A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing: A Reading Lesson

“We will do anything to keep the wolves of insignificance from our door.”

—Saul Bellow

His name was Charlie. He was a fighter. He liked it, and he was good at it. But he never contended for a championship, unless you count the time he decked the reigning seventh-grade toughie, just outside of Mr. Clarke’s math class. Actually it was that fight that landed him in my class, an alternative education experiment on the campus of a large Orlando middle school. He was short for his age, but his inability to tell the difference between a fraction and a whole number meant that by the time he arrived in my class he was two years older than his classmates. His sandy red hair and freckles gave him a deceptively gentle roguish look; however, Charlie seemed to have a permanent chip on both of his bony little shoulders. He was angry with the world and didn’t mind expressing it, mostly with his fists.

Apparently my job was to somehow adjust the anxiety knobs on his head and get him back in education’s mainstream, but clearly both of us were frustrated. First, I couldn’t find the knobs, and then I didn’t know which way to turn them. I was lost. The behaviorist recommended some kind of incentive-laden contingency contract, so together Charlie and I identified what he was willing to work for, and figured out a plan to get it. Before the ink dried on the contract, Charlie was picking another fight.

Perhaps the cognitivists had an answer. They suggested we probably needed to “talk it out,” to have Charlie reflect on his behavior and make a value judgment. They held that long-term behavioral change happens from the inside out and is generally grounded in solid and authentic human relationships. That notion appealed to some of the “angels of my better nature,” but my reserves in the milk of human kindness were drying up. The truth was that I really didn’t like Charlie. He was mouthy and mean, but I was now his teacher. Somehow I had to summon what Parker Palmer called, “the courage to teach,” and I really tried, at least from the neck up. Recalling my religious commitments, I plastered on my best insurance-salesman smile, and dutifully had a series of one-way conversations with this little troublemaker. Not surprisingly, these “talks” were just as successful as my fancy behavioral contracts. Charlie and I settled into an uncomfortable truce based loosely on a proven deterrent, mutually assured destruction. If he was not successful in my class, his next stop was juvenile hall, and he knew I could make that happen.

One morning, we had a new student added to my small class of “atypical,” “socially maladjusted” kids (in those days we tried out a bunch of creative things to call these children, but rarely did we call them what they were—children). Daisy was a shy, introverted eighth-grader who had been involved in a tragic automobile accident with her father. He was killed instantly, but it took some time to extract him and her from the wreckage. Unfortunately, Daisy never lost consciousness. The unspeakable things she witnessed that afternoon left a huge scar on her psyche. Traumatized beyond what most can endure, Daisy withdrew even further—the painful memories clogging her ability to communicate. Words were trivial. This child knew so much about violence and death that no nouns or verbs offered adequate description. To cope, Daisy chose not to speak, likely aphasia due to post-traumatic stress disorder. After a short stay in the hospital that patched up her physical wounds, she was assigned to my class while her emotional health was mending. She would need this time to transition back into the Darwinian hallways of a sprawling urban middle school where kids like Charlie preyed on the weak and wounded. Right now, Daisy was an easy mark.

After a few days, she seemed to feel safe in my room and soon signaled her readiness to communicate with more than smiles and gestures. With Daisy in mind, I told the class I needed to know each of them and their families better. To do that, I asked them to draw their family and illustrate occupations, hobbies, connections, and so on, and then to explain the illustrations. Daisy and I agreed that she would write her explanation, and when she was done we might talk about it privately. Charlie and three other square-pegged children were working on one side of the room, and I was helping another when I saw him get up. Charlie headed for the pencil sharpener, not far from where Daisy was working on her drawing.

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