As I hear about the fiscal cliff every day, I can’t help but think about my student Henry. He had his own cliff he was about to go over, and it took many people in the proverbial village to pull him back from the edge.
Henry lived with his mother for the first nine years of his life. They lived in a big city, where his mom spent most of her time drunk, high, and passed out on the couch living off of the welfare system. Every one-to-three weeks, a new “uncle” came to live with them. Most of them gave very little attention to Henry. When they did give him attention, it was usually in the form of abuse. He hung out with drug dealers, users, and drunks. He was absent from school more often than he was there. When he did show up to school, he often appeared to be hung-over, fell asleep, or instigated a fight.
After nine years, Henry’s mother decided she had done her job, and she was finished. So, she packed Henry up, drove to our small town, dropped Henry off on the front step of the town bar where his father was the bartender and told him, “You take the son-of-a-b**** now. I’m sick of him.” She threw out his small overnight bag and drove out of Henry’s life. When his mother dropped him off, Henry was a 9-year old alcoholic with a habit of smoking a half a pack of cigarettes a day.
His father, step-mother and he lived in the tiny house attached to the back of the bar. He could barely read at a first grade level. He had a mouth worse than a sailor. He was full of anger, and had serious abandonment issues. However, with the insistence of his father, Henry showed up to school every day, even though few children were encouraged to play with him.
After several attempts to help him adjust to his new life both at home and in school had failed, Henry qualified for my classroom. I adored him from the first day he stepped into my life in the fifth grade. Several teachers told me they didn’t think he was able to be saved and I shouldn’t feel bad if I failed too.
We started with my highly structured management system, and an intensive phonics program to help him learn to read. He struggled with this in addition to his abandonment issues and his alcoholism. He had a hard time making friends with kids his own age, but to those who were older than him, he fit right in. They got drunk at night, smoked cigarettes, and refused to follow rules. Soon, he was smoking dope and stealing what he could from the bar. He was getting himself into all kinds of trouble.
His dad and step-mother were very supportive of my program, and did what they could to help Henry and me. However, they also drank and had little control over Henry when he was at home. I never doubted that these parents cared very much for their son. But, as I have come to realize in the years I’ve been a teacher, caring about someone doesn’t mean you know how to care for someone. They are two very different kinds of actions.
One bitter-cold January night, Henry was found passed out lying in a snowdrift with his pants down around his ankles. He was twelve. Luckily, the police found him before he froze. It was a wake-up call for his parents.
Check back next week to find out what happened to Henry and his parents.
Be kinder than necessary, be grateful, and have a peace-filled week,
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