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Unwrapping Paradise


Every school year has a story of a kid who breaks free. Yesterday, as I began making another scrapbook to culminate my 12th year of teaching, I smiled as I cut out Anthony’s picture. I learned early on that this young man had some demons. Way back the first week of school, I unknowingly put him through torture as I began to find out the secrets of our brand new gradebook on Synergy. The poor guy wasn’t on my roster! All I had to do was refresh the screen, but being a rookie Synergy expert, I had no clue how to do that. So every day that first week of school I kept calling on the extremely quiet kid who sat near the back, asking him his name, asking him why he was in my class when he was not on my roster. I remember pestering him day after day, seeing him shrink into his seat.

“What is your name again?” I asked as politely as I could.

His response came, yet it was audible only to about a three-foot radius.

“I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to speak louder,” I said somewhat annoyed now.

His response came again. Same result.

“Hey, guys, you’re going to have to be quiet so I can hear,” I raised my voice even louder. My 7th hour knew I meant business now as they quieted their side conversations.

The kid froze. He sensed my annoyance and couldn’t utter a single word. I finally caught on that speaking in front of the class was not this kid’s thing. As a matter of fact, it was agony for him. Sensing that distress, I quietly grabbed a sticky note from my desk and walked it back to him. Like an injured animal, he shrunk even further into his seat. I knelt next to him gingerly and whispered quietly so only he could hear.

“Could you please write your name here? I want to check with the counselors to make sure you’re in the right place.”

Little did I know that the kid without a name in my gradebook would become a kid whose name would be etched in my memory forever by May 2015. And so began my relationship with Anthony.

That first week of school bled into week two. I had finally figured out the glitch in the gradebook, and Anthony was now officially on my roster. The first writing assignment of the year I always assign that 2nd week of school was in full swing. Every kid has to write a personal narrative, a story of their life that they feel like they want to share with me. It probably wasn’t until a week and a half later until I got to reading Anthony’s. His title, although short, was memorable. All it said was “Thanks, Dad.” I began to tear up as I read it. His father, a psychopathic maniac, had scarred this kid for life. I can’t even begin to tell you what that kid endured as a child. The details are too sick and twisted to even write about. But Anthony had written beautifully about it, sticking mainly to the facts. Sliding too much into the emotion he felt would bring back too much pain.

I now knew what I was dealing with. The silence. The shell that kid shrunk into daily. I wonder if he didn’t trust male teachers because of his dad. He quietly and methodically went about getting B’s in my class, but I noticed something dark about Anthony’s work. Pictures of skulls with bleeding eyes appeared on the sides of his papers. He referred to himself as the ghost on his bell works. There were even days when Anthony threw out small hints of suicidal thoughts through his writing. He began wearing all black clothing to school and decorated his binder with artwork that would make a heavy metal band proud. To top it all off, he never wrote about his weekend. I always have the kids write about their weekends on Friday and Monday, asking them to tell me what they are doing for fun. His responses were always crisp and short, saying things like, “I am going to be the ghost.”

I craved to know this kid more. After expressing my concern to the school counselor on his behalf, I began writing him back on those bell works. He always left plenty of space, and I filled it with my own messages back to him, quietly telling him that he was worth something. I coaxed him quietly to expose more of his life to me, and sure enough, he began telling me more and more about his depression via those bell works. The dark artwork continued to appear on his binder and on the sides of his papers, but there was something about those pictures that drew my eyes closer. They were amazingly crafted. I hovered over his desk one day and decided to take a long shot to get him to talk. It was probably mid- October, and I still didn’t know what his voice sounded like.

“Those pictures are amazing, Anthony,” I began. “How in the world did you learn to draw like that?”

His lips curled into a smile, but he said nothing. I knelt down next to him.

“You know, I’d love to hear who taught you all this stuff. I have never seen anyone draw like this before!”

He nodded. That nod was at least a small victory for me. It was something. Sensing a barrier was being chipped away at, I proceeded on.

“Hey, I hope I get to see that amazing artwork on your assignment next week. We’re going to create a Facebook page for any character of your choice in Freak the Mighty. I want you to show your stuff!”

It was about three to five seconds later, but it came. A response!

“Okay.”

My heart melted for that kid. While I had heard 15 million different comments from some kids in that hour, I had heard one word from Anthony. But I tell you what, that one word felt like 15 million to me!

Anthony rocked his Facebook page. I made sure it got the center spot on my back wall for everyone to see. He excelled at animated characters especially, particularly Anime, and his project likewise earned him an award I give out weekly called the “Ohana King of the Week.” Ohana is the Hawaiian word for family and is our class credo in how we conduct ourselves, treating others like family. Every kid who wins the award gets a phone call home to mom or dad. Sadly enough, I only got to leave a message for Anthony. He finished 2nd quarter with a high B, hovering close to an A, and he never missed an assignment.

When we returned from Winter Break, something happened. An ignition switch went off in that kid. I can’t put my finger on why it happened, but Anthony changed. For the better. His B’s turned into solid A’s. He made an amazing Pet Rock commercial for my persuasion unit. He actually began participating in timed pair share activities. And then came the biggest mindblower of all. In late March, Anthony raised his hand to volunteer an answer. We were discussing stereotypes before beginning the Outsiders since that is a major theme that revolves around the book. You’d better believe when I saw his hand I called on him immediately. His response came clear as day.

