At first, I didn't know Tevin would be a problem. Amid the tumult and clamor of my classroom, he didn't draw attention, a slim, handsome boy with long arms and a careful, almost elegant manner. It was his silence that first made me notice him: I asked him a direct question the second day, and he turned and pretended not to have heard. When I pressed, he smiled, bowed his head. When I called roll he'd raise his hand but say nothing, just flash his strange smile, which showed no teeth—the corners of his mouth turned up, but his gray eyes remained implacable and wary. He could speak, and sometimes would answer a question with a few words, but mostly he smiled and looked away. It wasn't nervousness, but indirect disobedience: If he didn't care to do something, he ignored what was said, glanced away and kept on as he liked.
As time wore on, he started to do exactly as he wanted. He wanted to throw spitballs, take other children's pencils and break them, and mock me behind my back. He liked to flick other children behind the ear, pinch them on the soft flesh of the upper arm, to gleek saliva onto the back of an unsuspecting neck. He liked to make animal noises, to hoot and whistle and bark. He wrote the word fuck a hundred times when asked to write a five sentence paragraph—complete with five periods and capitals to satisfy the assignment. “This isn't ok,” I said, standing above him at his desk with the paper as he grinned unsettlingly and stared at the ceiling. Whenever I caught him and tried to discipline him, he turned his head and smiled infuriatingly and refused to respond. The first time I sent him to the office, he returned tear-streaked, and I knew Assistant Principal Winston had given him licks. He stared at me through the rest of class with a disarming intensity.
I called the number for Tevin's home that night. “I'm Jackson Johnson,” a gravely, black voice said. “The boy stays with me and my daughter Lizy—we foster kids for the state. I'll come on in and speak to you, Mr. Copperman.”
The next morning, Tevin walked through the door before the bell, smiling.
“Good morning, Tevin,” I said.
He walked to the nearest empty desk and tipped it to the floor with a crash.
“What do you think you're doing?”
He tipped the next desk in the row, then the next. Children in his path fled as he tipped their desks with their papers and folders as well.
“Stop!” I yelled. He met my eyes for a moment and began on the next row. I started for him across the room, and he upended desks in my path and moved toward the door. I pushed desks aside, running now, but he was out the door and down the hall. “Go to the office!”
He turned, his face hard, and closed on me, brought his face so near I could feel his warm breath on my face. Then he jumped toward me. I flinched and stepped back. He grinned, nodded once, and made his way down the hall with a swaggering step that filled me with rage, and for a moment I thought to kick his jaunty feet out from under him. I started after him, remembered the other children and turned back. In the classroom, everyone was talking at once. Half the desks lay on the floor, tipped on their sides and corners, some upside down with their legs in the air, and folders and papers were scattered across the floor. I quieted the children, set them to putting the desks upright, and called the office on the intercom. “Tevin Downs just turned my classroom upside down,” I said when the secretary answered. “Then he ran out.”
There was a long, static-filled pause, and the secretary said, “Tevin Downs is here, Mr. Copperman. He just come through the door.”
I stood at the intercom. “Huh.”
Two hours later, I received a note telling me Tevin had been sent home. On my free period, I went to the office and knocked at his door, but Mr. Winston was out and Mrs. Burtonsen was away at a conference in Buloxi. The secretary called me over with a crooked finger and leaned in. “That boy was wearing two pairs of pants,” she whispered. “Guess he was grinning at Mr. Winston while he was getting whupped. Mr. Winston, he got worked up. Stomped out of here after Mr. Johnson come in to get the boy.”
After school, I sat in the empty classroom, the dull sun of October filtering through the back windows in blocks of heatless light. Winston still hadn't returned. When there was a knock, I thought it might be him, and hurried to the door. Outside was a black man of about sixty, his hair grey and white. He leaned to a cane that was too short, his shoulders rounded and bent. “Must be you Mr. Kato,” he said. “Mr. Johnson. Tevin stay with me. You'd called yesterday for me to come in, and I thought with what-all today I'd better come in all the same.” He smiled, revealing gapped teeth, and extended his free right hand. His grip was firm.
