The side door to the administration building swung open. I could not see this from my little office within, but I certainly heard the shouting of the eighth grader whose angry hand had nearly wrenched it from its hinges. “I hate her! I hate her! I can’t stand this place! I hate this school!”
The lobby was filled with parents, most of whom had just returned from a field trip to the zoo with their first graders. The weary moms and dads were now seeking a cool, yet temporary, respite from the Arizona heat before heading home for a few silent hours sans children. Each looked to the door and then to me anticipating how this situation might play out. I was already on my feet having just excused myself from a phone call with another child’s parent.
Freddy reached the front desk as I reached my door. He flung his referral at the secretary and continued to scream. “I didn’t do nothing! I hate that teacher! I hate this school.”
Ever-calm Valerie, spoke quietly in an attempt to calm the boy down. “Okay, Freddy. You are in the office now. I know you are angry, but please don’t take it out on me. Why don’t you have a seat at the front table and cool down for a minute?”
“I can’t sit down,” Freddy shouted. “I hate this school! I hate my mother! I hate myself!”
Only a few months had passed since Freddy had enrolled in our school. He had spent several years in the district’s special program for emotionally disabled children and had finally been exited from the program after a very intensive treatment plan had been deemed successful. I spoke to him that first day and tried to reassure him and calm his nerves.
“I used to be in the ED program, Mr. Ramsey,” he informed me.
“I know, Freddy. I read your file. But that’s in the past. You belong here now,” I replied.
The boy looked me in the eye and softly spoke. “I don’t want anyone to know I was there, Mr. Ramsey. I’m not crazy.”
“No, you are not crazy, kid, and your secret is safe with me. It is nobody’s business but yours.” I stood and reached out my hand. We shook hands. “Really, Freddy. I tell no one.” I escorted him through the office and to his classroom. “This is your fresh start, kid. Have a good day.”
Freddy smiled, shook my hand once more and entered his first class of the day.
There were good days and not-so-good days in the coming weeks. Freddy had difficulty adapting to the school which was considerably less regimented than his previous school. Some days he just needed a place to go to cool down and get his emotions in check. We worked out a plan where he would find me or the counselor, Mrs. Alexander, and we would give him such refuge.
One afternoon, upon returning from an administrator’s meeting at the district office, I was summoned to the school’s courtyard. Freddy was sitting atop a five-foot tall retaining wall, rocking back and forth.
I calmly inquired, “What are you doing up there, Freddy?”
He continued to rock, pausing only to wipe an occasional tear from his eyes. “I tried to find you, and you were gone. I tried to find Mrs. Alexander, but she is absent today.”
“I’m sorry, Freddy,” I said. “Guess we didn’t plan for that, huh?” He said nothing. “Well, I’m here now,” I continued. “Why don’t we go inside? Have you eaten lunch yet?” He shook his head “no.” I wasn’t sure whether he was refusing to come down or lamenting his missed meal.
“Come on, Freddy. Can you get down alright? Do you need any help? I don’t want you getting hurt, kid.” He rolled his eyes and then expertly scaled down the wall.
“Piece of cake,” he exclaimed wiping his hands on the seat of his pants.
“You want cake?” I teased. “Maybe you should eat your lunch first.” He rolled his eyes and tried not to smile as he followed me into the cafeteria.
Now – a few weeks later – he stood before me having another difficult day. This time, however, he was screaming at the top of his lungs, and an audience of adults was waiting to see how I was going to deal with this issue.
“Freddy!” I said firmly. “Stop yelling. Come in my office. Let’s see how we can work this out.”
He moved slowly with me but continued to shout, “I hate this school! I hate my life!”
I blocked the doorway of my office. “Freddy!” I commanded. “You don’t have to go back to class today. You can stay here in my office if you want to, but you cannot yell anymore.”
The screaming ceased as he crossed the threshold. “Have a seat,” I offered. He started to rock repetitively back and forth from heels to toes. Heels and toes, heels and toes. He whimpered like an injured puppy. “Okay, you can stand if that is better for you,” I said. “Why don’t we talk a bit? Tell me why you are so upset, okay?”
“I just want to go home!” As the volume of his voice increased, I held up my hand. Freddy lowered his voice and cried as he mumbled, “I hate my life!”
