I was watching some more of Tavis Smiley's Too Important to Fail series and the current 90-second clip that is up shows the same panel of young black male offenders that led me to find my student from first grade. He is in this clip also although he doesn't say anything. The young man next to him, however, talks about how he didn't pay attention because he was traumatized (the interviewer's word, not his) by his sister being killed in front of him. He goes on to say that he thinks most black boys in his neighborhood had similar experiences (I agree). Then one of the other kids said that when he was in fourth grade, his teacher told him he wouldn't amount to anything and he gave up.
I am pretty positive that I've made a huge number of mistakes and bad judgment calls in my years of teaching but I am confident that I did this one thing right: I never said that to a child. I never called a kid bad. I never told a child I hated him or her, and I never said that they wouldn't amount to anything. Never.
Most years, I'd ask the class, during the first week of school, to close their eyes and put their heads down. then I would ask them to raise their hands if they had ever been called bad. Usually over half the class raised their hands, and it was a rare year when every African American boy didn't. I would repeat the same thing for "worthless" and "a problem." Then I would tell the kids some version of this:
"I will get mad at you. I may yell at you even though I don't think that's a good idea, and I will get frustrated. But I want you to know right now that I love you even when I'm mad. It's my job to take care of you while you're here and I will never ever call you bad. If any grown-up has called you that before, they were wrong. You might have made a bad decision. You might have done something (or a lot of things) that hurt people. But you are not bad."
Apparently it worked, because there was more than one occasion when I was really, really angry at a kid and they said, right to my face, "I know you yelling at me because you care about me, not because you think I'm bad." (I'd like to think that if I went back to the classroom today I wouldn't yell at all, but I'm not positive."
So, at least my student who ended up on this documentary had that. And, fortunately for him, as difficult as he was, I wasn't the only teacher in his life - at least in elementary school - to go out of my way to show him that, even though he was driving us crazy, he wasn't bad and there was hope. I hope it helped, just a little.