Donald Williams is an eleven-year-old wannabe player. Nattily dressed in his pressed uniform shirt and navy slacks; he has ultra-confidence and a razor sharp wit. Even at four feet tall, his ghetto stroll is a refined dance that floats him from school bus, to school entrance, to cafeteria seat, as he saddles behind a lonely looking sixth grade girl in the cafeteria during breakfast, and skillfully shoulder-leans his way into her conversation. He is as adroit with all three Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic), as he is with making middle school girls blush.
This morning, I am perched in the doorframe of my doorless classroom, clutching a cup of coffee while mumbling my obligatory “good mornings” at the children, as they run from the busses to the cafeteria for breakfast. Two weeks into the school year, I’ve developed mostly positive relationships with students. I say “good morning.” The kids smile back. Some give me hugs. Everything is becoming routine.
Donald saddles down the steps and comes straight into my classroom. Deferring breakfast, he beelines to the back of the class. Something is off. The swagger, the stroll, the grin are all gone. He sits quietly for a few moments, and after I somewhat absently greet Donald, I continue the the sing-song “good mornings,” belted aimlessly into the hallway.
“Why don’t you go on and get breakfast?” I ask.
“I don’t feel like it.” Donald says.
I ask him if he’s okay.
“I said I don’t feel like it.”
By this point, Donald’s entire body is tightly wound, his face a scowl, exaggerated by his gap toothed overbite. I walk toward him carefully, gripping the coffee cup in my left hand. My right hand reaches out toward him, in a reticent attempt to comfort.
A final prod: “Donald, you can tell me if something is wrong.”
Donald sticks his chin up at me, while scrunching up his nose. His eyes narrowed.
He breathed in deeply, and spit out a shrill, chilling “fuck!”
He now stands, and with his full-on thug swagger restored, he walks across the classroom screaming a litany of his favorite four-lettered.
“Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck all of you!”
With this, he walks toward me. His head falls, his eyes sink deeper, and all forty-some inches of him collapse in a pile surrounding my legs. He shoots out an arm that grasps my waist. Pressing his face into my knees, he sobs uncontrollably. At this moment, students begin to flood in, quietly watching the spectacle with an unusual quiet acceptance of his erratic behavior. I look around for help. I’m surrounded by eleven year olds.
I crouch down and pick up the puddle that is now Donald. Kneeling close to his face I ask him what’s happened. Donald collects himself, wiping tears, and begins strutting his now highly affected pimp stride through the classroom. He puffs his tiny chest out, and sticks his chin straight into the air. A little rooster, putting on a show.
“Didn’t you see the news? Didn’t you watch the fucking news?” Donald asks.
I must’ve missed it. Since beginning teaching, I had been busy reinventing the term “workaholic,” logging on average some 17 hours a day. I changed my homepage to The New York Times for the simple comfort that if a major world event did in fact occur, I hopefully would notice the headlines before logging in to my email account.
“Rodney. Rodney Williams, did you hear about Rodney Williams?”
I don’t know who Rodney Williams is, or why he is so significant. A father? Brother? Cousin? Friend?
In a moment of clarity, Donald composes himself, stands straighter. Looking at me calmer now, he simply says, “He’s gone. He’s fucking gone.” Donald collapses again, my waist and slacks his pillow. Donald’s favorite four lettered words are sobbed into my knee caps.
I go on attempting to teach math class, reading, and homeroom. Donald refuses to leave my classroom. He sits through three consecutive, identical math classes, attempting to follow along for a little bit, before the collapsing, wailing, and cussing.
During my planning period, I search for the local news article about Rodney. Rodney was murdered last night, outside his family’s home. Donald was there. Rodney was Donald’s older brother.
Only a few weeks into the school year, it had been made painfully clear that the administration did not care for teacher “complaints” about student behavior. I decided to notify our principal of what has happened anyway.
