For high school teachers, the Student Behavior Referral Form is perhaps the most popular and mostly used document in the world of education. This is because the “referral” provides the most powerful form of leverage teachers have in dealing with unruly and defiant students. When used judiciously and appropriately, it allows teachers to formally dismiss a student from their class for a certain length of time, depending on the severity of the kid’s behavior. A dismissal can range from just the remainder of the period to a one-week suspension. In the most extreme cases, a referral could potentially lead to student expulsion.
Ask any teacher and they’ll tell you that getting rid of that “one kid” is a game changer in terms of maintaining classroom management and creating a safe and effective learning environment for all students. If you have trouble picturing this, just imagine a kid wielding a knife in a crowded classroom and every student in this class cowering and nervous and completely aware of the knife and the kid. Imagine the tension level. Now, imagine the kid with the knife being removed from the class for good, no longer to ever return. Imagine the peace. There you go. This is what it’s like to get rid of that “one kid.”
Of course, because of its quick-fix quality, some teachers are keen on overusing the referral, often gratuitously. The power-struggle between a teacher and unruly kid can go on for some time, and when it does, resentment is born, causing the teacher to continually dismiss a kid just because he doesn’t like him. It happens. This behavior is no different than when a second grader gives candy to all her classmates, except to that “one kid,” because she doesn’t like him. Addressing the same problem child for 180 days would shrink anyone’s heart.
In my thirteen-year career as an English teacher (I am no longer a mainstream teacher), I had hundreds of reasons to write several referrals. I didn’t, though. This is because my patience level, for some reason, is almost Buddha-like. I don’t know from where it came, but I am blessed with a respectable level of tolerance and patience. In thirteen-years of dealing with vampires, kids that can suck the soul right out of a person, I pride myself on only writing two referrals in my thirteen-years as a mainstream teacher. Oh, believe me, I had those fucking forms filled-out and signed and ready to be delivered, but there was always a reason, a voice gently imploring me to refrain from doing so.
However, I gave in twice. One of the referrals, at least I believe, had legitimate cause. It was the last day of school, and during these last few weeks of classes, I had received two, telephoned death threats. When Alex said to me on the last day of school as he walked out of class, “Watch your back, Mr. C. You might get shot,” all while pointing a fake finger gun at me, I naturally balked and fell into self-defense mode. I reported it to our administrative team. The kid and his parents were brought in for a formal meeting, which ultimately resulted in Michael’s expulsion from the district. I saw him a few years later when I went to Little Cesar’s to get pizza for my class. He was the cashier. We remembered each other, and no hard feelings were had. I should’ve asked if he graduated. I hope he did.
Maybe Michael’s referral was warranted. His was the second I had ever written. Manny’s was the first. Manny was a pain in the ass of the highest order. He came to class prepared to test me every single day, and I absorbed his behavior and his remarks and his defiance. I was not going to let him beat me. He was a wannabe gangbanger, and he was always decked out in the standard Cholo uniform: oversized white T-shirt, oversized gray jeans, Nike Cortez, shaved head, and little starter mustache. His school supplies were rolled into a small tube and shoved into the back pocket of his 501’s, with a black pen clipped to the lip of the front pocket. It was all he ever brought to school, and in his eyes, it was all he ever needed.
When Manny said something like, “Fuck this shit! I ain’t moving. This is my seat!” I would ignore him. I’d wait a minute or so, then shoot him a look, just to let him know I hadn’t forgot about him. We’d lock eyes, and then he’d move back to his seat. When he was twenty-minutes late to our fifth period class, the class after lunch, I’d ask, “You got a pass?” “I was in the bathroom,” he’d say. Then he would sit at his seat, and look around to see what everyone was doing. He’d then pull out his paper and start drawing, and I wouldn’t stop him. When he’d say, “I don’t get it,” after I had just explained subject-verb agreement, and I’d look to him, sort of relieved that he was asking for help, only to notice that he was drawing a picture of Mickey Mouse smoking a joint, I’d look away and ignore him. He knew what he was doing, but I did, too.
Manny was reacting to something, but I could not figure it out. He was angry, but I could not tell why?
I must’ve tried every geometrical, data driven seating assignment possible for Manny, but wherever I sat him, he always found a way to fuck things up, whether it was tagging on a desk, talking across the room, banging his head against the closet, or just straight up mad-dogging me. It was always something with Manny.
At the semester, I had Manny moved into my sixth period class. I figured that he might benefit from a change of scenery, different faces and personalities. Nothing changed, though, but because it was sixth period, I was able to keep him for after-school detention, something I began to do more often than not.
I was also the school’s yearbook adviser, so I usually had students in my class working on their assignments long after the day was done. During after school detention, Manny sat right in front of the class, as everybody around him worked on their yearbook assignments.
