“It’s not my fault my grades are bad. All my teachers are racist.” And his mom believed him. He was her little boy, her darling. He wouldn’t lie. And don’t try to tell her that sometimes parents who truly love their children can be their own child’s worst enemy. She had to learn from experience.
Johnny Farrell was enrolled in my 7th grade science class. And in a room full of lively adolescents, he stood out as my nightmare. He was the kind of kid who prevented others from learning because he demanded negative attention all the time. He was constantly disruptive and he never did any work in class or at home.
Our grading system uses letters for academic performance, work habits, and cooperation. Academics uses the old A, B, C, D, and F (Fail) system. Work habits and cooperation use E (excellent), S (satisfactory), and U (unsatisfactory). Even among the hardest cases I’ve seen, it is rare for a student to earn F, U, U in all subjects, but, during that first grading period, Johnny did it. When the report cards were passed out he danced around the room laughing and shouting, “FUUs! All FUUs!” It saddened me that there wasn’t a single student who spoke up to say that all FUUs was not something to celebrate, but hey, it was middle school and expecting that kind of peer pressure is unrealistic on my part.
An offer of help
I got Johnny quieted down and later I offered to help him get his grades up. I didn’t mention his inappropriate dancing. I figured I’d have to win his confidence before my opinion would matter. I did offer to tutor him with his homework (during lunch). I tried to talk to him to learn why he felt the way he did but he wouldn’t take me seriously. I’ve read that sometimes a student will stop trying because, then when they fail, they can say they failed because they didn’t care or they didn’t try. They believe that, that way, no one can say they failed because they weren’t somehow good enough or smart enough. I tried everything and nothing worked. Johnny’s behavior just got worse.
That year, mine was the last science class formed and due to a lack of space we were housed in a room which originally was designed for teaching drafting. The students sat on high stools, two by two, at drafting tables. It was inconvenient but I worked around it.
Not my child!
One day, without warning, Johnny jumped up on his stool, faced the class, grabbed his crotch with both hands and began making weird, sexually suggestive pelvic thrusts at the rest of the class. Now I’m an openminded kind of guy, but this was WAY beyond any conduct I’d allow in my classroom so I sent him to the office for the rest of the period.
Later that day I called home to report on his behavior and to ask for help. That’s what you’re supposed to do, but they never tell you how to handle it when the parent refuses to believe you. Johnny’s mom said, “I can’t believe my child would do such a thing. You must have the wrong boy.”
I said, “I’m sorry ma’am, but I’m really sure I have the right boy. I’ve been the only teacher in the room since the start of the semester. I use a seating chart and I make the kids sit in assigned seats. Johnny sits in the front row, right in front of me. I am not mistaken.”
“Well you must have done something or maybe you just misunderstood what he did.”
“I don’t think so ma’am.” And we went round and round but she would not believe me. So the next day I took action.
Begging for help
I went to the Assistant Principal who was in charge of programing students and begged for help. I had already built up a good rapport with her so she was sympathetic. I told her about Johnny’s obscene crotch grab and how his mom just wouldn’t believe me. I said, “You have to take him out of my class. Please! It’s not about race or ethnicity or unwillingness to work with difficult students. But Johnny of the crotch grab has got to go! It’s just that if you don’t move him out, I won’t have a shred of credibility or control with the other kids.
Ms. A.P. understood completely and transferred Johnny to Mr. Holland’s science class. Life in middle school is never easy but at least it became tolerable for me.
Busted at Open House
Just after the second grading period we had Open House and parents came to meet with us teachers. My night went pretty well. Nobody cried (which does happen some years).
The next day I saw Mr. Holland on campus and he had a huge grin on his face. He ran up to me and said, “I met Johnny’s mother last night!” With that, Holland and I both started to laugh. I had warned him about my troubles with her and he bravely took Johnny into his class (that’s a real pal). I had also warned him how Johnny liked to claim that all his teachers were racists and had it in for young black men.
When we stopped laughing Holland said, “Remember how you told me that Johnny likes to tell his mom that his grades were bad because all his teachers were racists? Well, she came up here ready to raise bloody hell with us. She stormed into my room and took one look at me and almost fainted!”
Holland and I laughed some more. You see, Mr. Holland looked a lot like Shaquille O’Neal, a huge, friendly, black man. Johnny was busted and Mama couldn’t say squat!