In December 1997, fresh out of college with a degree in English teaching and no career in sight, I accepted a part-time job at a treatment center for children and adolescents co-supervising a unit of half a dozen boys between the ages of nine and twelve.
One afternoon, I worked a shift with a social work major named Sarah. The sun was streaming through the blinds in the common room, browning the carpeting, the wood-panelled walls, and all the furniture. A boy, I’ll call him Travis, was sitting cross-legged on the floor playing chess with another boy. Suddenly, Travis scattered the game pieces with one hand, cursing the boy in front of him for not knowing how to play.
We called Travis, but his gaze was distant, unreasonable, beyond our reach. When a boy has gone into ‘crisis’, an agitated state in which he could harm himself or others, we have been trained to physically restrain the child. His arms were swinging wildly, so Sarah got behind him, clasping her wrists in her hands and pulling her straitjacket closer to her body. She leaned her back against the nearest wall and slid down, pulling Travis into a seated position on the floor. I secured his legs, basically lying on his feet. He yelled at us, tried to bend his knees and pull away. “Come on, Travis, calm down,” I said. For a moment, I thought my words had passed. I still wasn’t sure what triggered it. He stopped his beatings, his torrent of blasphemies. The room was rippled by our breathing. Then I heard him make noise. Like heavy furniture being dragged around a room. I was still lying at his feet. As I looked up at him, he dredged all the phlegm he could gather from the back of his throat and spat it at me. The dripping mass clung to the hinge of my glasses, hanging like an icicle.
Twenty-four hours later, I was back for another shift. Travis and I played chess together, cordial and chatty as if our previous encounter had been fictional. I wasn’t looking for excuses. I knew it wasn’t personal; I just happened to be working the day he went into crisis. When he picked up my knight, a calculated gesture I didn’t see, he did a little dance with his spindly arms that made me smile. Suddenly, I had forgotten what was written in his file and I saw him as any other child: brilliant, funny and capable. How important these moments are. “Planting seeds,” a colleague friend called him. “You have to trust that what you do for children now will pay off later. Even if you’re not there to see it.
I took this with me into my freshman year of teaching, in the fall of 1998, where I met a sophomore I’ll call Jack. He was perpetually slumped in the back of the room in shorts falling well below his knees.
It was after lunch. American literature. I asked the students to open their textbooks to Emerson’s essay, “Nature.” I remember standing in front of the class, feeling on the spot and comparing Emerson’s reading to winter driving in Wisconsin. “You have to go slowly, I say, and be careful. Otherwise, your mind might wander. Jack, who hadn’t even bothered to pull out his textbook, looked over his shoulder out the back window at a glorious, sun-dappled September afternoon. He held up his hand and, rather than wait to be called, said, “Does that mean Emerson will finally make sense in December?” The class chuckled. I ignored the comment and my seasonally inappropriate analogy, and started going over the goals for the day. I noticed Jack mimicking my mannerisms. I stopped talking and stared at him, hoping to shame him into silence. Instead, he extended his arms outward, in a cruciform pose, and said, “What?”
“Jack,” I sighed, in the hallway. Now.”
Jack took a moment to gape at his peers, made a ‘pffff’ sound and followed me. We were in front of a row of lockers. He looked up at me, his brown eyes saying, “Well?”
“What’s your problem, Jack?” I said. “I’m just trying to start the class.”
Again he threw up his arms in a beleaguered manner and said, “I don’t understand why the man fall on me.”
I was twenty-three; it was hard to conceptualize myself as “the man”. But he was sixteen and I was an authority figure. I explained that I hadn’t accepted this job to “run into him”, but rather that I wanted to do good for him and his peers. I asked for a truce.
“Whatever he said. ‘It’s your show.’
We returned to the classroom and, like with Travis, started over.
Over the years, I never heard from Travis, but Jack and I kept in touch. He graduated, got married, and started a more environmentally conscious waste management company. My family eventually switched to his service. When he dropped off the trash one night, the stars were out. Tiny seeds strewn across a vast field of sky. I told him I was happy to see he was still fighting “the man”. He just smiled and waved his right index finger at me, like we do with people who know things about us that other people never will.