The recent article about the break-ins at PHS touched me in a very personal way, and on a couple of levels.
Teaching can be very different from other professions, very different indeed. The reasons may at times seem obvious, but I tell you, until you’ve done it, it’s not as simple as it looks.
We all love kids, thank God. And we all know what precious things they are, even as they grow into adulthood and begin to look the way we do — a little confused and out of touch with a world that refuses to stand still, but doing the best we can.
I worked with high school kids during my first eight years as a civilian teacher, and it didn’t take me long to find out how troubled they can be — even the ones who look and sound like they haven’t got a care in the world.
I was teaching chemistry, and I don’t suppose that made me the poster boy for student trust, it being the cold, hard science it is, but one day, for some reason or other, I made the comment to the kids in one of my classes that they could feel safe in coming to me and telling me anything because I would keep whatever they said confidential and would do everything I could do to help.
Honest to God, I didn’t expect to hear a thing out of that. It was just something I felt I had to say. I wish I could remember why, but I don’t. But before the day ended, I had a small, thin, dark-haired young kid come to me with a secret that shocked me out of my mind and left me wondering what the devil I was going to do.
It took me a couple of days to convince him his secret was not something to stay quiet about because it would hurt him in the long run. Then it took me quite a while to get the people I talked with to agree to handle the matter without criminal prosecution.
I won’t go into details. I wouldn’t feel comfortable in violating that confidence even now, three decades later. I’ll just say that the matter was handled, and handled well. And, I’ll add that because the matter turned out very well for all concerned, getting involved opened my eyes in a way nothing else could have.
I have never thought of teenagers quite the same way since.
The article in the paper about the break-ins brought all that rushing back.
Partly because I had a break-in in my computer classroom at Carson Junior High back when I was working for Mesa Public Schools. Several machines were taken. In fact, more than several. I was essentially out of business.
I can remember standing there that morning about an hour before classes were due to start. If something like that has never happened to you — and I pray that it never does — I can tell you it leaves you feeling empty, as though all the air has been suddenly let out of you. Your confidence evaporates. You don’t quite know what to do next. You feel helpless, alone, abandoned.
Happily, I didn’t feel that way for long.
Through my classroom door came two people who are now lifelong friends, Steve Shepple and Ralph Cunningham. They worked downtown in one of the support departments and they came in pushing carts loaded with machines, everything I needed to get up and running again. Inside of 30 minutes you would not have known there had ever been a break-in.
I just don’t have the words to describe how I felt. To say that I was overwhelmed by gratitude barely scratches the surface.
That day I learned that friends are what friends do.
And before that week was out, I learned something else too.
The policemen who were there when I first arrived in my classroom that morning looked very surprised as they went around the room taking fingerprints and gathering other evidence.
“You’re very lucky,” one of them told me.
He took me over to the place where the thieves had taken a valuable LaserWriter printer and placed it on the floor to get at the machine they wanted, which was sitting beneath it.
“They did that everywhere,” he told me. “Usually, they just toss stuff on the floor if they don’t want it. But these guys were very careful not to damage anything. You’re really lucky. This place could have been trashed.”
About a week later I learned why that was.
The thieves were caught and I found out their names.
One of them was a young man who had been in my computer classes and was now at Westwood High School. I remembered him well, a young man from a very poor family, someone who never came to school quite as well dressed as most of my kids.
The minute I heard the name I knew why my machines had not been trashed. He was not that kind of kid.
I couldn’t do much, but I did what I could. I talked to Mesa PD and told them that they had hold of a very nice young man who hadn’t had two nickels to rub together for his entire life. I also contacted his lawyer and offered to testify for him.
I don’t know how much good I did because the kids pleaded guilty and there was no trial. In fact, I was never notified, knew nothing about it until it was all over, and still don’t know much because the records were not open to me.
I know this much, though. After what I learned when that kid came to me with his story years before that incident in Mesa, I’d have gone to bat for that young man, and I’m willing to bet that any teacher worthy of the name would have done the same thing.
High school kids may look almost grown up, and they are physically, but when it comes to making choices, their decision making machine is stuck between first gear and reverse.
They’re going to go wrong sometimes.
They’re going to do dumb things, almost at random and almost without thinking, things that can get them into a lot of trouble.
When they do, that’s the time they need the most help. Maybe in the form of a swift kick in the slats, but also maybe not.
Sometimes, if they get a push in the right direction, they keep on going until they make you proud of them.