One of my favorite students is Brax. He was quiet and calm early in the year. Around a third grade reading level, he told me chapter books were much too hard for him, and that he liked books with pictures. When he got his first Diary of a Wimpy Kid book in his hand, he read ferociously. He devoured one after the other, and refused to read anything else.
Then he ran out. He didn’t understand (did I ever tell him?) that those books are at a fifth grade level, and the smaller, unillustrated books I often put into his hands were two or three levels below that. It all boils to appearances, I guess.
I didn’t know much about Brax in the beginning, besides his reading level and the painstaking slowness is his writing. He finishes everything last, if he finishes. Obsessively keeps the tip of his pencil sharp, and is a great writer but is never able to complete more than three sentences. As the year goes on, and he understands my expectations well enough for his behavior to crumble in an attempt to mask his personal doubt, I’ve slowly learned more about him.
Brax’s dad is dead.
Brax lives with his aunt.
Brax has low self-esteem.
Brax is smart, and despite his low reading level will remember basically anything from class.
When Brax participates, he has the right answer.
Brax is much more confident telling the right answer under his breath while another student is answering incorrectly than just volunteering to share the right answer in the first place.
Brax has gotten into trouble. The office slip says “illegal substances.”
Brax thinks he is stupid. (His words.)
Brax’s dad isn’t dead, he’s in prison.
Brax’s mom is around, too, and has three other kids.
Brax is her only child that doesn’t live with her.
Brax’s mom had severe postpartum depression when Brax was born, so he went to live with his aunt and uncle.
Brax’s mom’s response to Brax getting into drugs is, “They should just lock him up. That boy ain’t nothin but trouble.”
Brax’s mom treats Brax differently than her other kids.
Brax’s mom wants nothing to do with Brax.
It was Brax’s uncle, not his dad, an uncle that raised him with his aunt, that died.
Brax never recovered.
His prescriptions have changed a lot over the year. Currently it’s anti-depressants in the morning, ritalin in the afternoon. He refuses to do any homework. Once when I sent an essay home it came back in his aunt’s writing. I’ve kept him for an entire block more than once, during which he wrote nothing. He’s called his aunt from school. His aunt has sat with him through a class. This week, we had a conference with his aunt, counselor, the vice principal and myself. Today Brax spent the last five minutes of my class calling out from his separated seat, “I want my two dollars back! I didn’t get any pizza at the pizza party [that we had before Christmas break, two months ago]! I want my two dollars! Y’all tryin to rip me off! I want my two dollars!” It left a lingering like a stab wound. He wasn’t trying to be funny. His defiance isn’t silly or funny or cute like some kids. It’s desperate. It has an ache in it.
As he called this out, I pulled an office slip and completed it on his desk. He refused to look at it, talking about his two dollars.
He spent all of class prior to the pizza reminder writing “I don’t know” on every single blank we completed. Anything that was multiple choice he got right. He knows all the answers, he just doesn’t believe that he could ever get anything right. He does not believe he can succeed. At this point he’s infinitely more scared of success than failure.
When Brax finally left my class, I was nearly in tears. There is nothing I want more this week than to show this boy how much I believe in him, to show this boy what he is capable of. Brax is so worthwhile, so creative, so funny and interesting and sweet. But he doesn’t believe any of it, any of us. His depression is toxic and pervasive. His interest in life is nonexistent.
I spent my entire first period attempting different ways to engage him, to trick him into just completing the work, but it somehow just enabled him to do less, to call out more, to disrupt my entire class and my train of thought for the hour he’s with me. As he and the rest of the class walked out, I consciously reminded myself that this is not personal, this has nothing to do with me besides the fact that I don’t let him do nothing. This is not a personal attack. This is not a personal failure, it’s a test of endurance. I have to prove to him that I will not stop caring, I will not stop trying, and even if he fails the sixth grade I will still be telling him how smart he is.
I thought for a while that he was only doing this with me, that it was a personality conflict, but I got his progress reports today and in science he has a 54%. I haven’t looked at any others.
I can’t lose this kid. No matter how much success I see anywhere else, I can’t lose him. But the more I think about it, the more I think I never had him in the first place.