“I have to go handle a situation,” the boy blurted out from the back, interrupting class. He stood up and headed towards the front–not the back door– unconsciously signaling that he needed my help. The back door was closer to his seat.
“What are you talking about? You can’t leave class,” I chided. His response was to show me his phone, where an anonymous number spouted racial epithets against this African-American, fifteen-year-old, New York City public-school student.
He protested, tried to move around me, but he did not go to the back door of the classroom. He still wanted me to see. Despite being the man of his single-mother home, he wasn’t man of the classroom. Especially in the face of a tight behavioral management team that year, enforced by my co-teacher and me. Then, something changed. His face went blank. He panicked. “I need to see the dean,” he said, urgency in his voice now. “I need to get the dean.”
The texter : “I’m going to come there and shoot you.”
I think he said that. He definitely said he was going to shoot this student, but it was a blur after that text. I went into military mode. “You don’t handle it,” I demanded. “You are MY student, and I HANDLE IT,” I nearly screamed. I couldn’t think about myself. I went numb. I put myself between him and the door. I wouldn’t move. He didn’t touch me. I told him over and over again, “You are MY student, and I need you here, now.” I told him I had a marketing club I needed him to attend in the afternoons. I needed him to have a purpose here at school. Later, that would seem like a rookie move.
I finally said, “You don’t get the dean. I get the dean. Sit down, now.” I kept at it, but he wouldn’t budge. “Sit down,” I commanded. Then the bell rang.
He slipped past me with the other students. Luckily, a dean was in the next room. I yelled at the dean and pointed, “You need to go talk to him NOW. NOW!”
Blind to my urgency, he asked, “What happened?”
“He’s getting text messages saying someone will shoot him,” I said. The dean ran down the hall, pushing students out of the way.
Fury boiled in this student. He breathed in and out in large puffs that could have blown a newspaper boat across the Central Park Reservoir. He shook. His tall, athletic body containing a tornado of fury, a natural disaster brewing inside a teenage boy. This was his first day in my classroom.
His male peers crowded around the dean. I taught at a top magnet school in NYC; we created future doctors through an NYU partnership. Were the rest of the students so concerned with getting to class that they didn’t care if they got shot? One of his peers spit out a drink all over the hallway after reading the text. The bell rang again, and I did what I had to do. I taught another period of English.
I didn’t know what was going on for that last period. I was on a cortisol high. I was overwhelmed, but I was competent, and I held it together. I went to my union representative at the end of the day, shaking and clutching my notebook, to timidly say, “Um. Um, I think I just stopped a school shooting.”
“Wait whaaaat?” he replied. There were police everywhere in the building. No one had come to tell us teachers what was going on, but no one had enforced a lockdown, either. The deans were overwhelmed that day with traffic and mayhem. I thought all of it was because of the shooting scare. None of it was for the shooting scare. That was completely ignored.
My union representative told me he had been trained by the Army and knew what to do. “Breath,” he said. “Breath and tell me what happened.” Going to the union about school matters was the equivalent of tattling on your supervisor. It meant grievances could be filed and admin jobs could be cut. It meant publicity and bad news and, ultimately, it made any teacher who is untenured a prime target for professional tanking. But guns changed everything. Guns made death real. Guns ended our everything.
Schools did not want to write up these incidents, I was told by the school. Because it made the schools look unsafe. And that made ratings and enrollment drop. Ultimately, this all made admin look bad, and most of an untenured teacher’s job relied on his or her ability to make management look capable.
I sat there, shaking in front of the union representative next to the principal’s office, wondering what had happened to my life, what wrong choice I made to lead me there. I wondered what had happened to my student’s life when the union rep said, “It was a prank.” They named the prankster. He had never been seen and never was in our school.
I went downstairs to see the child, because no matter how black or tall or athletic or male he was, fifteen is still childhood. He was surrounded by friends and a kind dean talking him down. They waved me off anxiously. To them, I was “extra” and I “cared too much.” I’d tell them it was my job to be “extra.” Later in the year, I’d make deals with these boys and promise to be less “extra” if they did their work. One student said I was “too nice.”
Another said, “Why should she change her personality because others are mean?” I never had a problem playing “bad guy” to get a student to learn, and I realized part of being a good teacher was being uncool. Even deeply, profoundly, uncool.
I gave the homework to this young man, knowing he had grown up too much that day, knowing that this world wanted him erased. Knowing today’s real lesson was trust and survival, and knowing he had to fight so much more than I ever did to make it. I said, “If he does anything at all, he gets an ‘A’ on it.” But I knew I could only make that deal for today. Because he had to learn how to make it. Because, truthfully, so much of him was already so grown. Because our schools expect our young black men to just handle it. I could barely handle it. During that year, and all the professional attacks from the administration, I threw up three times a week. I eventually quit.
Students cannot quit their schools.
Michelle Renee Hoppe holds a B.A. in English from Brigham Young University, where she edited two literary journals and ran a nonprofit. She works with the nonprofits The Kite Zine and Teach North Korean Refugees as a strategist. She holds a partial degree in special education from City College. She is the Founder of Capable Magazine, which is a new publication dedicated to stories of disability and illness.
Anyone interested in contributing content or donations to Capable Magazine can contact Michelle Renee here: firstname.lastname@example.org.