They sat around me, sprawled on crudely-carved, graffiti filled desks with small metal and wood chairs. It was nearing the last day or so of the school year and this particular group of students didn’t want to leave. It was the last period of the day, and I sat on a desk with my feet on a chair in front of me.
“Mr. Reilly, we just want you to know that it’s not your fault.” said Billy, the leader of the group. It was sort of strange that these particular boys were hanging out in my classroom, for they had been the students that had gotten the least out of my class, and school in general. They were common visitors to the principal’s office and denizens of detention.
Biily continued, “We’re screw ups. There was no way you were going to teach us.” he smiled at me. The others smiled too.
“We know you tried, Mr. Reilly” now they became a little more serious. “You’re not so bad for a teacher.” The others nodded agreement.
“Guys, you aren’t screw ups. You’re good kids.” I responded reflexively.
“No, no; none of us like school. It’s so boring. You tried to make it interesting; but we didn’t need half the stuff you tried to teach us.”
Kevin chimed in, “I liked the books we read.”
Michael added,”I liked the goofy music you played and the poetry”.
I shook my head, “You guys are pretty smart. Why did you make it so hard on yourselves?”
It struck me how kind they were. How appreciative. They accepted the consequences of their actions, they were peaceful with their plight. They weren’t angry or holding grudges, because they felt they had been treated fairly. It was like they were professionals at this…no hard feelings…business is business. You were being you – “teacher” and we were being us – “screw ups”.
But they weren’t screw ups. They were really nice kids with good senses of humor. They were just completely out of place in school. They had other, more important things going on in their lives. If you saw them outside of school, you’d be amazed at their competence and confidence.
“Let me look under the hood Mr. Reilly.” I think I see what the problem is. Let me fix it.” and sure enough Billy reached in to the bowels of the complex machine that was my car and began to work.
Any of them could tell you where to hunt, point out the quiet fishing hole where trout gathered on the edge of the frothing current, or where to lay a trap in a hidden Adirondack bog. In the fall, when the bullhead were plentiful one of them would catch a dozen and bring them to me wrapped in plastic. I remember pushing aside the brown lunch bags in the teachers’ refrigerator in the faculty room to make space for them.
These were the school rejects, the poor kids. They were like a Greek chorus in my teaching life because they were so real. They weren’t going to “play” school like the others. They weren’t going to “pretend” this was important to them. I could count on them reflecting back to me the best and worst of my teaching. If I was at my best I would see them engaged fully. Anything less, anything that was not relevant, not well planned, not taught well; and they would find something else to keep them busy. Generally, something that got them in trouble.
They are all grown men now. I suspect that some must have children of their own. They are frozen in time for me, in my life’s memory. So many students entered and left my life; but these, the professionals, remain. They represent the best of those I taught. My Huck Finns, My Greek Chorus; too young to really be my friends; but always my soul mates.