Today I was assigned to a social science class at Norwalk High School.
Funny thing is, the classroom I am in looks and feels strangely similar to the AP Spanish class I was taking my senior year before I switched out and decided to play soccer instead.
I read the sub notes for the economics class and got the kids started, but there was one kid who, despite my encouragement, was unable to get started with the assignment beyond putting his name and the title on his paper. Even the less disciplined students were able to get started with my inspiration, but this one was simply paralyzed, staring down at his paper lethargically.
By the end of the period, he still hadn’t written anything else down.
I asked him, “What’s going on? Why haven’t you written anything?”
“I didn’t take my Adderall this morning, so my mind is kind of all over the place.”
I calmly replied, “I see. Is there anything I can do to help? Is there anyone who can bring it over?”
He began fumbling in his pants pocket and took out a small box, about the size of a packet of dental floss. He opened it and there were four strange looking capsules inside.
“May I go outside for water?” he asked politely.
I nodded, and he headed out.
I stood there, dumbfounded, realizing that I had only heard of students taking Adderall who abused the drug in college in order to maximize their ability to concentrate in order to pass their classes. I had never met a student who was actually prescribed the drug and genuinely needed it in order to function in a classroom setting.
I asked myself, “Do I even know what this stuff is?” I mean, I’d heard of it. People talk about it all the time. Comedians and cartoons make fun of it, too. But the only time I had ever actually seen a child struggle without his meds was while I taught at Wilmington Middle, and even then, the results of the medication were depressing. The kids went from intolerably hyperactive to docile yet lacking the vibrant spirit they had before they were medicated. And yet, here was this high school student who looked despondent WITHOUT the aid of his prescription.
I wondered: how many kids are going through this right now? How many don’t even know that they need that extra help that this medication supplies?
I wondered about how many educators blame their childrens’ lack of motivation on simple laziness and don’t take the time to simply ask, “What’s wrong?”
The student was overweight, and when he briefly took off the beanie he was wearing, he exposed a head full of greasy, dandruff-ridden hair.
I looked down in compassion and I was genuinely surprised that he confided in me so candidly.
In my experience, most kids have been embarrassed to admit that they have a medical condition which hinders their academic progress.
And then, of course, there are the kids that don’t have prescriptions, and choose to medicate recreationally or otherwise.
It seems “recreational,” but is often anything but.
Many students don’t have any healthy coping skills and turn to drugs as a last resort.
While at Banning, for example, there were several students whose lives I changed as a result of discovering their drug habits. One student was a friend of a girl I mentored. The girl confided in me that he was abusing Xanax due to depression, and that he was using heavily.
Again, I didn’t exactly know what Xanax was, but I had become aware of the harmful effects of prescription drugs, particularly those which contained opiates and were therefore extremely addictive.
The student, Moises, was in one of my classes, and I remember deciding to talk to him during my conference period. I told him that my mentee had explained what was happening and that I was really worried about him. I asked him what was going on and he told me he was having a lot of problems at home with family, that he was bummed that my mentee was not romantically interested in him, and he was also upset that he was struggling academically at school. He confessed that he used Xanax to help him feel better, but that he had been thinking of overdosing for a while. I told him that he needed help, and that I wanted to help him. I assured him that he was not going to be in trouble, but that he would merely have access to the resources he needed in order to feel better. I assured him that he wasn’t alone, and I led him to the counselor’s office where he was able to get the help he needed so that he would not resort to his original plans of overdosing.
My mentee was shocked. She couldn’t believe that I had gone to such lengths to help her friend. She confessed that she felt guilty that she couldn’t return his feelings, and that she didn’t want to feel responsible if he did anything to hurt himself. She felt glad that I was able to support him.
Two years later, that same student and I were able to talk about the incident in retrospect, and he was able to laugh about what had happened. He updated me, saying he did end up overdosing and that it was one of the scariest experiences of his life, but that he was not alone when it happened so his life was spared, and because he was able to survive he was better able to learn from it. He ended up transferring out of Banning High and attending Sunburst, a military academy that specifically caters to troubled students who need more structure and support in order to recover academically and emotionally. When he returned, he still had some issued as far as maintaining academic progress, but he was better able to articulate his feelings, and because of that, I was better able to assist him. He still struggles with anger management, but he is also aware that he has this problem, and is no longer using drugs without a prescription to alleviate it.
There are other students, of course, whom I had to be much more firm with, to my dismay.
