By Roger Iverson '83
As an administrative intern in an inner-city elementary school in Tacoma, I expected to grow professionally but I was caught unprepared for the occasional personal revelation. One personal reward made such an impression that I continue to carry it with me years later. The following is an excerpt from the journal I kept in requirement for my master's degree.
The day before Christmas vacation, Jamie got in trouble again. As his second grade teacher I see him every day. I also see quite a lot of him when I act as the school's principal intern, responsible for our discipline plan.
His little tuft of dirty red hair seems to always bob up and down in the wrong places. Whether kicking someone, stealing from my desk or just destroying something, Jamie's beacon is hard to miss. And yet, at other times he is as covert as a chameleon. Substitutes know his name within the first few minutes of class, and remember it when they return weeks later.
Even though he lives a mile from school, he is not supposed to use the school bus. Last week's fight while going home on the bus brought an automatic letter home and bus suspension.
On his way out of class today I reminded him not to use the bus. He said that his mom, a very elusive lady, won't let him walk home. "I'm sorry, but you have been suspended (again) and either your mom comes to pick you up or you must walk," I bluffed. He said he would call his mom.
While the principal and I were waving bye to the busses rolling out onto the street, one bus came to a halt in front of us. It was Jamie's bus.
The driver called out of the open doors, "Jamie is eating candy again." I climbed aboard and saw him, scrunched down near the floor, back against the wall, like a Dough Boy in his trench, ready for incoming mortar rounds. He had a look you see on someone just before they're hit in the face with a fist. Off he came with a pocket full of candy. Where it came from, I knew not. Another covert operation waged against a fellow student, I guessed.
As the bus drove away I took his candy. The principal asked him to come in so we could call his mom. He completely refused. It was cold and the two of us walked indoors. Again, the principal called to him. Standing alone on the sidewalk, Jamie screamed in return that he wanted his candy back.
He hung around school a few minutes longer hoping for his candy but when he realized I wasn't about to give it back, the seven-year-old gave up and started for home, against his mother's wishes. I was glad to be done with him and begin my Christmas vacation.
Fifteen or twenty minutes went by before my pride was gouged by guilt. No matter how this little creature pushed me, Jamie was still a child who I sent off to find his own way home.
I gathered my things and set out to look for him, following the streets I thought he might take, but I didn't see him as I drove. Finally, I came to his house and my personal revelation was at hand.
Sitting out in the car for a moment, I summoned a little more courage. Stick to the point, I told myself. Don't let the mother talk you out of it. He's not riding the bus. No way! Something's got to be done with kids like this. Discipline is what they need! Keep the control. And, above all, keep calm and professional!
His house was at the far corner of a low-income housing project. Most of the homes were clean, but not Jamie's. I got out of my car and walked past open boxes of books, scattered magazines and an old TV stand in his yard. Hanging over the porch railing was a damp blanket, heavy with scent. Forgotten mail stuffed the box near the door. Behind the large front window, fitted bed sheets hung in place of curtains. Half the window showed Close Encounters of the Third Kind sheets. The other half had dozens of spinning Tasmanian Devils, their fur dyed red from the sun.
I knocked on the metal door which made a hollow sound and it easily swung open. From inside came a thin voice I didn't recognize. "Come in." I did.
The smell of sour milk filled the small house. I felt lumps beneath my feet as I entered but I couldn't see what I walked upon in the sheet-filtered light, made yellow. Every table strained from the weight of unopened letters, dirty food containers, clothes, broken toys, more clothes and anything else. Jamie sat on a sofa, filthy with more unused food and matted clothes, watching static on the TV. I think it was a cartoon show, but mostly it was static. From the television hung a no-smoking sign and in front of Jamie, on top of the coffee table heap, sat an old cup of coffee, or something, with countless cigarette butts pushed into a mound of ash, rising over the rim, making it look like a tourist gift from Mt. St. Helens.
I had no idea. I was caught off guard. "Hi, Jamie," I managed to mumble, trying not to let it show, trying to keep the power. But I didn't need to. This was his refuge. He was home and relaxed, even proud that his teacher had come to visit.
"Hi! How did you know where I live?" he asked. His voice was sweet and thin as if at any moment he would say, "God bless us, every one." But he didn't.
Trying to sound omnipotent, I joked, "I know where everyone lives."
"Oh, yeah, I suppose you do."
Looking around, I saw wasted eggs on the kitchen table, pictures of happy times hanging on the walls and the phone off the hook lying on a pile of something, on top of the sofa where Jamie sat. "Why is the phone off?" I asked.
"My mom leaves it off when she goes out."
"Is she out now?"
"Is Samantha home?" I had his sister Samantha in class last year when I taught a
4/5 split. She was creative and clever. I admired her.
"No. I think she's with my mom."
"Well, did your mom get the letter I sent?" I had sent a letter to his mom explaining that he had been suspended from the school bus for his repeated and dangerous actions. We had received no response from her.
"It might be in my sister's room." He went rummaging towards her room and I followed. Apologetically he said, "It's pretty messy."
I said nothing, but continued inward, wading through it all, pushing things aside with my feet as I went. It was a house with pathways of bare carpet. The one we were on led down the hall and past the first room. In that room, lying on the floor, his sister's box spring and mattress looked like an island amidst a landfill.
He went in but I continued down the path. At the end, on the right, was a clean room. In it there was a four-poster bed, neatly kept, and a large dresser. In place of pictures, mirrors hung on the walls. The mother's room, I thought.
On the left side of the hall was what looked like an empty storage room. Not clean as much as it was barren. Inside and to one corner was a discarded electric blanket with wires falling out from beneath, with a mouse-eaten pillow on top. A small pair of jeans lay near the doorway.
Then it came to me.
"Jamie" I said, hoping I was wrong, "Is this your room?"
He came down the hall and peered in from behind me and said, "Yeah." Nothing was there for him to sleep on. Just a blanket and pillow. Along the left wall was a dresser. On top of that was a half-eaten box. There was absolutely nothing else in that small room except for the dozen or so flies buzzing in circular formation.
Humbled and with genuine honesty, searching for any point of praise at all, I said, "My, you keep your room very clean." Proud of this, he squeezed past me and casually picked the pair of stray pants off the floor and tossed them into his closet.
No longer a principal, no longer a teacher, I needed to see for myself the life this child lives. "Jamie," I slowly asked, "would you please show me how you sleep at night?"
With this he straightened out his blanket into a neat square, flat on the wood floor. When he fluffed up his pillow some of the stuffing puffed out of two or three holes. There was no pillowcase. He stood back, looking at his bed, like a fisherman who had just caught his limit.
This was more than I could take! I don't remember how, but I managed to mumble some sort of nicety, get back into the living room and, eventually, outside to breathe.
Once outside I remember saying something about not running away from the principal and me again and that I was glad he was safe at home. I held his little hand as we talked, but other than that I cannot recall what else was said. I do remember looking back as I drove away, only to see his cherubic face beam with pride through the window, poked between Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Tasmanian Devil bed sheets.
My purpose was once again clear and alluring. I embraced the delightful burden of service, determined no longer to be Jamie's trouble. In fact, he and I became very good friends very fast. It was peculiar how our difficulties seemed to simply evaporate.
And in the many years since, I have had many other Jamies.