I used to not believe in ghosts and then I grew up. This statement sounds almost the opposite of how it should be. My twelve year old students believe in ghosts and love to tell stories about the unexplainable instances in their life: “Must have been a ghost, Miss. It could have even been a chupacabra I heard.” And as my students tell me these wild stories, they are wild-eyed and excited and scared; I have no doubt that every myth, legend, and ghost story is actively running through their head and they are close to an other-worldly experience. My ghosts are different from the ghosts of Chase and Able; my ghosts are still living.
Every teacher has students that they cannot forget, students who have made a difference and inspired them to keep on teaching. But there are also those students who have ripped our hearts apart because there was not enough we could do to help them; these students are my ghosts.
Mark. I had Mark as a sixth grade student in another state, in sometimes what seems like another century. He was quiet and respectful to me, always sitting in the back of the classroom, his eyes taking in the actions of everyone, ever watchful. Mark never offered any answers or volunteered to read, but if I forced him to participate, I could drag him out of his shell. I often regretted the excavation of his mind because of the despair that was unleashed when he responded. A look or comment from Mark could unnerve me; I was not used to darkness from a 12 year old.
When Mark was in the fourth grade, he was living with his father, stepmother, and three stepsisters. His father was an alcoholic and drug addict, in and out of jail for as far back as memory could serve Mark. One day, things were just too much for the boy’s father and he shot his wife and his three stepdaughters. He had just turned the shotgun on Mark when the boy jumped out the window from the second story. It was detailed later in the police report that Mark’s father eventually turned the gun on himself and committed suicide.
This story has not reached its climax. Mark ran to his mother’s house; with tears and shock, he related what had just happened. “Why did you come here? I don’t want you and I never did. That’s why you live with your dad. Or I guess you did. What am I going to do with you now?”
How could a parent, however personally troubled herself, turn away a son, especially after what he had just witnessed. Mark’s mom did take her son in, but immediately began searching for legal ways to absolve herself from her parental responsibility. Every morning after my crosswalk duty, I would see mom drag Mark into the front office and ask, “Have you found anyone that wants this boy yet? I can’t take it much more. I don’t want him.” What would YOUR life be like if you heard this every morning? I will never forget Mark’s eyes as I watched him during his mom’s morning tirades. Mark would stare straight ahead, avoiding eye contact with his mom, the attendance clerk, and me; he would refuse to let his mother’s abuse sink in. The only emotion I ever saw on his face was paradoxically a sense of pride. I think it was pride because he was still strong enough to stand up to this torture.
But one day Mark finally cracked. I think that I had long anticipated the inevitable and invisible crazing in his shell. He was a pop bottle that had been shaken for 12 years and the cap was coming off. Our class went to lunch one day towards the end of the school year; Mark had been assigned lunch detention by his math teacher and when Mr. Smith went to warm his lunch in the microwave, Mark decided to sit at the regular table with his friends, not at the designated detention table. I asked him politely to move. He said, “No.”
“Come on, Mark. Just jump over to the right table and you’ll be done with the lunch detention in 20 minutes. Don’t be mad at me; I am just the messenger.” Mark studied his tray. He looked at me and got up from his seat. I was relieved that this situation was going to be resolved so that I could finally eat my lunch, even though I did not have the time to heat it up. As Mark stood up, he tipped his lunch tray so that they food slid off onto the cafeteria table. I took a step over, not in any way expecting what would happen next: Mark hit me upside the head with the heavy formica lunch tray as he let loose a barrage of words that no sixth grader should know. He laid out a series of threats so well spoken that I had no doubt he would be able to inflict that harm on me and my family.
Luckily there were two teachers nearby that were able to grab Mark and pull him away from me. The boy ran to the office to wait for the school resource officer and I was escorted to the principal’s office. I filled out an incident report and formally pressed charges.
I don’t know if that surprises you: I unhesitatingly filed those assault charges. I knew that the anger and violence he had just displayed came from the anger and violence he had suffered through in his short 12 years, but I could not let him not have the most severe consequences. I think that for a moment, it must have also crossed my mind that jail would have been better than hearing every single morning your mother say you were not wanted.
When I went to court, I met Mark’s mother for the first time. She was dressed nicely and so was her son. For the first time, I saw Mark in slacks and a button down shirt. The entire semester that Mark had been my student, he only was allowed to wear matching black sweats and hooded sweatshirt. Our entire school district had a dress code and students who repeatedly refused to comply with school rules, dress code policies being one example, could be made to wear these all black clothes. These kids, many with family histories nearly as sad as Mark, would be escorted to class by retired military personnel from the Army base right down the road. I remember several items from court that day, the first being that Mark looked very nice in his shirt in tie. He did not look like a boy that had seen his family murdered. I can still recall the way that his mother doted on him, crying to the judge about how much he loved her boy and “please, oh please, give me another chance to raise him up right.” She pointed to me and said that there was “no way a white teacher could understand what goes through a black boy’s mind.” The thing I will remember the most is that Mark only looked at me once through the whole trial. When he was sentenced, he looked at me for a minute and his eyes were the most at peace I have ever seen them.