One wouldn’t stop sexually harassing me via inappropriate, flirtatious comments and would often behave strangely in class, singing and dancing and rapping loudly during my lectures. Several students began casually mentioning that he would come to class high, and after several days of quiet observation (it’s been my experience that sometimes kids will joke about this and have it end up being a false alarm) I decided to take action. Without his permission, I searched his bag and found a container of marijuana as well as a pipe. I picked up the phone and he panicked. He begged me not to make the call, worried sick about what his parents would think, and extremely anxious about what the consequences of his actions would be. I looked at him kindly and told him that I was only doing this for his own good. Despite his panic and his anger, as well as his feelings of betrayal, I moved forward and the student was suspended from school for drug possession.
This wasn’t the only time I caught a kid with marijuana in my class. There was another student who simply would not do any work and who preferred to make my class his kick-it spot. In fact, it was very rare when he showed up at at all. But for a time, he and I had an understanding, and he also had a probation officer who was on him like white on rice, so it made sense for him to be in class, that is, if he still wanted to remain at Banning.
And then, he started taunting me.
First, he’d make flirtatious comments towards me, mainly to amuse the many friends he had in the class. More often than not, in order to not feed into his energy and derail the class, I chose to ignore him. Then, when I would try to help him with his work (I was subbing in an Algebra class at the time), he’d make a big deal out of it as if I was giving him individualized attention for personal reasons, when really, I noticed his potential and observed that he was much smarter than he made himself out to be.
Then, one day he was loudly talking about the bomb weed he had in his backpack.
At first, I was confused. Why would this kid be so loud and obnoxious about his marijuana possession? Did he truly believe I wouldn’t do anything about it?
I then thought that maybe he was joking and that’s why he was so loud. Just another ruse to ruffle my feathers.
I don’t think he counted on me having any experience with weed, but little did he know, I was working at a marijuana dispensary in Gardena prior to beginning at LAUSD, so when he decided to unzip the front pocket of his Jansport and pop open his dispensary container, not only did I know that it was weed, I could also tell whether or not it was an indica, sativa or a hybrid and I was also aware of its potency.
I looked back at him as soon as I caught a wiff, shook my head in disbelief, smiled and waited. He grinned back, front pocket still unzipped with one hand stealthily hidden inside.
Like a tiger waiting to pounce, I remained calm with one foot padding in front of the other, closer and closer in proximity to the bag. Then, suddenly, I made my move, confiscating the bag with one swift movement, unzipping the front pocket, finding the weed, and making towards the phone.
Now it was his turn to watch me in disbelief. He was frozen. He didn’t think I was going to rat him out. That was a thing in Wilmington. If you developed an alliance with an individual, you simply didn’t snitch. Snitches get stitches.
This was a much bigger deal than I imagined.
The administrators showed up. The probation officer showed up. The police showed up. He tried to run away but he was cornered in my classroom. He threatened me and spoke to me as if his words were tinged with bile.
I shook my head and said, “Why’d you have to test me?”
He was taken away, expelled from the school, and thrown in jail.
I didn’t see him again until about a year or two ago, when my mentee asked me to pick her up from the gas station on Anaheim and Fries, and there she was, holding hands with him.
Only this time, because I was no longer his teacher, and he was clearly a high school dropout, I greeted him with a warm, good-natured smile and a hug, and surprisingly, he didn’t hold it against me that I had been so hard on him as a freshman. I really tried to help him wake up to the dangers in the direction he was going with his life, but now that he was grown and I was no longer in the position as his educator, I could focus on appreciating him as the human being he was and reminiscing about all the ways he acted a fool and made my life more interesting in the class I routinely subbed in. I could laugh at it, because it was healed. I was only doing my job of protecting him from himself, but the choice was truly his at the end of the day, and I could not take responsibility for any of the ways he devolved since then.
Here’s the thing about being an educator. We do our best in the classrooms to help our kids help themselves, but when they aren’t willing to accept our help, we must inevitably realize that they are meant to learn in a different way. I couldn’t teach him what life was meant to teach him. Some kids take our help and progress, and others refuse it and go their own way, sometimes emerging better, and sometimes growing inconceivably more lost.
It scares me, the way that drugs and alcohol are making their way into the lives of my students, often as coping mechanisms, sometimes as the result of peer pressure, and other times as a form of maintaining their livelihood in the impoverished communities they live in. It’s been tough having to discern between what kids are using drugs because they genuinely need them, what kids are abusing drugs because they don’t see any other way to cope, and what kids are abusing drugs because they are so lost in what is called “The Life” that they normalize drug use, possession and distribution, seeing it as a completely normal alternative lifestyle. Either way, they all need help, and as an educator, I have taken it upon myself to find ways to identify these students, assist them in the best way possible, and protecting them, even if it means having to betray them in order to protect them from themselves. I pray that even in their anger, they will, like my student who almost died from a Xanax overdose, thank me later.