school, the kind that can be broken off when someone is stabbed, so that if someone is stabbed, it is more difficult for emergency medical staff to remove the blade and operate. Joey came Kerry’s way with a discipline file like a dictionary. Referrals, suspensions, insolence, defiance. Day after day. Classroom after classroom. Sent to the office. Sent home. Placed on the impact list of at-risk kids.
Incredible! Kerry barked in outrage to his assistant, Coach Gregory, who was also his assistant football coach at the local community college. Kerry and Coach Gregory having applied many of their football pre-season boot camp tricks to their work in the classroom. The high standards, the rigor, and most of all, the philosophy, no pain no gain.
These adults who work with these kids keep doing the same shit and expecting the results to be different! Suspending them, sitting them in the hall, no results! No improvement! Start laying down the law before they start breaking it! Kerry blared to his assistant. And in terms of Joey, Kerry had a point. The consequences had gone on and on for Joey, the suspensions, sitting out in the hallway, detention halls instead of classrooms. Exactly what he wants! Gets the attention! The spotlight! Doesn’t have to do any work! Teacher stops the classroom, nobody leans nothing. That boy learns that when he wants to be the funny man, time to put the books down, Kerry continued, shaking his head in disgust. But then his eyes glittered, a pirate’s smile that he shared with Coach Gregory. We’ll shape him up! He said almost gleefully.
And so Joey’s day of reckoning came. Kerry watched him saunter out of his mother’s beaten up old Honda Civic, whipping the door closed behind him, almost taking it off the hinges. Scowling into the dirt, holding up his pants, the grease in his hair baking in the California sun shine. Kerry scowled at his watch. 5 minutes late on the first day, probably typical, for him, Kerry predicted. Not that Joey made any great effort to make up for lost ground. His I-pod earphones dangling, walking slow and pimpy, shoulders swaying in the breeze. Sure taking his sweet time!!! Kerry muttered. A young Latino boy snickered, and dutifully buried his head in his book when Kerry’s wide eyes and vain pulsing in his forehead alerted his amuser that a failure to return to order would bring dire consequences.
The door closed behind Joey. Whassup man, Joey muttered to one of the other boys sitting by the door. SIT DOWN AND BE QUIET!!! Kerry barked from across the room. Laughter ensued from a few voices in the classroom. QUIET!!! Kerry screamed, rattling the inside of the bullet proof glass windows, giving the room back its deafening silence. You could hear pencils scribble on paper, even from the other side of the classroom. Not a murmur, or a fidget. Deafening. And Kerry began to make his way toward Joey’s protesting presence by the door. Kerry knew what was to come, and what he had to do. Joey not having known the ropes yet. In Kerry’s words, need to break ‘em in. Joey had a ways to go.
“Maaaan I—“ He began. “MAN NOTHING!!! TAKE YO’ SEAT OR IM’A GIVE YOU ONE AT JUVENILE HALL!!!” Kerry shrieked, face inches from Joey’s. Joey fairly tumbling into the nearest chair, his peers hiding muffled giggles in their hands and sleeves, for fear that allowing noise to escape would put them next in line once Kerry were done with Joey: thus pride lay at risk of being sacrificed.
Meanwhile, Joey was stunned, swallowing an iron lump in his throat, it stewing long in his stomach. And he fairly auto piloted into his backpack for his science book and binder paper. Seeing that his work was done, for now, Kerry returned to the newspaper behind his desk.
Kerry’s blind aggression, his forceful demands, his military-like classroom conditions, produced sulking in the kids, and complaining to their parents of their treatment. Not fair! He can’t be doing that! Yelling in our faces! Maybe true, maybe even probably true, but nevertheless, the results couldn’t be argued with.
6 months later, Joey was a new man. Caught up on a year’s worth of credits, smiling politely, raising his hand, offering to help out in the classroom, never a word of protest. Hadn’t been yelled at, in Kerry’s classroom, where yells came a plenty, in over 2 months. In his old public school, and with his teachers who didn’t believe in raising their voices at the kids, Joey didn’t make it through one day without being sent out of class for cursing, throwing things. . . you get the drift. And Joey’s mom reported that these changes held up at home. He was polite, well spoken. Committed to school. None of his old behaviors, in, for longer than she could remember. Incredible. Maybe the ends justified the means. His mother couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t believe it happened. This turn around. Night and day it was. Never thought this was possible outside of movies like Dangerous Minds.
But Kerry did. Kerry always knew that Joey could do it. Just like the rest of his boys, as he called them. Never doubted them for a second. Where the system, their parents, their teachers, and the boys themselves had given up on them, Kerry never did. Always kept hope alive. And firmly believed in his methods. And proved their efficacy on a daily basis, Joey being a prime example. To his boys, Kerry was the heavy handed father, demanding and rigid. The father most of them never had. And definitely the father that Joey had needed his whole life, his own father too lost in a bottle of Jack Daniels to demand adherence to order.
He’s not a bad boy, Kerry once told Joey’s mother, but you gotta stay on him. You let up for a second and it’s all over. He’ll take you for everything you got. His mother nodded her head vigorously. Kerry was spot on. And so was what happened with her son. Polite, well behaved, almost an A average, did wonderful in his interview with a new, highly ranking high school, known for academic rigor, prestigious, and respected. And Joey had been accepted. Become rigorous, prestigious, and respected. No one having believed he had been a stop away from juvenile hall. Joey’s mother almost finding it now hard to believe. Joey went from inmate to inspiration. Accepted to the best school in the county. Kerry had worked another miracle.
But his critics held firm. That’s too harsh on the kids, violates their rights, unsupportive, not educational, they say of Kerry and his methods. And meanwhile their kids tear their classrooms apart, civil rights indeed, Kerry smirks to Coach Gregory about his critics, their classrooms and difficulty managing the Joey’s of their worlds. Kerry and Coach Gregory laughing all the way to the bank.
Kerry had accomplished what none before him could. And not just with kids. Not just with at risk kids. But with the bottom of the barrel. Literally, the worst among the worst. Worst behaved, worst performing in school, worst odds to “make it” in the real world. The Joey’s of the school system. The Joey’s of the world. The Joey’s of Kerry’s classroom. And there they sit. Faces buried in their books, silently and dutifully immersed in their work. Accomplishing more in thee hours with Kerry than they had in the whole rest of their lives. Their parents amazed. The kids proud of themselves.
Years later, Joey is a social worker, having received his master’s degree, working on a PhD, claiming steadfast and without debate that it was all Kerry’s doing. Nothing else would have gotten through to me, if you would have approached me soft, than I would have taken you for everything you had, Joey said firmly. The same as Kerry had said to Joey’s mother, his mother nodding her head vigorously in agreement. Their critics in dissent, despite, by their own admissions, failing to produce results with Joey and many others like him. Violates rights, too harsh, the critics say. At 16, Joey agreed: At 26 he begged to differ. In the beginning, he hated the means, but looking at his Masters degree on the wall by his bed, in the end, he knows that the ends justified them.
Also see There’s no place like home
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Safe Again: The compelling story of Bobby