It has been ten years that Mark hit me in the cafeteria. I do not search for his name on the internet to see where he is now; I don’t search because I care. I hope with all my heart that he served whatever punishment was meted out to him and he found perhaps a foster family to live with. I prayed that the court intervened and took him away from the mother who was incapable of loving her son. It is easier for me to live with my hopes than it would be for me to bear possible bad news.
But every so often, maybe once or twice a year, I see a ghost. I may be at a school concert or a soccer game, or even the grocery store, and a boy that looks like Mark will walk past me. There will be something strongly prideful in the boy’s walk or the way he holds his head, something that yells out to the public, “I’m going to make it. I’m going to get through this” that makes me think for a split second that it is Mark in front of me. But Mark is now 21 and he certainly is not in a grocery store in suburban Texas. And while he took a part of my heart a long time ago, there is more than enough of it left for me to help the 50-150 kids I have had each year since leaving him.
We all carry around some kid in our heart. That kid you wonder if you did enough for him. That kid that changed you as a teacher. That kid that you always will wonder how they are doing. For me, that kid is Albert. In 2009, I was a reading specialist, responsible for helping 108 students that had never passed the state test before.
I had just come from teaching two years at a middle school in Georgia. They say "everything is bigger in Texas” and that is indeed true. The students were not just taller than the kids I had taught in the past, but they were taller than me. I was slightly intimidated. And then I met Albert.
After only 3 days of class, I was convinced that only one of us would survive the school year. It was going to be me or him. Albert talked non-stop. He was so happy and social, but he was happy and social all the time. Albert had a question for everyone: “How’s your cousin’s baby?” “Where do you want to eat lunch?” “Did you see my new shoes?” “What do you think of the math homework?”
He honestly cared about everyone and everything around him. I would redirect Albert and he would get back on track with the lesson, but I couldn’t move too fast or too slow or I would get questioned. I learned quickly which questions were safe to answer and which ones to ignore. Albert wasn’t trying to stall me from teaching, he was just curious about everything. “Why do you wear high heels?” “Do you eat sandwiches or leftovers for lunch?” “Where do teachers learn to be a teacher?" "How many books do you think that you have read?”
At the beginning of the school year, he tried to trick me a few times. I was presented with scenarios that were never covered in any college class I had ever taken. Scenarios I can't describe here in case some of my elementary students read this post. But luckily, I handled the situations correctly. Eventually I passed enough of Albert's tests or finally answered enough questions correctly.
We had a great year together, full of many jokes and pranks, and Albert surprised me on my birthday that year with a cake for my birthday. He went on the pass the state test, and when a new high school was finished, he transferred schools at the end of his freshman year.
For the next three years, I mentored Albert at his new school, checking his grades and helping him get caught up when he was behind. I visited him, but also made sure to got to class on time. I made sure he maintained the grades needed to play soccer, staying after school to help him write a speech for a communications class. I can’t say that I had come to believe in this kid; I had believed in him since I met him. Maybe my transfer to his new high school was partly so I could more easily keep track of him.
I had an interview with my professional organization scheduled while I was working one day at Albert’s new school and the story of how I kept in touch with this student over the years really appealed to the interviewer. We looked up Albert’s schedule and pulled him out of class. When I asked Albert if he would mind answering some questions on video, he readily agreed. The interviewer started off with some soft questions to relax my boy. And then the hard question came, “Can you tell me what a difference Mrs. Stoebe has made in your life?”
Albert was all of a sudden a freshman again. He knew how to ask question, but he quite did not know how to answer. He stalled and as I looked into his eyes, I knew that he was grateful for many things. He was grateful I did not call home or write a referral about the times he talked too much or the pranks he pulled. I saw that he knew I had always believed in him, and that I had never doubted his ability to make it to graduation day. No answer, no matter how well scripted could have ever said thank you to me; all the thanks in the world were in the look in Albert’s eyes.
“You know, Albert, I think I am going to answer this question. I want to answer with telling the world the difference that Albert has made in my life.” The interviewer took it from there and my diversion tactics worked. We wrapped up the interview and I hugged Albert, sending him back off to Communications (Yes, you really have to go back now!”). I held myself together until everyone was gone and then I cried in the bathroom because sometimes even I run out of words.
I had the joy of seeing Albert graduate. When his son was born, I got a photo and I looked into the happy eyes of a little boy and prayed for the high school teacher who would have him for freshman English. I prayed that she would be patient and be strong enough to carry this little boy around in her heart, just as I had carried his father there.
The article with Albert is here.