As a teacher back then, I never really used a desk. I liked it this way. Instead, I sat in a chair with wheels and used the student desk in the first row as my home, even when there was a kid sitting there. They never seemed to mind. In sixth period, this desk belonged to Manny, but it was also mine. We shared what little space there was on that little desk, but we also shared the immediate space around us. There was nowhere for him to look other than at my face, and he couldn’t get up and wander because I was always there to remind him that it was a bad idea. I wasn’t mean about it. I didn’t have to be. He didn’t like being there, and he probably figured that if he cooperated, then maybe I’d let him move to another desk. Nevertheless, I kept him after class for nor more than fifteen-minutes, almost on a daily basis. I tried to talk with him, but it was almost futile.
At some point, Manny’s case became personal. I let it get to me, but I couldn’t help it. He began to occupy my mental downtime, time I reserve for not thinking about anything that has to do with teaching. I found myself thinking about him on my drives to and from work. I talked to my girlfriend Jennifer about him. I brought him up with friends. Manny was a rash, and he wasn’t going away.
I take full responsibility for allowing this to happen. I could’ve walked away. A referral cycle would’ve gotten him out of everyone’s hair, and with two-weeks left in the school year, the quality of my own life would’ve greatly improved. Nevertheless, I kept on. I needed to know what was at the center of his conflict. What was it that was causing his rebellion? There was something at work here, and I was determined to find the source. I just didn’t know any better.
One day, with a week left in school, I was sitting directly in front of him, sharing a desk with him. Keep in mind that there were thirty-seven other desks in the room, but we were both sharing one. He was sitting in the built-in chair, and I was on my roller. There was peripheral action going on, as kids were working on their yearbook assignments, while other kids were coming in and out for cameras and pens and questions. But I sat there with Manny, doing my best to strike up even a semblance of dialogue.
I was working on my roll sheets, and Manny had his head down. After a while, I turned around, jumped off my chair, and erased the whiteboard. It had just gotten installed, and I liked that it was easy to clean (teachers are easy). When I was done, I jumped back into the chair and rolled right up to Manny’s desk, our desk. “So how’s your brother?” I asked. I had no knowledge of Manny’s having a brother. I was just asking, and I don’t know why I asked this particular question. He had his head down, but when I asked, he lifted it so that I could see his face. He looked tired, and his eyes were bloodshot and saggy, as if being a full-time asshole was tiring him. He looked like he was barely hanging on. “How do you know I have a brother?” he asked. I was surprised he answered, to be honest. “I don’t. I was just asking. Do you have a brother?” I asked. Manny kept his head up. He was rubbing his eyes. He was never this engaged. I had gotten his attention. “Yeah,” he said reluctantly. “He’s older or younger?” “He’s a senior,” Manny said. Manny was a junior. “Oh, cool! So you have an older brother then? He comes here?” I asked.” “Nah, he goes to Glen,” Manny said.” “What?” I said. “He goes to Glen and you come here? What’s up with that?” “Nah, it’s cuz they have like the things he needs and the classes he needs over there,” Manny said. “Oh,” I said. “Alright. Cool.”
Wow! I casted one final, desperate line, barely baited, and Manny took it. With one-week left in the school year, he fucking took it! I was reeling him, gently and slowly, and he was giving in. I think in this particular moment we were both happy. Both of us had let our guards down a little. We were trucing, and it felt good. We were both aware of it, too. Judging from his answers, Manny felt relieved.
“Oh, he’s a smart kid then, like GATE (gifted kids), and he’s in A.P. and all that shit, huh?” I asked. This is what I genuinely thought. I figured maybe Manny was pissed because he was the “dumb” one and his brother was the “smart” one, and that his parents favored his brother over Manny and he was pissed off about it…simple as that. “Nah, he’s a mute,” Manny said, “and they have special classes for him over there.”
Oh, shit! Things were coming together. Manny was beginning to have reasonable doubt. “Oh, damn. He’s mute? That’s crazy! So you know sign language then, huh?” I asked. Manny looked down a little. “Nah, I don’t know sign language. He’s a deaf, too. He can’t talk,” Manny said.
I was taken aback by Manny’s revelations, and then I knew immediately why Manny was so angry at life. The one guy that he’s supposed to be able to talk to about sex and girls and cars and movies and sports is a deaf mute! His older brother, his hero, is a deaf mute, and Manny can’t even communicate with him because he never bothered to learn sign language. In this moment, I felt for the guy. I really did. “Damn, dude, I’m sorry. “How come you don’t sign language?” I asked. “I don’t know,” Manny said. “I never learned.” I answered with, “Well, it’s not too late.” “Nah, he said.”
The last four-days of school were the most relaxed days I had had in a while. Manny and I, all of sudden, had a student/teacher relationship. We were like friends. We even talked about stuff during class. We couldn’t talk after school because he no longer earned detention. In the end, I saw Manny express a genuine, unforgiving smile.
Manny taught me a huge lesson. He taught me to never give up on a kid. He taught me that all kids, even the kind and gentle ones, are fighting internal and external forces, some more difficult than others, and that as a teacher, I had to be patient with these kids and try to find the source of their sorrow, if possible, so that we can all move forward. My experience with Manny ranks up there as one of the three greatest experiences of my teaching career. As is usually the case, though, I don’t have an update on Manny’s future. He’s probably thirty-eight-years old by now. I just hope he learned sign language and is talking and listening to his brother, and that his brother is able to do the same with him.