The Challenge of Ricardo
Valerie Bennett


Oh no, I thought as I read the roster of my advisory students.  I had never even seen Ricardo, but I knew his name.  I knew he was trouble, but I was going to give him the benefit of the doubt.  What I did not know was that I was about to learn so much. 


I taught a connections class for three years and then decided to move to an academic class, Life Science.  The class Ricardo was in was quite a challenge.  The first few weeks were a little rocky.  I was trying to get them to do their work like my other classes, but things were not working.  I was struggling, juggling—doing anything I could think of to get this one group of kids to work.  Ricardo was often the ringleader. 


About three weeks into class, the students were assigned definitions to copy into their notebook.  “Ricardo, you need to get busy,” I quietly said.  He sat there.  “Do you need to sharpen your pencil?” I asked.  He shook his head no.  “Okay, here’s the deal.  I’m going to go back to work; when I look up again, I expect you to be working on your definitions.”  After several minutes, I did as I said I would.  There was no more on the paper than there was a few minutes before.  “Ricardo, do your work now, or go outside.”  I saw at this point he was not going to work.  He slowly got up and proceeded out the door on his own time. 


I followed after a couple of minutes.  “Ricardo, is there a reason you haven’t been working?  Is there something I need to know about?” I inquired.


 He raised his eyebrows, poked out his lips, and gave me a slight shake of the head—No.  “I’m not writing all that,” he bluntly stated. 


“No one else in there has a problem with it,” I attempted to explain although I was not making any progress.  “This is what I’m going to do; I’m giving you an opportunity to go back in there and do your work, or you can go to ISS.  You will not sit in my class and not follow instructions. So what are you going to do?” 


He was looking down at me as if he were going to slit my throat.  I thought he might the next day.  He answered, “I ain’t writin’.”


 “Well, you are choosing to go to ISS.  Stay here.” I walked back in the room, wrote him up, and sent him on his way.  He went without another word.  I, on the other hand, was at the point of tears.  I had never dealt with such defiance. 


That afternoon, I racked my brain, trying to figure out the incident.  It made no sense.  I could not rationalize coming to school and not doing the work.  I decided Ricardo would be my project for the year.  I was going to change him.  I was going to help him even if I did not understand. 


Somewhere along the way I learned that his home life stunk.  His older brother, Ricardo’s hero, was on drugs and abusive.  He lived with his mother, and she was unable to do anything with him.  She could not be reached by phone and did not speak English. 


I was still going to make a difference.    


Ricardo came back to advisory after serving his time in ISS.  He did not bring a knife and was not hostile by any means.  He would come up to my desk and ask, “Mrs. Bennett, why’d you send me to ISS?”  He was reaching out. 


“You know exactly why I sent you to ISS,” I replied. 


He asked often, and he grinned every time.  He joked, “It’s because I’m Hispanic.” 


“Yeah, Ricardo, that’s right.  So why aren’t you there now?” I teased.  He would give some kind of funny answer.  I told him to go sit down. 


Over the course of the semester, there were a few days where Ricardo’s class learned more about the science of life than Life Science.  They were still as much of a problem as the first few weeks of school.  I bribed. I cried. I did everything I could think of to do.  Ricardo missed a lot of class.  He was either absent, in ISS, or suspended, several times for repeated dress code violation.  He was too cool to wear his pants on his waist.  Other times he was, once again, refusing to do work for a teacher. 


Over Christmas break he spent time at the Youth Detention Center.  He actually missed the first two days back from the break.  He never gave me a great deal of detail, but he did tell me he did not want to go back. 


The first week of March, I wrote him up for the last time.  I did not want to.  He had truly been trying to do better over the previous weeks.  He was passing all of his classes and was staying on task.  He did not become the model student, but progress was being made.  He began saying too much about another teacher on team and refused to tuck in his shirt.  “Ricardo, step outside,” I said very calmly.  I had to stand my ground.  I gave the ultimatum: “Tuck your shirt in, and apologize to the class for saying those things about Mrs. Mills.”


 He quickly rebutted, “I ain’t apologizin’ for nothin’.  She shouldn’t have . . . ”


  I stopped him before he went any further. “Ricardo, what happens in other classrooms is not to be discussed in science.  It was inappropriate.  You have no right to take those other students’ learning time,” I demanded.  I attempted to explain, but I knew better.  He had shut down, as usual.  “Get your shirt tucked in, and get back inside,” I said as I walked back in the door.  He nonchalantly walked back in, shirt half way in and pants sagging.  “Go back outside,” I insisted. 


“What!?” he yelled, but left.  I handed him the referral.  He came in to gather his things and never returned.  That was his ninth referral of the year.  His juvenile record was not helping any.  He went before the school board for a hearing and was then to attend alternative school. 


At the beginning of the year, I had been excited about having my students for a whole year instead of getting a new group every nine weeks as it had been in the past.  I thought it would be great to really get to know the students.  I also thought there would be something I could do to make a difference in every child’s life. 


What I learned was that I cannot and will not change them all.  I can only hope that somewhere along the way, they will remember that someone cares about them and only wants them to be successful.  I cannot save them all, but that does not mean that I can’t try.