What makes a kid decide to turn his life around? At the beginning of this year, I sat in on Cynthia Castillo’s English 11 class, which had 45 students on the roster. Here’s part of my description of my visit that first day:
“Her students are the chattiest I’ve visited; no matter how many questions she answers, there are always more. But a vocal group of eight or so very gregarious boys claims most of her time, along with a kid with extreme behavior issues, who just returned from three days of restorative justice circles and is continually jumping up and down announcing that his computer is broken and accusing her of having something against him.”
For the full description of that visit, click here. I’ve visited her classroom on and off for the past year, watching it evolve from a crammed room of extremely chatty, off-task kids to a much more focused room of students who get down to work right away and stay with it pretty much the entire time. The class is significantly smaller now; on the day I visit, there are only 25 kids there. Cynthia tells me there are an additional 10 or so on the roster, though most of those kids rarely if ever come to school. Another 10 have transitioned to continuation school because they’ve failed so many classes they could not possibly graduate or to an online class called APEX where they can make up lost credits quickly.
Those who remain, though, are there to work. Among them is Ian, the kid I described above with extreme behavior issues. I have to be honest: if I’d known in advance that nearly half the class would fall by the wayside, he’d have been first on my list of kids I assumed would be gone. The day in October when I visited he was aggrieved, defensive and demanding attention so continually that Cynthia had to seat him away from other students. On later visits, he was up and down from his seat pretty much continually throughout class; though he never bothered anybody, he seemed unable to focus.
Today, though, when Cynthia calls out the names of kids who scored 90% or better on the last vocabulary test and has them stand for applause, I’m startled to hear Ian’s name on the list. He stands, smiles and sits down quietly. For the rest of the class, he remains in his seat, following the text with the rest of the class.
I take Cynthia aside to ask what happened. She shrugs; no one ever really knows, and he still is far from a model student (in fact, as we speak, he is sitting in his seat not working, but he is also not bothering anybody). “We fought really hard to keep him here,” she tells me. “The principal really believes in him.”
“Who wanted to move him?”
“His case manager,” she tells me. Ian, it turns out, is one of the many students here who lives in foster care, and when Ian was flailing, his case worker thought he might do better elsewhere. Instead, the school worked with him closely, keeping him in Restorative Justice circles outside of class where he could work expressing his feelings in a constructive way with other students.
I’m amazed. I’ve seen kids change over the years, but rarely over this short a time period. What exactly has caused this change? What’s Ian’s perspective?
I ask if he’ll talk to me outside of class and he seems happy to agree, so we pull plastic chairs into the hall. A clean-cut African-American kid with short hair and a patterned blue button-down shirt, he’s no longer the garrulous, hyperkinetic kid I spoke to in October. Today, he’s friendly but very soft-spoken, choosing his words with care.
I tell him how much he’s changed since I first met him and he smiles. “I’ve calmed down,” he says. “I’ve learned how to think peaceful thoughts.”
“I’ve learned how to control myself through patience and understanding,” he says after a long, thoughtful silence. He tells me that he’s lived in twelve different foster foster homes over the years but assures me that he doesn’t mind. “I like change,” he says. “It’s like I can start over every time. So in a way, it’s not so bad.”
“Start over from what?”
He thinks but does not answer. “I don’t feel like I have to start over now,” he says finally. He likes his current foster dad. “He makes me laugh sometimes and the food is good.”
I ask if he thinks he’s changed this year. “I think it’s gotten easier to talk about how I feel.” He tells me that in his Restorative Justice group, he’s become a leader, something he enjoys. “I can see myself growing here.”
“Who do you trust here?”
He thinks. “I feel like I can trust my teachers.” Long pause. “I feel like I can trust Ms. Castillo. She wouldn’t judge me.” Long pause. “I mean, I feel like I can talk to everybody.”
The bell rings and the hall is flooded with students. Though I have so many more questions, he needs to get to his next class. There are no miracles. I know this. I’ve seen troubled kids have good days, even good months, and then fall apart again. But there are baby steps, and isn’t change really always made of a million baby steps? Leaving, I tell him, that what he’s doing is as hard and as impressive as any work I’ve ever seen. He smiles a little; I don’t know if he believes me. Even if he doesn’t believe me, he has a school full of people who believe in him, people he’s slowly come to trust, and that’s a start.