Minnie Walker, a black woman in her late sixties, is a long-winded Christian woman who has been “saving lives” in the inner city for over forty years. Always immaculately dressed and coiffed, she wears the master set of keys for the school around her neck. Her way of speaking is circular, a pattern that undulates between an emphatic preaching of the gospel and the recurring phrase, “We save children’s lives here. Their lives.” I tell Mrs. Walker, matter-of-factly, what has occurred, “I think Donald might have seen his brother die last night. I think he might need some help.”
Mrs. Walker looks thoughtful, shakes her head, and replies, “Another one? Yeah, these kids see a lot. That’s too bad, another kid gone. But Donald feels safe with you. Let’s leave him in your classroom for now.”
“All day?” I ask. Selfishly, I’m horrified just thinking that I might have to endure weeks straight of waist-hugging, fuck-screaming Donald.
“Just for a few weeks, until he feels a little more… acclimated.”
I ask if there’s someone he can talk to. Mrs. Walker refers me to our school counselor, Mr. Smitts. Smitts is a balding white man who wears an oversized Chiefs jacket paired with acid-wash jeans and a fanny pack. He’s consistently equipped with a Bluetooth piece hanging off his ear. He is never seen without a giant Quik Trip mug. I coax Donald to come with me to meet with Mr. Smitts. Initially, Donald refuses. Eventually he agrees, as long as I stay with him during the session. So we enter Smitts’s tiny office. The dark, cinderblock office has only two chairs. Smitts takes his own chair, and looks at Donald and me, trying to determine who to seat.
“Well Donald, are you going to offer the lady a seat?” Smitts says.
I decline, but Donald insists, half smiles, says “ladies first,” and slumps against the wall, legs straddled to the side.
Smitts begins the session, “You know, I’ve recently lost a brother too.”
Donald immediately begins to narrow his eyes and glare at Smitts. Such an angry young boy.
“No, you didn’t just lose a brother,” Donald snarls at Smitts.
Smitts, clearly a middle-aged man in his fifties, looks down to Donald and explains to him that he had indeed just lost a brother, to a long fight with cancer. He tells Donald he understands what it means to lose someone.
“You don’t understand shit,” he screams. This time, I agree with Donald, as he regresses into one of his fits, arms again locking themselves around my waist. His head is thrown back. Sobs. We leave the office. I feel defeated. Smitts simply shrugs.
We continue this pattern for weeks; Donald has periodic tantrums and rarely leaves my classroom. Eventually, the middle school team of teachers persuades him to attempt going to his other classes, and he slowly returns to a normal routine. His erratic tantrums, though less frequent, don’t completely disappear. Instead, the grief no longer shows, the same sense of loss and misunderstanding. No more tears and hugs. In their place, a deeply rooted anger takes hold. The kind of anger that masks the wit, the flirtation, the smirk that once defined Donald Williams.
I speak with Mrs. Williams on the phone several times, expressing my sympathies. She always talks in a fragile, brittle voice, and seems genuinely grateful that someone has called. She promises each time that when she finds a ride she will come up to school to check on Donald, encourage him to do better. She never arrives. Frustrated, I call her and ask if a home visit would be more appropriate. She agrees.
Several days later, I am heading to the Williams’ home. My mother, a social worker nearby, agrees to follow me, just in case. From the school’s block, we travel farther east, farther into the blighted belly of the East Side. On the drive, I think about the rumors I’ve been hearing about the Williams. Other students call Donald’s mother a crack head. Veteran teachers in the building warn me about her unpredictable demeanor. “She can be a handful,” they caution with a nod and a hushed tone in the hallway. I again think about her friendly voice, her enthusiasm over the phone. The house, tall and blue with a sickly porch, is a typical midwestern shirt-waist, a pre-WWII Kansas City family home. I walk up the stairs and knock on the door. I hear the muffled sounds of a TV inside. Donald’s voice is shouting repeatedly, “Ma, it’s my teacher.”
Photo by massmatt