*Names have been changed.
Mike didn’t look like a kid that should be the subject of a blog post about remarkable teens. Mike had issues with authority and dealt with conflict by becoming surly and angry. However, he also defined some of the most interesting moments of my career, and whenever I think about him I smile. I think I would be a different teacher – or at least a different sub – if I had never met Mike. I already wrote one story about him (Drop the Double Standard! …Please?), but I decided it was time to give him his own “Remarkable Teens” post.
I met Mike on my very first day of substitute teaching. I had completed my first year of full-time teaching the year before, but then my husband and I moved to Seattle and subbing was the only work I could find. I worked for the educational division of Kelly Services, so sometimes I knew nothing about the schools where I would sub before I showed up for work that day. Mike attended a small, private school about 30 minutes outside of Seattle, and if I had known that the school catered to high-functioning students with special needs, I might not have agreed to take the job that day. Their student body was filled with various degrees of ADHD, autism, emotional/ behavioral problems, and learning disabilities. I didn’t know any of this until I showed up, but thankfully, the teacher whose classes I was covering was taking a class on a field trip that day, so I had a chance to speak with her before she left. She went over her lesson plans and gave me tips on how to handle certain situations. In particular, she warned me about Mike.
“He might try to give you a hard time,” she said. “If he does, remind him that his actions are his choice – he’ll know you got that from me. Just write down whatever he does and I’ll deal with it when I get back.”
Mike came in during 3rd period, and I picked him out as soon as he walked in the door. It’s been almost four years, but I can still see that first impression in my mind. Mike was 17 years old, at least six feet tall, maybe taller, with a lanky, but well-built frame. His features and coloring were a unique racial blend that I never really pinpointed, and his dark hair fell to his shoulders. He walked with an easy confidence, his leather backpack slung carelessly over one shoulder. He dropped into his seat with lazy indifference, but never opened his bag. He wasn’t surly or rude to me, but he didn’t do one bit of work in class. Every handout and worksheet went immediately into his backpack, with the line “I don’t do work in class.” Mindful of his teacher’s instructions, I simply reminded him that that was his choice, but I would be informing the teacher of his actions and I was sure that she would still hold him accountable for the assignments. I left it at that.
Because of the nature of the school, even at the high school level the students were required to fill out a homework planner at the end of every period and have it signed by the teacher before they left the room. In the last few minutes of class all the students dutifully filled in their planners and I went around and signed them. When I got to Mike’s desk, not surprisingly, his planner wasn’t out. I smiled and said, “I know you haven’t done any work all period, but could you at least get out your planner so I can sign it for you?”
“Oh, I’ll do it later,” was his flippant reply.
“Mike, there’s two minutes left in class. Do it now.”
At that, he stood up and moved in to tower over my 5’2” build. A hard, threatening edge bit his tone as he said, “Don’t get short with me.”
If I had been given this scenario in an education class in college, I have no idea how I would have come up with an appropriate response. In the moment, I didn’t think; the words just popped out my mouth without any idea or explanation behind it. If I had been given time to think, I don’t think I could have come up with a better answer, because what I said was,
“Well, I am short, so could you get out your planner?”
Amazingly, he started making light-hearted conversation about how I wasn’t as short as his girlfriend, and all the while he was opening his bag, pulling out his assignment book, and writing in his homework. As the bell rang I scribbled in my signature and he left the room. I breathed a sigh of relief, and since my next period was free period, I had time to write a detailed report of Mike’s behavior for the teacher, including the exchange at the end of class.
After that day I became the favorite sub at that school. Their office always called me first, and sometimes teachers planned their absences based on my availability, so I was at that school a lot. The students came to know me well, and of course, I saw Mike quite a bit. Not only did he never challenge me again, he actually had my back with the other students. When I had trouble keeping a group focused, he would tell them to stop giving me a hard time. When I commented to a class that I take detailed notes for their teachers, his serious tone made me laugh when he said, “You should believe her. She does.” I thought back to the page I had written about him that first day and smiled and nodded.
Mike was a good student to have on my side as a substitute, because his classmates had a wary respect for him. And since he respected me, I had many opportunities to see the positive qualities that resided behind his angry, tough-guy exterior. He was fiercely protective of those he cared about. Despite his refusal to do work that first day, he did actually care about his grades and wanted people to think well of him. While no one ever told me specifics about any of the students, I could often guess what “issue” brought them to the school for students with special needs. I believe Mike attended that school because of an emotional/behavioral problem. He became angry easily, and he was prone to inappropriate outbursts. He could be cruel to his classmates in those moments of frustration, and he definitely struggled with authority issues. However, outside the frustrated moments of passion, he seemed really to care about his friends, and most notably, he was willing to admit when he was wrong. In the time that I knew him, I watched him learn not just academics, but life lessons that I saw him actively apply in later days that I came back and subbed. I won’t retell the story here, but if you haven’t yet, go back and read my post “Drop the Double Standard! …Please?” That story is a wonderful example of what I mean.
I loved working with Mike because he was such an excellent example of the good that comes from seeing past the surface. Every teen has the potential for greatness, even the ones that get up in your face and challenge your authority the first time you meet them. Every teen can learn and grow, even if he presents an image of surly indifference to the world. Mike pushed my boundaries, yes, but as soon as he saw that I could hold to those boundaries without responding in anger, he treated me well. Yes, he tested my authority, but my authority held so much more weight after I passed his test and earned his respect. While I don’t approve of his methods, I don’t think he’s alone in his ideas. I think teenagers -even the most polite and well behaved – want teachers that earn their confidence and respect. I strive to do that in every classroom I enter.