“Sir,” I said.
Placing the tip of the cane with each step, he made his way to my desk.
I hurried to pull my chair around so he could sit. Thanking me, he settled to the seat. I went about the desk.
“So,” I said.
“Yes, Lord,” he said, and chuckled from the belly, deep laugh lines crinkling at his eyes. He had a kind face. “Guess you wasn't figuring on no boy like this one.”
“So—there have been issues before?”
He shook his head. “I only had the boy three weeks—his second or third foster placement in a year. And I'm gone tell you the truth, Mr. Copperman—I don't know how long I can hold on. The boy been nothing but trouble at home, and he too fast for me, what with my leg. I can't catch him for to whup him.”
I took all this in. “What do you know about him, his history?”
Mr. Johnson leaned back in his chair and frowned. “That lady from the district, the behavioral specialist, Ms. Watson, she ain't been to see you? She ain't told you nothing?”
I shook my head. I knew the behaviorist by sight only, a reed-thin white woman in her late thirties with a shock of red, frizzy hair and a wardrobe that seemed to consist solely of strangely patterned skirts with matching leggings. A couple days a week she pulled a couple of my problem boys, including Tevin, out from class for ‘meetings'; they returned grinning, plastic toys and trinkets like yo-yos and playing cards clutched gleefully in hand, boasting about all she was gone give them next time. It was my impression she was bribing them with baubles, but then, I wasn't a ‘specialist.'
“Well. I don't know where to start. You better contact them folks. I just need you to know—I told the Reverend this too, when he was telling me I'd better not let the boy wear two pants or whatever all—I can't do nothing with him. I done what I can. I tell him this way ain't no way but a bad end. But he don't respect me. He don't respect nothing but a good whupping, and I can't catch him to lay a proper hand on him. He just smile at me and keep on.”
I tried to think what to say about “laying a hand on him.” “Did his social worker suggest any—other—methods for discipline?”
Mr. Johnson grinned. “Mr. Barker was the one told me a good whupping the only thing the boy respect. You should've seen that man make the boy jump.”
I wanted to demand more, looked at him with his hands folded earnestly over the head of his cane. “Thank you for the information,” I said.
Later that week, I ran down the behavioral specialist on my break while the children were on P.E. “I'm Mr. Copperman, a fourth grade teacher. Can I speak to you for a moment about Tevin Downs?”
She looked surprised I was addressing her, smiled and switched her bag and purse to her left hand and shook my hand. “I'm Ms. Watson, pleased to meet you. Tevin? Oh my, yes, Tevin. He's a special case. Let's get to my office for privacy.”
Her office was a small room also used by one of the Special ed teachers; in one corner, I saw a box full of the dollar-store toys she gave the boys. She entered, set down her bag and hurried to her files and rifled through them with such urgency that it seemed she was afraid I might abandon her there if she wasn't quick. It occurred to me that perhaps few people here paid her any attention at all, let alone any respect.
“Here we go, now,” Ms. Watson said, lifting a manila folder aloft. She took the file and sat down and opened it, paged through it's contents, finally held up a single, typed sheet of paper. “How much do you know, Mr. Copperman?”
I shook my head. “Just that he's in foster care, and his foster-father says he doesn't know how to handle him.”
She leaned towards me, lowered her voice to what was almost a whisper. “That ain't the half of it, Mr. Copperman.”
What Ms. Watson told me strained credulity. Tevin Downs had been born to an alcoholic, crack-addicted mother in Midnight, Mississippi, where he spent the first eight years of his life in shelters and tents and boxes on the streets or in the cotton fields. His mother had been unable to identify a father on his birth certificate. He begged and stole to survive, knew no personal hygiene, and had never celebrated a birthday—he did not know how old he was when he was taken as ward of the state. The experts felt fine starting him in school from the beginning: His physical development had been so stunted by malnourishment that he was still smaller at eight than the average kindergartner. As for his mental status and development, tests proved consistently inconclusive. One report indicated he had all the signs of fetal alcohol syndrome, and retained a number of “permanent, complicating behavioral accommodations to his early environment.” The sole IQ test had concluded that his IQ was well above average. His academic records were limited—it seemed he hadn't, in fact, ever completed a full grade due to disciplinary issues at each school and foster placement, though the state had continued to move him up each year because of his age and lack of evident mental retardation. He was a thirteen-year-old fourth grader.
