Valerie stood in my doorway and quietly tapped. “Here’s the file you asked for, Mr. Ramsey,” she said. “New boy, Gonzalo Pomelo, eighth grade, Mrs. Duarte’s homeroom.”
I took the file and thanked my secretary. As I opened to the first page, she added, “By the way, he’s here in the lobby waiting to see you.”
“Really?” I sighed, slapping my forehead. “He just started this morning!” Valerie quietly waited for me to tell her what to do with the child waiting for discipline. I exhaled. “Give me a sec,” I uttered finally. “I just want to take a look at Mr. Pomelo’s file. I’ll come get him in a minute.”
Quickly, I scanned the first few pages before me. Eighth grade. Last attended school in New Mexico. Parents divorced. Dad given full custody. Son sent to Arizona to live with grandparents temporarily until Dad could sell the Albuquerque home.
I closed the file and walked to the lobby. A stocky boy with dark black hair slicked back was sitting at the table forming a parent newsletter into a paper airplane. I walked over to him and extended my hand. “I’m Mr. Ramsey,” I said, “and you are?”
“Gonzo!” the boy exclaimed, grinning and reaching for my hand.
“Come with me,” I directed. He stood, holding on to his creation. “Let me see that,” I said.
He handed the airplane to me. Innocently, I held it up and examined it, moving it back and forth as if in flight. “Oh no!” I blurted. “Turbulence!” I aimed the nose of the plane downward and slammed it into the tabletop leaving a crumpled mess.
“Come with me,” I repeated.
Gonzo stared at me, then at Valerie and finally at the plane’s remains. Hesitantly, he followed me into my office. Cautiously he sat before my desk and waited for the crazy man to speak.
“So, kid,” I began. “You’ve been here for only two and a half hours and now you’ve made it to the office. Not really the way I like to welcome kids to their new school, but…” I glanced across the desk to a blank stare.
“Gonzo…Gonzo…Gonzo,” I muttered. “Pomelo, right?” Gonzo nodded his head, still watching me warily.
“Pomelo,” I repeated. “Grapefruit? Your name means grapefruit?” I smiled.
Finally, the boy spoke. “Yeah, so?” He paused for a second. “Hey, you know Spanish?”
“Muy poquitio,” I chuckled. The ice was broken. The child relaxed.
“Okay, Gonzo. Tell me why you are in the office – besides the fact that you wanted to show me your skill as an aeronautical engineer.”
“That teacher said for me to stop talking. She said to be quiet.”
“So why didn’t you do what she asked you to do,” I inquired.
The boy shrugged his shoulders and stared at me. I stared back.
“She bothers me,” he finally blurted when the silence became too much for him.
“Is that how you treated Mr. Simmons?” I asked.
“How do you know Mr. Simmons?” the boy exclaimed.
I held up the folder Valerie had delivered only moments earlier. “Lots of good stuff about you in here, kid,” I said, leafing through the pages and pretending to read each of them. “Oh, look!” I shouted. “Your Dad’s number!
“You can’t call him,” Gonzo proclaimed with a smirk. “He lives in New Mexico.” The boy leaned back in his chair and stretched his legs out.
“Ah,” I muttered with feigned disappointment and then equally feigned surprise. “Wow, Gonzo!” I shouted. “You’re in luck! This is the twenty-first century! I have free long-distance calling!” I began dialing Dad, and son quickly sat up in his chair.
“Why don’t we both listen to what he has to say, Gonzo?” I said with a smile as I punched the speaker phone on. Dad picked up, and I shared his son’s behavior. Dad then shared his displeasure both in English and in Spanish.
“It won’t happen again, Mr. Ramsey,” Dad began. “Will it, mijo?”
I stared across the desk and smiled. Gonzo glared back and through gritted teeth growled, “No.”
Dad thanked me, I thanked him, and then the call was over.
“Alright, Gonzo,” I announced, “in-school suspension the rest of the day. You are now an honorary second grader.”
The boy growled again and headed to his assigned time-out with the tiny tables and tiny chairs.
A few days later, Gonzo returned, still hating his teacher and still claiming his innocence. I recited his father’s number. “That’s right, isn’t it kid?” I asked, all the while punching the keys of the phone.
“You memorized it?” he asked incredulously.