I knew a little of his backstory from the notes I had read in the file from his previous school and from conversations with his current teachers. His father had left the family while Freddy was in second grade. His mother was working but only at a series of temporary jobs. They lived in a beat-up trailer with few amenities in a nearby rundown trailer park. Money was scarce with none allocated for the anxiety medications prescribed for Freddy. A baby brother still in diapers was consuming most of Mom’s free time between jobs. This child’s father, like Freddy’s, had also left the family. Big sister helped out around the home sporadically but left often in frustration to pursue her own teenage desires.
“I’m sorry, Freddy,” I said with a sigh.
“You don’t get it, Mr. Ramsey,” he blurted. “My life sucks! Mrs. Russell doesn’t get it either. She was mad because I didn’t have my homework done. So she called me out in front of the whole class and then sent me to the office!” He continued to rock as he stood before me. Heels and toes, heels and toes.
I sat quietly and watched the boy as he rocked and sobbed. He took a deep breath and then continued. “I get home and have to watch my baby brother until Mom gets home, and she usually doesn’t get there until midnight or later. We have no electricity so I get to sit in the dark and listen to him cry until he falls asleep. Then I go to bed and try to sleep wondering if my mother is okay. So no, I don’t get my homework done!”
“I can talk to Mrs. Russell, Freddy. But you know, you’re going to have to go back to her class tomorrow…”
He began rocking faster, and his voice grew a little louder. “I want to go home!” he screeched.
“Okay, okay,” I said. “Let me call your mother and see if she can pick you up.”
“She won’t come. She’ll say that she can’t get away from work.”
“Well, I’ll just give it a try.” I searched the computer and read aloud the number listed for his mother.
“That is her old number. It doesn’t work anymore.”
I sighed. “Do you have a more current number, Freddy?”
“Okay…can I have it?” I let out another sigh.
“I don’t know it. It’s in my phone.”
“Alright, then look on your phone and tell me the number.”
“The battery is dead!” he whimpered. Heels to toes, heels to toes.
“Do you have a charger with you?” I whimpered as well.
“Yeah,” he sobbed.
I took a deep breath. “Okay, Freddy, I want you to breathe with me.”
The boy looked at me as if I had lost my mind. But he stopped sobbing, and he stopped rocking.
“We’re going to breathe in – and hold it for five seconds.” I demonstrated inhaling deeply and counting silently to five with my fingers. “Let’s do it together, Freddy.” We both sucked in air. We both counted on our fingers. We both exhaled.
“Plug in your phone, Freddy and let’s wait for it to come back to life. Okay?” He nodded his head and did as instructed. “Alright, let’s try that breathing again,” I said. “We both need to relax a bit.”
Within a few minutes, the battered cell phone regained consciousness. I asked Freddy to dial his mother, to explain what was going on and to then let me talk with her. He did as directed and managed to keep most of the sobbing at bay. Then he handed the phone to me.
“I can’t get away from work, Mr. Ramsey. This is a new job, and I will be fired if I leave. Is there some other way he can get home?”
“I’m afraid school personnel are not allowed to transport kids,” I explained.
“Well, he rode his bike today. Couldn’t he just go home that way?” she asked.
“With your permission, I can let him leave on his bike.”
“Well, he doesn’t have a key. Mariana, his big sister, has the only extra key to the trailer.”
I thought for a moment. I inhaled. I counted to five. “Okay,” I offered. “Mariana goes to the high school across the street, right?”
“What if I call over there and ask their office personnel to call her up to the office. I will walk Freddy to the high school office, Mariana will gives him the key, and he will ride home. Tomorrow he gets a fresh start.”
“That will work,” Mom sighed. I wondered if she was breathing and counting as well on the other end.
“He will need to call me the minute he gets home so that I know he got there safely,” I stated in my best concerned father voice. “After he does that, I will call you back for your own peace of mind.”
She thanked me and went back to work. I called the high school and then informed my own secretary of my plans. Freddy went to the bike rack, retrieved his bike, and he and I walked across the street to meet his sister at the office. She slapped the key in his palm and rushed off. “I have to get back to class now,” she said in a huff.
Freddy hopped on his bike and began to pedal away from the school. “Hey!” I hollered. That’s all the thanks I get?”
Slowly, he turned the bike around, stopped, and straddled the frame in front of me. Without a word, he reached out his right hand. I took it and shook it firmly. He hopped back up on the seat and once again headed home.
Copyright, Tim Ramsey.