All of this was revealing, but it was not what stunned me. The whole time she spoke, she kept the white sheet of paper tucked between her fingers, lifted a little as if to heighten my interest and stress its import. At the end, an odd, conspiratorial delight on her face, she held out the paper. “You never saw this here, remember.”
The paper was the report of the forensic psychologist assigned to the incident that had made Tevin a ward of the state. The psychologist, after a dozen interviews, had regressed the eight-year-old to the night in question at the apartment of man named Dequarius Jones, who'd evidently been Tevin's mother's boyfriend. The boy had come reluctantly entered the apartment, as he was scared of Mr. Jones. He'd called his mother's name, looked for her in the kitchen, the living room and bedroom, had finally knocked on the bathroom door where he could see from the bottom that the light was on. He knocked, called, waited and waited, finally found the courage to open the door. There was his mother, lying prone in the tub. All down her shoulders and chest and all over the white porcelain was blood from her throat, which had been slit wide open from clavicle to clavicle. Tevin had run to her, had shook her and shook her, crying and screaming, had even tried to lift her from the tub and get her somehow to her feet, so that when the police finally found him hours later, he was soaked in his mother's blood.
I read the transcript over and over, imagining Tevin in the washroom covered in blood—just him now. Alone. And I wished I could go to the boy and lead him away to rooms free of such horror and sorrow.
The next week, Tevin was back. He walked through the door moments before the bell and sat, his face blank, his grey eyes wary, waiting to see what I'd do. I kept an eye on him and taught the morning's lessons. Tevin never lifted his pencil, just sat there slouched. After a time, he began tapping the edge of the desk, less rhythmic than nervous, and I didn't ask him to stop. He began to whistle, a tuneless twittering, and I didn't say a word in the name of quiet. By the time the children were headed to P.E., he was visibly agitated. When Solomon let out a shout, crying “Tevin pinch my neck,” I pulled Tevin to the back of the line without comment, and walked beside Tevin the rest of the way. As I sent the children into the gym, I took Tevin's sleeve. “Come on.”
He glanced at my fingers on his sleeve, smiled and looked away, but he followed me back to the room, whistling so the notes echoed eerily through the empty hall. Back in the room, I straightened desks and wiped the board. It was a bright, humid morning, and though the air conditioning unit spat cool through the room, the sun through the windows bounced stars of light from the legs of desks and the glossy posters on the wall. Tevin leaned uneasily against the door watching me and whistling louder and louder, pounding a beat to the door. I let him be until he stopped making noise and just stood.
Finally he spoke, his voice so quiet I couldn't make out the words over the mutter of the air conditioning.
“What was that?”
“You ain't gone beat me,” he said.
He smiled and said nothing. I held his gaze until he glanced away at the ceiling.
“You know, Tevin,” I said gently, “It must be tough, being on your own. Moving all the time. Not having anyone to trust.”
He was still staring at the ceiling.
I waited. In the hall, a class clattered past with a burst of echoing footfalls, then a broader silence as they were gone.
Suddenly, Tevin slammed his hands to the door, making me jump. He didn't smile or look away, but spoke directly to me. “You don't know me.” He opened the door and walked out, didn't look back as I ordered him to stop. Finally, I called the office to tell them Tevin Downs had just left my class—and I didn't know where he was headed.
That afternoon as I went to sign out in the office, the secretary pointed to Mrs. Burtonsen's office. “She want to see you,” she said. “Bout that Downs boy.”
I knocked at the heavy oak door, heard a stirring before the door was unlocked and Mrs. Burtonsen was there with her generous smile, her gray hair pulled to tight curls with a fresh permanent.
“Mr. Copperman,” she said. “How are you this morning?”