I pointed to my head. “Lost most of my hair, but my memory is still there,” I countered with an exaggerated sigh.
“Loco, muy loco,” he mumbled under his breath.
Dad agreed to my plan of sending his boy home with Grandma. The woman arrived about twenty minutes later. “Sit in the lobby while Mr. Ramsey and I talk, Gonzo,” she ordered. The boy sat mocking her.
“Up. Now,” I ordered. Slowly he rose from his chair. “You will not disrespect your grandmother in this office,” I stated. “Apologize to her now and then go out to the chairs in the lobby.”
“Sorry,” he hissed. He shuffled out my door and into the lobby.
“We’ll work on apologizing appropriately tomorrow,” I informed him.
Grandma confessed that it had been a long time since she had had a teenage boy in her house. “His father was nothing like this,” she sighed. “I’ll take him home, but I don’t know if that is going to do any good. He thinks he can do whatever he wants to do.”
A week later, I returned from an extremely unnecessary administrator meeting exhausted and famished and found Gonzo waiting for me in the lobby with yet another referral form in hand. Irritated, knowing I would now have to postpone my lunch, I seethed, “Let me guess, you don’t like the way a teacher made you follow directions.”
I pointed to my office. He strutted in, all the while whining, “She’s mean. She’s crazy. She doesn’t like me. She bothers me.”
“I have people like that in my own life,” I sneered, throwing my newest stack of meeting notes and data files on the floor behind my desk.
“Okay, kid. Enough. I am hungry and in no mood for a pity party from a thirteen-year-old. Have you eaten yet?”
He shook his head “no.”
“Alright, then follow me. We are going to the cafeteria and then coming back here to eat and plan what happens to you next.”
We both picked up a mystery meat cheeseburger and returned to my office. I stared at my guest and attempted to come up with a plan better than time out with seven year olds and cookies and milk time with Abuela. Nothing was coming to me real fast.
“What does your dad do for a living, Gonzo?” I asked as I stalled for more time.
“He’s a mechanic. He said he’s going to get me a car when I turn sixteen.”
“You’re going to be driving the streets around here?” I exclaimed, gasping in mock panic.
“No. Albuquerque,” he said smiling.
“Oh, good!” I said, wiping the imaginary perspiration from my brow.
“My father said we are going to move to California once he sells the house. He doesn’t think he can live with his mother.” Gonzo rolled his eyes. “But for some reason he thinks I can!”
I stifled a giggle. The young man continued. “I’m going to be a race car driver, Mr. Ramsey! My dad is going to get me a car, and I’m going to let him be my mechanic. How cool! He’s going to work for me!”
“Well, right now, you’re going to work for me!” I interrupted. “No lunch recess for a week, kid. Instead, you work for me.”
“Oh, you’ll see. It’ll be fun,” I replied with a grin.
We walked to the portable building at the south end of campus. The eight rooms there were no longer used as classrooms. Instead each was filled with unwanted supplies, equipment and furniture dumped haphazardly by the staff. We lovingly referred to the building as “The Pit.”
“First job,” I announced. “We need to remove all of the desks and chairs scattered around in each of these rooms and stack them neatly in one room. When I say “‘we,’ I really mean ‘you’.”
Gonzo began extracting student desks from the piles in the first room. He grunted and groaned about how difficult the work was. He shoved his finds into the room dedicated to furniture.
“No, I said neatly,” I reprimanded. I demonstrated how I wanted the desks stacked just so, three high, and the chairs sorted by size and organized in stacks of eight. My apprentice rolled his eyes, but eventually caught on.
When it was time for him to go back to class, I asked, “Wasn’t that fun?”
“No,” he grumbled.
“Great!” I exclaimed. “I’ll see you tomorrow! Stay out of trouble. Another referral equals another week of detention.”
Good behavior and eighth graders don’t always walk hand in hand. Sure enough, Gonzo was back in my office the next morning.
“PDA, Gonzo?” I said, looking up from the teacher note.
“It was just a kiss. Marguerite and me are gonna get married!” A large heart drawn in red marker decorated the boy’s forearm. Inside the heart was the inscription, “Gonzo y Marguerite.”
“Right,” I muttered with a sigh. “And just how do you think you’re going to support her at thirteen without an education?”
“I told you, man! I’m going to be a race car driver! I’m going to be rich!”