“I know a lot of you might stereotype me as being EMO or something, but I am not. I just wanted to say that I’m doing okay, and I am cool with myself.”

It was music to my ears. The kid who couldn’t utter a single word for me was talking in class, and volunteering himself at that! I decided to take a risk that next day. At lunch I noticed Anthony sat all by himself in the back of the cafeteria. I wandered over to him with about 10 minutes left to eat.

“Hey, I noticed you sitting here by yourself. Would you like to come back to my room to finish eating? I just wanted to check in with you and see how things were going.”

He just smiled without looking at me and nodded slowly. I led the way. He trailed behind me with what was left on his tray. We sat across from one another and finished eating. I don’t truly recall what I asked him or what we talked about. All I expressed was that I cared deeply for him and that I truly appreciated him speaking up in class. He nodded a lot and even responded back to me with a few one-word answers. Yes and no type of stuff. When 12:22 pm came I led him back to the lunch room to shove off back to his class.

Anthony’s fashion soon began to change. His dark clothing morphed into buttoned down shirts that actually had color. He cut his hair short on the sides and spiked it up on top. Then one day he wandered up to my desk with a piece of paper in hand. He handed it to me near the end of class like he was presenting a king with a gift, backing away slowly without turning his back, that same smile plastered on his face. I looked down at the folded up piece of paper. The message taunted me. All it said was, “Unwrap paradise.”

I wanted to unfold it right then, but too much had to be done. It was the longest 45 minutes of my life waiting for that final bell to ring when I finally opened the letter to find out exactly what paradise was. Typed up was the following message: “Thank you for all you do for me and for caring even though I don’t give you anything for it. Thank you for always being there and having faith in me. You help me through tough times, and I am sorry I show no sense of gratitude. Thank you all for being there for me. I promise I will be there for you also to help you out, and I appreciate that you at least talk to me unlike some others. You have my respect for that. On that note, I say thank you.”

You’d think that was the climax of my year with the kid, but it wasn’t. Fourth quarter he shined. He wrote about his weekends with a glad heart, talking about playing with little kids, mentoring them. He likewise shocked the world and raised his hand at least a dozen times, always talking about what he did over the weekend on Monday. Those Monday ohana sharing sessions were legendary, and Anthony was always involved. My heart swelled with pride for the kid. He began sneaking into my room between classes with that smile on his face just to say hi. Sometimes he would approach me with outstretched arms as if he were coming in for a hug. Confused, I would slide to the side for the typical side hug, but he would always back away. I never understood what he wanted from that, but it made me laugh.

The final week of school I was handing out class awards and gifts. Each student always gets three gifts before leaving for the summer: a letter they wrote themselves on the first day of school, a list of positive traits that the class wrote about them, and a personal letter from me. I call off the traits and have the kids guess who I am talking about. When I got to Anthony, my emotions got the best of me as I read through his traits: amazing artist, quiet leader, works extremely hard, creative, Pet Rock creator, always there for you, spreads ohana daily, respectful, brighter than a star. I looked that kid dead pan in the eye and began my speech for him.

“This young man has come a long way. From the first week of school when he could not utter a single word in this class, until now where he can volunteer himself freely … I don’t know if we had a kid mature as much as Anthony. This last month he has earned a nickname. Anthony is a ninja! He loves sneaking into my class to say hi between classes as much as he can, and I will have to say that I don’t mind seeing his smiling face.”

Anthony beamed at me.

“You won’t find a kid who tried harder than Anthony, and I have the utmost respect for your amazing artistic ability. I can only hope you pursue that talent in the future and become the next Picasso.”

Anthony raised his hand, stopping me in my speech.

“Mr. Daniels?” he asked boldly.

Shocked at his confidence, I smiled at him, “Yes, sir. What can I do for you?”

“Mr. Daniels … Can I have that hug?”

He emerged from his chair and slid next to me, embracing me in a side hug that I will never forget. I held him there knowing that this moment was the moment I had been waiting for all year. Not the amazing artwork. Not volunteering himself for the first time. Not the sweet note. The side hug was a complete submission to everything that once held him back. It said, “I trust you, and I thank you for everything.”

My ninja sat on the stage on the last day of school. The final awards had already been announced. Anthony made the All-A’s list for a few classes. I smiled at him from across the room as I noticed his quiet joke that only I got. I shook my head and smiled at him as he sat there cross-legged, wearing a shirt over the bottom of his face. He was pretending to be a ninja. I walked up to him and asked his permission to snap a picture of him. Beneath that shirt tied tight over his face, I saw that patented Anthony smile. He nodded yes. And I snapped a picture that I will live on forever in my scrapbook.

I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to include that picture here on my blog, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was for me, not for others to see. Anthony’s story, however, will live on forever. My question to you is this … what teacher needs to hear this story so they can be inspired to do the same? Tell Anthony’s story to someone. Who knows … there just might be another Anthony out there waiting for a teacher to open doors they never thought would open. Whomever that kid may be, if they wander into your class, be sure to unwrap paradise for them.

(Check out a fantastic song that goes along with reaching out to those who need it most.  Here is Audio Adrenaline’s “Kings and Queens.”)   

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Categories: Uncategorized

1 comment

  1. Beautiful. This story makes me think about the many opportunities I’m sure I’ve missed because “that kid” was so frustrating and disruptive. My focus has often been on how to manage him rather than how to reach him. Thanks for the lesson!

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