My first year teaching eighth grade at Lanier County Middle School, I had a corner room and saw almost all of the sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students at least once every day. With a huge suitcase-looking backpack on wheels rolling behind him, Danny always seemed to be in a hurry without moving very fast. When the girls started talking with him, he would duck his head, smiling, and scurry away. The less-than-nice kids always compared him to a rat. Oddly enough, I could somehow see the connection as I watched him scurry away. The other teachers gossiped that Danny’s parents physically abused him and that was the reason he acted the way he did. Privately, I hoped this wasn’t true, but I could see that Danny was somewhat afraid of the rest of the world.
Danny’s seventh-grade year, I was still teaching from the same room. Danny would duck his head in my door at least once every day and check out my trash can. “Danny, are you looking for something?” I asked. Shaking his head, Danny would disappear as suddenly as he had appeared. I always wondered if he was hungry and desperately wanted to find out if he really had problems at home. What a strange kid, I thought on many occasions.
Making it to eighth grade, Danny was now assigned to my fourth-block reading class. That year, I discovered that Danny was a gifted student, and I began to understand many of the quirks that go along with teaching gifted children. He sat dutifully through class not commenting, but avidly reading whatever we were reading that day. As a class, we traveled through the lives of The Outsiders, Anne Frank, “Flowers for Algernon,” Tears of a Tiger, and many more fiction and non-fiction texts. Danny very seldom read aloud, and his interaction with the other children was almost nonexistent. In fact, when class was over, Danny would wait quietly until everyone else was gone and then drag his rolling backpack toward his fifth-block class. Every day, I said, “Bye Danny, you better hurry, or you are going to be late.” Again, no comment, just a quick scurry as if he suddenly realized what being late meant.
I never actually saw any evidence of child abuse except for the standoffishness. His dad came to open house and made it a point to let me know that he expected Danny to make A’s. When I returned papers, I noticed that Danny always anxiously looked at his grade. Luckily, in reading class, he never made below an A. I became almost as afraid as he was that his paper would be a B. Is this proof of child abuse? Can mental abuse be as bad as physical abuse?
Much to my pleasure, the next year I was allowed to move up to the ninth grade with this group of children. As a whole, I thoroughly enjoyed teaching them, and I was definitely looking forward to their first year in high school. Danny wasn’t assigned to my ninth-grade literature class until second semester. By that time, he had grown up a little bit, acquired a girlfriend, and seemed to have a little more self-confidence. However, for the most part, he was still extremely quiet and kept mostly to himself.
On one particular morning, the students were assigned a journal topic, and they were sharing what they had written with the whole class. One of the students was adamantly opposed to the war in Iraq, and the journal entry that she read was pretty clear about wanting President Bush to pull the American soldiers out of Iraq.
At that moment, Danny came alive in my classroom. He sat up tall, and in a manly voice, he interrupted the other student. “Do you know what will happen if we pull our troops out of Iraq?” he demanded. He then proceeded to spout out a long list of evil things that would happen if the United States just walked away. Danny was so loud and argumentative that he nearly came across his desk. Listening intently, I tried to commit his reasons to memory, but because my political prowess is less than it should be, I can’t remember a single reason that he cited. I do, however, remember that he convinced me that our troops did have a legitimate reason for being in Iraq. The other students, who like me had probably never really heard his voice, just sat there with their mouths open. When Danny finished his tirade, we all looked at him with a new respect, and no one volunteered to argue with him. The girl who had written the journal topic just politely put her journal entry under her other books as if she were ashamed she had written it. It turns out that Danny’s father is retired military, and his mother is actually from Korea. Apparently, a lot of the conversations he heard at home were centered around what was going on in his mother’s native country and how this affected the United States.
I had watched this young man grow from the sixth grade to the ninth grade, and I never really knew him at all. Later that semester, we were reading, The Raven, and Danny volunteered to read aloud. With intense feeling and complete concentration, Danny read the poem almost without looking at the book. Dumbfounded when he finished, I could not speak. One of the other students asked him to please read it again. He did, and everyone in the class was in awe. Even the students who had no desire to be in the classroom knew that they had just witnessed a great performance. It seems that Danny had not really been shy at all. He just did not need the interaction of the other students to justify his own existence. Danny was completely happy in his own little world until now. It seems that he had learned some things during his ninth-grade year that had left him convinced the rest of the world was worthy of knowing him.
As a class, we trudged through Romeo and Juliet, The Pigman, Freak the Mighty, and many other fiction and non-fiction texts. Danny volunteered to read much more this year, but he remained standoffish to some degree. Every day at the end of class, he remained in his seat until everyone else had gone. When the room had cleared, Danny would grab his rolling suitcase and exit the room with a “Bye, Mrs. Cook.” We had definitely made progress this year. If Danny was being abused at home, either it had stopped, or he had figured out a way to deal. In my heart, I could only accept the answer that Danny wasn’t a victim.
On the last day of school this year, each student had to write a journal entry containing three things they had learned this year, and they had to share these with the rest of the class. When it was Danny’s turn, he told me that he wasn’t through and asked to be called on to share later. The rest of the class finished sharing, and the bell rang before Danny had a chance. On the way out the door, Danny handed me a piece of paper with a meticulously written note on it: “Mrs. Cook, Thank you for teaching me Literature. We had had lots of fun in here, and I actually learned stuff every day. You make comments on my writing, and I can tell that you actually read it. Danny.” This note means more to me than any observation or monetary reward that I have ever been given. This small, strange, brilliant child learned in my classroom! There is nothing in the world that I will ever encounter that will be this satisfying, and I will cherish it forever.