“Well, to build up your strength and endurance, I’m going to let you work for me another week at recess. You can be part of my “pit crew! See you at noon…and no more kissing!”
Gonzo showed up to “The Pit” that afternoon, but he was not happy. He took his anger out on the furniture he transported, slamming the desks and chairs into place in the designated room. He managed to move all desks and chairs which had been scattered throughout the building. Satisfied that his job was completed, he wiped his brow and exclaimed, “Done!”
“No, not even close kid,” I said. “You did such a fantastic job with the desks. Tomorrow, we start on the tables.” He slumped to the floor and shook his head in disbelief.
The next day, three seventh graders were added to the work detail as a consequence for stuffing apples into the urinals in the boys’ restroom. They began carelessly throwing tables into the “furniture” room, but were stopped by Gonzo. He hollered, “Knock it off!” He grabbed one end of a long table and ordered Leo to grab the other end. “This is how Mr. Ramsey wants it done,” he directed. He demonstrated turning the table upside down and placing it squarely on top of another one in the corner.
I smiled as I watched my foreman taking a little bit of responsibility.
Two weeks passed with no further behavior incidents for Gonzo. He kept his comments and his lips to himself. He and his crew of detention detainees expertly cleared the unused classrooms of needless clutter.
I was surprised, then, a week before eighth grade promotion, when Gonzo appeared at my office door. He tossed his referral on my desk and sat angrily before me.
“Why are you here, Gonzo?”
The boy sat stonily and said nothing. I had little to go on since the only word written on the teacher note was “DEFIANT,” carved so forcefully that the impression of the pen’s tip could be seen on the other side of the paper.
“Well, if you can’t tell me, we can call your dad, and you can talk to him,” I suggested.
I dialed the memorized number.
Gonzo refused to talk to his father. “I’ll work with him,” I said finally to the man in the speaker. “I’ll call you back later.”
I asked the boy to follow me out of the office. Together, we walked around the inner circle of campus, but he still refused to talk. We sat at a picnic table by “The Pit,” and I informed him that we weren’t leaving until he told me what was going on.
I’ve learned if you lay down a challenge to an adolescent, you need to be willing to commit to not giving in. As we sat in the blazing Arizona sun, I soon began to question my challenge and my sanity. I should have grabbed a seat in the shade, I thought to myself. But I was determined to wait as long as we needed.
We baked for an hour.
Finally, Gonzo let out a sigh and grumbled, “Can we go now?”
“When you explain to me what your problem is, then we will go.”
He sighed once more. “I hate my father!” he blurted. He held his head in his hands. I couldn’t tell if the moisture on his face was tears or sweat or both.
I said nothing. A few moments passed, and then Gonzo opened up. “We’re not moving to California, and we’re not staying here. Dad changed his mind. He found a new house, and he’s staying at the car shop. I have to go back to Albuquerque this summer and work for him. I hate him!”
Another moment of silence. Then another outburst. “I hate Marguerite too!” he exclaimed. “She don’t want me no more!” I noticed the giant red heart was scrubbed from his arm.
I let the young man compose himself and then suggested we take another walk around the school’s interior.
As we approached the eighth-grade building, we paused a minute.
“Look, kid,” I began. “You’ve missed Duarte’s class today. I want you to start over with her tomorrow. You only have a week more with her anyway. Go to your last class now and stay out of trouble.” I paused and then added, “Things’ll work out. They’ll get better in time.”
“Right,” he snorted, unconvinced. “I ain’t never gonna be a race car driver. I’m just going to be a dumb ol’ mechanic!”
“No,” I replied. “You’re going to learn all you can about cars from your ‘smart old mechanic’ father, and then I’ll be watching you someday in the future on TV – live from the Indy 500 – holding up your winner’s cup. I can just hear you now, ‘I’d like to thank Mr. Ramsey for helping me build up these muscles with so many chairs so that I can actually lift this thing!'”
Gonzo rolled his eyes and smiled. “You’re crazy,” he said as he headed for his reading class.
“You got that right,” I said with a smile. I walked back to my office. I winced as I touched my sunburned scalp. It was worth it, I said to myself.
Copyright, Tim Ramsey, 2016.
(This story received first place honors in the 2017 Teachers as Writers Contest for the Arizona English Teachers Association).