I enjoyed walking the classrooms at my school and dropped in on about a third of them daily. I didn’t have to stay long to know how things ran and if the climate was right for teacher success and student learning. I always went to Henry’s classroom with an expectation of simple enjoyment because he was such an incredible teacher. When I walked in on this particular Thursday, the Special Education Aide who was assigned to a disabled child was the only adult in the room. Surprised I asked, “Where’s Henry?”
“He went to get Joey.” She said off handedly.
“You mean at the cafeteria or something?” I asked.
“No,” she answered. “He drove to Joey’s house.”
She explained that a message came to the class from the office that Joey’s mother had called to say she overslept and so Joey missed the bus. He wouldn’t be at school today.
“Henry just took off and told me to stay here until he got back,” the aide said.
The class was going to leave in about an hour for a field trip to sing Christmas carols at a nearby retirement home. So I guessed Henry went to get Joey so he would be able to participate in this event. Fortunately there were several student teachers on campus that morning so I went quickly to one of the classrooms where one such teacher was observing and drafted her into service in Henry’s class.
“Just sit here and call the office if there is a problem,” I told her.
The kids were occupied with their normal morning routine and they expected Henry back any minute. He told them before he left that he would be back any minute.
I finished my rounds and of the classrooms and went back to the office in time to meet the school cook come rampaging in with Joey in tow. She was not a nurturing cook. She was a hardscrabble descendent of dustbowl survivors whom the custodians accused from time to time of taking leftover cafeteria food from the garbage cans where the kids dumped it to feed to her pigs at home. This was a rip off of federal free and reduced lunch money, according to the custodians, who for some reason became hyper-legalistic on this particular point. Fortunately I never heard of the feds ever prosecuting anyone for feeding school garbage to their pigs. Anyway, the cook was tough, and mean without sarcasm. Her combination of Arkey and Okey grammar became worse on any occasion in which she lost her temper.
“He done left this kid and ordered me to feed him,” she shouted at me.
“Hi Irene,” I said. “What’s going on?”
“Henry brought this kid in late and just ordered me to feed him. I don’t give no meals to no late kids no how. It ain’t part of the program. I gots to keep count and how can I keep count serving meals whenever somebody the likes of Henry just decides I supposed to.” Like the custodians, Irene was a self-appointed protector of federally funded school lunch programs.
I sat Joey down in the office next to Betty the secretary who smiled at him and said, Hi Joey, glad you came to school.” Joey smiled back glad to be out of the clutches of Irene.
I took Irene into my office to let her cool down. I told her it was a federal requirement in the free lunch program that we feed anyone who showed up whether they were on time or not, including Joey’s mother if she wanted it. Irene told me she knew that but done got pissed off at Henry when he just dropped the kid off and told her to, “Give him breakfast and bring him to class when he is finished.”
“Who does he think he is?” She said.
“He means well,” I said. “So why don’t you go prep his tray and I’ll bring him to you in a few minutes so you can give him a good big breakfast, the kind all the kids like. Then I’ll take him to class myself.”
“Well,” she said. “That’ll show him when the principal brings the kid to class.”
She bustled off to the kitchen and I talked with Joey.
He told me that his mother had slept in and called the school to say he missed the bus so he couldn’t come. And then teacher came and knocked on the door but his mother had gone back to sleep and didn’t hear it. Then teacher “…done knocked on the door with his foot an’ just like that, it opened up so he came in and done got me. My mom done waked up and waved goodbye to me and him after teacher talked to her. I got to sit in the pickup and Wilbur done come too in the back. I’m singing for the old folks later so he told me I need me to come on to school.”
I was amazed at the way Joey sat calmly, looked me in the face and shared his story without being nervous or twitchy as he had been when school began a few months earlier. I sent Joey to the cafeteria and caught up with him in a few minutes to be certain the cook was calm and could feel some of the pride she normally exhibited in feeding a hungry kid. After he finished I told him to walk to class and I would see him at the retirement home.
I enjoyed seeing kids singing and waved them off as they boarded the bus. I looked at Henry without smiling and he avoided my face. When they got to the little stage in the home, Joey was very nervous so Henry held his hand as they sang. He seemed to stand straighter as the rounds of applause and happy laughter rolled towards them from the residents. When the class boarded the bus to return to school I caught up with Henry and told him to meet me in my office fifteen minutes after school dismissed.
Henry was in my office a few minutes early. I asked him what the hell he thought he was doing kicking the apartment door open? He could have been arrested for breaking and entering, much less accused of some sexual attack by the mother if she wanted to get back at him for something. And driving the kid in his own car without an insurance waiver meant he could be bankrupted if there had been a wreck and the mother sued him. The school district would have walked away from him and tried to fire him at the same time. And leaving the class with a non credentialed aide who by federal law has to take care of the special education kid, not your class of regular education kids, further exposed us to another kind of lawsuit altogether. I finished with, “Next time call me and I’ll go get the kid myself with a female aide in the car as well. I should write you up just to protect myself. You could cause me to get fired.”
It felt good to yell at Henry a bit. He knew he was wrong and he said he was sorry. But he said, “It felt right to Joey, it felt good to get him.” So he did it. How could I teach him about being successful in a bureaucratic environment when he didn’t care about it? He cared only about his students.