If I Hadn’t Given Up

When I left the prison to teach at a middle school, my inmate students gave me a charge.

“Mrs. Swartz,” they said to me. “Don’t give up on the bad kids in your class.”

This was a burdensome charge, I found. And one that became heavier by the decade, as more of my students appeared in the police reports of The Madison Press, the local paper that always found its spot on the teachers’ lounge lunch table.

We’d dine teacher-style, eating a sandwich with one hand, correcting papers with the other, and drinking caffeine, lots of it. Someone would riffle through the newspaper and then read the police reports to the rest of us

We were rarely surprised. These were our bad kids—the kids who had been without friends, some of them eerily quiet, some of them always in trouble. Some names appeared in the paper every few years. Each time I heard the name of one of my students, I felt I had failed the charge.

Todd Easton was one of these students. He sat in the back of my fifth period class and made no trouble. He didn’t do anything else, either—no homework, no classwork, no comments in class discussion. I tried with Todd for a while. Nothing worked.

One day after school, Todd came back to my room and gave me a gift, The Complete Works of Shakespeare. He handed it to me with two hands and looked right at me. Then he left. Inside he had written a short note with misspelled words.

I stood there, holding the book and feeling alarmed. If I had been teaching at the prison, I would have reported the gift. Inmates sometimes gifted prison employees they liked just before an uprising. But I wasn’t at a prison. This was a middle school.

I was back at my desk when I heard the sirens. On the street outside the school, Todd had attacked someone with a knife. A few years later, back from the detention center, he was in the paper again. And again. And then Todd killed himself.

I must have done few things right with Todd. After all, I have the Shakespeare book, still on my shelf. But I didn’t do everything I could have done for Todd. He was quiet there in the back of my class, and I had louder kids demanding attention. I didn’t meet with Todd’s parents. I didn’t ask Todd to eat lunch with me. I didn’t pair him with another student. I was too busy, too harassed with the urgent.

What haunts me is that Todd must have felt some connection with me. I might have had a chance—if I hadn’t given up.

After every knifing, every shooting, every police report, the charge is crushing. So, I’m grateful for grace. And I’m grateful for a new generation of teachers who keeps going back into their classrooms every day.

 

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