The social skill of the week was “Asking Permission.” My seventh graders were writing about an experience that had involved their use of this skill. The room was quiet as they filled out their index cards and as I prepared for the day’s lesson.
I looked up and scanned the room. Everybody was on task. Except Ivan. The squirrely boy was on all fours, crawling on the floor between desks.
“Ivan!” I bellowed. “What are you doing?”
“I’m looking for my pencil,” he replied with a giggle.
“It’s on your desk,” I said between gritted teeth. “Get in your seat and get your paragraph written.”
“I’m done,” he said, now sitting cross-legged on the floor, poking Selena’s ankle.
“Get. Up. Now. Let. Me. See. Your. Paragraph.”
Ivan rolled his four-foot frame back across the carpet and to his desk. He jumped to his feet, grabbed the tattered notecard from his desk, and swaggered to my podium. He shot a glance at Selena and then batted his eyelids angelically at me as he thrust his work in my hand.’
“Is this what you’re looking for?” he asked innocently.
I looked down at his gift, and exclaimed, “What happened to this corner? Did you chew on it?”
“Yeah,” he replied sweetly. Then he opened his mouth wide to reveal the saliva-drenched paper ball on his tongue.
“Gross!” I shouted, now holding the card between my thumb and forefinger.
I read his card: “One time, I asked my mom for permission to go to the liquor store. She said ‘no’.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah. Can you believe it? She is so mean?”
“Maybe I’ll just call her and see for myself how mean she is,” I replied.
“Um, no…you can’t do that…she’s at work.”
“Oh, good. So am I. I bet she’ll really get mad if I interrupt her at her job.”
The little boy sulked all the way back to his desk.
In the three weeks that followed, I changed Ivan’s seat four times and eventually switched him to another class period. There was little change in his behavior and very little work turned in.
As September 11 approached, I assigned a story in which the students could imagine themselves being involved in some way with the tragedies of that day, a day that had unfolded four years before they had been born. They could be a hero, a casualty, a family member or any other person who might have been a part of that day’s events.
Surprisingly, Ivan took this assignment very seriously. He imagined being a father with a little boy waiting to board a plane. The son begins to cry and the frustrated father spanks him in the airport waiting area. A few moments later, the father feels a pang of guilt and hands his son a piece of candy. He hugs his little boy, and they step into the plane and back to their seats. Shortly thereafter, the airplane crashes into the North Tower and both lives come to an end.
I was so amazed at Ivan’s storytelling that I began to cry. I stapled it to our “Wall of Fame” in the hallway and raved about it in class.
But the glory was short-lived, and soon Ivan returned to his old routine of doing nothing in class and interfering with the learning of others.
His mother and father met with all five of his teachers for a conference. We were all straightforward with our reports of failing grades and poor behavior choices. Father was not pleased.
“Maybe it’s time to put him in a boot camp,” he growled staring at his son. “Is that what you want, Ivan?”
The boy shook his head back and forth clearly not pleased with the idea. Father had questions for one of my colleagues, so I grabbed my smartphone and typed into Google, “Arizona Boot Camps.” Google did not fail me. I started clicking on several links, looking for the best deals.
“Look, Ivan,” I whispered. “How about this one? It’s got indoor plumbing.”
Ivan shook his head nervously. “No!” He hissed. “Don’t show that to my dad.”
I continued my search. “Hey,” I said, again in a whisper. “Look at this. You get a job outside, and you don’t have to worry about your mom and dad. Parents can come visit on weekends. I think I’m going to forward this to your dad right now!”
“No! Please! Don’t do it, Mr. Ramsey!”
“I’d better see some change, kid,” I replied.
For the next two months, I left pictures of boots on his desk as a reminder of our conference conversation. But he still interfered with others, ignored his work, and simply drove me crazy.
Behavior changed slightly, but very little work was submitted. To make matters worse, the boy broke his wrist, bringing any hope of work to an end. Even though he had the use of a laptop, he refused to work.
Ivan was checked out early one day in February to see his doctor. He waved his bright green cast at me and said, “Bye, Mr. Ramsey! I’m out of here!” His father texted me later that afternoon to tell me that his son needed surgery and that a rod was going to be inserted into the boy’s wrist. He ended his message with these words, “He says hi and he misses you.”
A few weeks later, after the surgery, Ivan sent me a picture of the sutured incision on his wrist.
But behavior did not change much. He continued to earn “reflection time” and calls home. Finally, another conference was held with father and teachers.
After Dad had heard a short report from each of the teachers, he turned to Ivan and barked, “Remember what happened last night, Ivan?”
Ivan began to cry. “You spanked me,” he whimpered.
“And now I am hearing all these things from your teachers. What do you think is going to happen when you get home tonight, son?”
“Why are you crying now? You disrespect your teachers and then you sit there and cry? Sit up! I will deal with you tonight.”
Dad gave the teachers his cell phone number, and I quickly committed it to memory. During the next few weeks, whenever the boy had even an inkling of getting out of his seat or giggling with the girl across the aisle, I walked to his desk and quietly recited that number. “Should we call right now, Ivan, or can you pull yourself together?”
Then before heading back to my desk, I would sketch a tiny boot at the top of his paper as a friendly reminder.
One day in April, I was heading through the cafeteria with my food. On my way to the teachers’ lounge, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, Ivan walking toward me. Before I could reprimand him for being out of his seat, he put his arm around my shoulders and gave me a hug.
“Thanks, kid,” I said with a grin. “Now get back to your seat before I sign you up for one of those boot camps. I guarantee their food is not as delicious.”
Ivan grinned as well, rolled his eyes and went back to his seat. Once there he waved his arm, fluorescent green cast and all.
I moved on to the lounge, nibbling on a french fry from my tray and reflecting on just how long it had taken to build a teacher-student relationship with this kid but how grateful I was that it had actually, finally come to life.
Copyright, Tim Ramsey, 2018.