“Good, Ma'am. Good as I can be.”
“Well all right, then.” She motioned for me to take a seat, went around the desk and sat and leaned toward me. “This situation with Tevin Downs is troubling me,” she said.
I nodded. “Did he leave the school grounds today?”
She brushed aside my question and kept speaking. “Mr. Winston cannot discipline the boy because he protects himself against punishment. Yet the boy clearly needs to be put in his place. His guardian tells me he cannot catch the boy to—punish him.”
“Mr. Johnson told me the same thing. I saw about his mother, the streets of Midnight—“
“We are not really here to deal with his history, Mr. Copperman,” Mrs. Burtonsen said gently. “That is beyond the bounds of what we can do. We are here to educate him. His guardian and his social worker, whom I spoke to today, both concur. The boy needs discipline. I have tried to speak to him, and as you've no doubt seen, he just turns his head and ignores you—he is deaf to reason. The question, then, becomes quite simple: Is there a man who can teach the boy real respect? Or will he be—unfit—for school here at Promise-Upper, as he is thirteen years old, and by District guidelines, ought properly to already be resourced and at the middle school?”
In the silence that followed, I saw what Mrs. Burtonsen was asking: Either I get the boy into shape somehow, through force of manhood or fist, or Promise-Upper would be done with him for good. Finally I cleared my throat. “Yes, Ma'am, I suppose that's the question.”
She took a deep breathe, sighed, put a hand to my elbow across the desk. “All right then, Mr. Copperman. I just wanted you be sure you knew the situation. I'm glad we have an understanding.”
We do not really, Ma'am, I thought, as I shook her hand and fled the office.
The next day the air in the classroom was stale and still and warm—the air conditioning unit had broken. By eight a.m., the classroom was sweltering, and sweat poured down my face, wet circles of sweat on the children's polo shirts, the scent of body thick through the room. Tevin's chair sat empty as I taught, and I couldn't pretend it wasn't a relief not to deal with him. I sweated out my undershirt. The sun through the windows made me squint, so that I could hardly see the children, whose papers were spotted with drops of sweat. Around ten, the door opened and Tevin Downs walked in grinning. He was wearing the wrong color uniform, his Polo red Friday when it was only Wednesday.
“Hi, Tevin. Have a seat,” I said.
He walked to the front of the room until he stood inches from me. He wasn't sweating, seemed cool and calm.
“Sit down,” I repeated. “Now.”
He met my eyes and stepped closer still, until his face was inches from mine, and spoke, his breath hot to my cheek. “No.”
“You can't make me do nothing.”
“You will sit down now.”
He hocked, a throaty sound, and then, as the children gasped, he spit on my face. Some of it was in my eye, the wet, warm mucous sliding down my cheek, and anger and instinct rose in me. I seized him by the collar, rage summoning the strength of the college wrestler I'd been, and half lifted him off his feet, kicking and fighting, to the door of the classroom, threw it open. “Get—out-- of my classroom,” I said, and tossed him in a great arc into the hall.
He tumbled to the floor as the children gasped. It felt—good. I wiped the spittle from my face with a sleeve as the children gasped and gaped. Tevin sat up, astonished, slowly brushed his shirt clean as he looked up at me in the door. I waited for him to rise and come at me, for a sign of resentment, but instead he stood timidly, waited for me to move from the door to pass, shuffled quickly to his desk and then, cheek to the desk, began the math worksheet he'd missed earlier in the morning. I looked about the room, and every child whose eyes had been on me turned down to the work there—for the moment, they were scared of me as I was scared now of myself.
As we sweated through the day, I saw in Tevin's subdued manner that his respect was authentic. I'd established dominance, the only order Tevin had ever known. And I felt ill with the knowledge that at the day's end, I'd tell Mrs. Burtonsen to resource the boy, to send him away-- what he required, I couldn't afford to give.
All rights reserved.
This excerpt from my memoir, "Gone," was in fictional form published in the Munster Literature Center's magazine Southword after being a runner-up for the Sean O'Faolain International Fiction Prize.