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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

I held on to that door and I held onto my hope.

This story is not gonna sound like a good thing. But be patient and bear with me, I promise there is good here.

A number of years ago, I worked for a middle school in the troubled St. Louis City Public School System. I taught 8th grade. I had 87 eighth graders. 64 of them had DJOs (Deputy Juvenile Officers). There average age was almost 15, not the 13-14 you might expect for 8th grade. Seven of them had been present together when one suffered a fatal gunshot wound to the head the year before; no one really knows if it was an accident. Those boys grew up together, but they belonged to different gangs.

It was an incredibly tough year. It was also the year I found my bliss. The year I finally learned to love teaching more than I hated it every day.

I can't tell you why or when or how it happened, but before that year I wanted OUT of teaching. In fact, I only took that job out of financial desperation. By the end of the year, I wanted IN. I wanted to find a place where I could become better and really dig into my love of teaching.

This story represents one of the most memorable days in this position.

Two young ladies began an altercation just as the day was ending. One, we'll call her Abby, was almost a foot taller than me and heftier as well. The other, we'll call her Chelsea, was about my height, but she was thick, built like a brick. Both these girls had a physical presence, a substance miles beyond my 5'3" 115 pound frame.

Abby and Chelsea had words. I have no idea what was said or who started it or anything. One minute, we were packing up for the day. The next minute, Abby was screaming obscenities at the top of her lungs while three of her friends dragged her out of my room.

The bell rang and everyone took off. Everyone, but Chelsea. Abby was, at least for the moment, swept away in a tide of students ready to go home.

I turned towards Chelsea and said "You have a choice. I can not stop you if you want to go out there and fight. There is nothing I can do about it. But I think you are better than that."

Just as I finished this statement, I heard a noise and turned back towards the door.

The door was closed, but not locked. A mistake I have adamantly and steadfastly refused to make again.

Charging, like an enraged pit bull down the hall towards my door came Abby, mouth open and screaming, first raised, hair flying.

I flew over to the door and got to it a literal split second before she did and grabbed the round doorknob.

In front of me was a large square of safety glass with Abby alternately yanking on the door handle and pounding on the glass with her fist.

I put both hands on that doorknob, propped one heel clad foot (back in the day, I wore a suit and heels to work) on the door frame, and leaned back. I held on for dear life. I held on with everything I had.

I held on to that door and I held onto my hope.

At any moment, Chelsea could have knocked me over with feather, a hard breath, a single finger, from behind. My stance was that precarious.

As Abby spewed invective and continued to pound on the door, I held my breath.

And while Chelsea didn't move out of the door's line of sight, while she didn't refrain from verbal retaliation, she stood rooted to the spot. She made no move towards the door, not one step.

A few seconds or maybe a couple of minutes went by. Abby's friends came and dragged her away by the arm.

That was when I noticed the smoke. The hall seemed to be filling with smoke, almost like fog.

I turned towards Chelsea and said "We need to go. Let's go to your locker first and get your stuff."

She nodded and followed me into the hall to her locker.

The smoke wasn't smoke. It had no smell, no heat. It hung in the air like a cloud.

I opened Chelsea's locker for her. Did I forget to mention it was Chelsea's second or maybe third day of school? Yeah, factor that into the equation...

We grabbed her stuff and I said "We have a choice: we can go out the front door where everyone else is and risk running into Abby, or we can hold our breath and run down the back stairs through whatever this stuff is and I will get you on your bus."

Chelsea looked at me, blinked, and pointed to the stairs.

"Ok, Let's go" I said.

And we did. We ran down those stairs towards the back door, feet clattering in unison.

And burst outside into utter chaos. Most students were still milling around. Two ambulances, lights on, sirens off, sat haphazardly on the asphalt lot, back doors thrown open. Two police cars sat nearby.

I was flabbergasted. What the heck happened? I looked around and couldn't see Abby. So I said "Chelsea, I don't know what is going on, but let's get you on the bus right now."

Her eyes had gone big as saucers. She nodded.

Briskly, we walked across the asphalt lot through the chaos towards Chelsea's bus. As she clambered up the stairs, I informed the bus driver that Chelsea was new, that she had avoided a fight by making good choices, and that she would need a little help making it home without further incident.

The bus driver shrugged and said "Sure, I'll get her home." I thanked her and as I turned to go, Chelsea leaned over the front seat, tapped my shoulder and mumbled "thanks."

Later, I found out what the chaos and the smoke had been. While Abby was melting down another young man, we'll call him Frank, was melting down even more catastrophically.

Frank had gotten angry, grabbed a fire extinguisher off the wall, and proceeded to hose down the main hall, the back stairs, and the courtyard. In the process, he hit one teacher and three students in the face with enough fire extinguisher gunk to warrant hospitalization.

He was arrested, they were carried off in the ambulances, the school was declared safe again.

I went back inside to gather my things, mostly grading to take home, and discovered the pane of safety glass was rattling in its frame. It wasn't until that moment that I felt the fear, adrenaline, and tears pump through my system. I sat at my desk staring into space for almost an hour.

This day is burned in my memory for two reasons.

One, it was AWFUL. Scary and violent and rough.

Two, Chelsea didn't push past me to fight Abby. She didn't run, or scream, or fight. She was better than that. I was right.

And here is the thing that makes Chelsea such a powerfully good memory for me. I didn't know her. She didn't know me. I didn't know she had a diagnosed behavior disorder of such extremity she was never supposed to be in my English class. I didn't know she had a history of violence towards adults.

I didn't know and I didn't care. I took a chance on her and I was right.

It could have gone the other way.

Maybe Chelsea's choices had nothing to do with me. But I like to think that my utter conviction that the choice was hers and she was better than the brewing fight in front of her might have helped her avoid making a bad situation so much worse.

Chelsea was only in my class a few days before her schedule was changed. I miss her still. Miss the chance I wish I had had to get to know her and tell her how proud I was of her that day. I wish I could say thank you for showing me my faith was not misplaced.

So even though it is bittersweet and buried under a pile of wtf craziness, it is a good memory for me. I survived and started to learn how to hang on to the good things in the worst of circumstances.

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