by Jack Cooper
My new teaching experience included an eleventh grade American History/Government class in suburban America where the school’s student body was predominantly well off, white, and removed of diversity in concept and practice. It was here that I experienced this nearly invisible student. I am haunted by the experience and vow to find a way to bring peace to it. But how? Maybe by continuing to rethink the circumstances and considering all that I may have done wrong or neglected to do at all. What could I have done? What should I have done? Inexperienced as I may have been, there must have been alternatives to the approach that I was trained to do. But what were they?
Brian was a ghost, an almost invisible student. He did not appear to fit in with the mostly white, preppy peers that he shared a classroom with. His dark, not always clean, hair was a bit longer than that of his peers and his skin was a bit darker than most of the others, but not tanned. He had smooth skin, not plagued by the acne that many of his fellow students had. His clothes were not of the designer brands that he would see on others around him. He had long eyelashes, piercing black eyes with a full face, and small frame. He didn’t carry a book bag like so many others. He carried a single notebook but seldom something to write with. I never saw him smile and he never looked up at me or anyone. His head always hanging low, even when speaking or being spoken to. He would sit against the wall toward the back of the room and away from the body of the class. He never raised his hand, never caused trouble, never disruptive, never talked, and eventually disappeared. Seldom, if at all, did the other students notice this apparition when he appeared and none of them had noticed that he was gone.
At the start of the school year, Brian quietly vegetated deep under a baseball cap that succeeded in hiding much of his head and face. After a few weeks, I realized that he had not turned in a single assignment. I checked his notebook. It was blank. Not even doodling. I remembered the first time I gave an assignment, a brief, in-class essay on “a day in your summer – history in the making.” He asked for extra time because he said he couldn’t write in class. He never did turn in the assignment. He simply shrugged his shoulders and showed me a blank notebook each time I reviewed completed assignments from everyone in class. When I would point to the blank notebook and asked him to write something, he’d often say, with complete sincerity, “I thought I had.”
Homework and reading assignments I could understand, but how could he have been present and still miss all the worksheets we did in class? I counted the assignments when I collected them, and I should have noticed if his had been missing. I checked everywhere to make sure I hadn’t misplaced any of Brian’s work, but I didn’t have a single piece of paper with his name on it, no evidence that he existed at all. I then remembered that with the collection of assignments, there would sometimes be a blank sheet of paper with no name on it. I recalled a few times when I had reminded him of an assignment that was overdue. Each time, he had nodded in agreement, but had never produced the work. When I would ask him for it, he either said, “I forgot” or “It’s in my locker,” or “I’ll bring it tomorrow.”
Well, tomorrows came and went, and no assignments of any kind were turned in by Brian. As I kept Tim informed, my supervising mentor teacher, he would, from time to time, speak with Brian in ways and in words that only he and Brian would ever know. Tim assured me that it wasn’t me, certainly not him, and that Brian would eventually become a casualty of that all too wide crack in the system. Discussions with Brian proved fruitless. Tim’s approach and advice were predictable. Brian would become the first notch in my gradebook, a reflection of a casualty on the battleground of education. But how did Tim know of the outcome so early in the situation? Was it experience? Or was it possible that his sometimes-cavalier approach to these situations and the Brians of his career contributed to the outcome? Tim would often refer to it as seasoned cynicism.
In the end, less than three months into the school year, Brian stopped coming to school. Sometime later, when the notice came that he would not be returning, Tim declared it my first casualty in a way that he seemed to find humorous. He was lighthearted about it, although his explanation for why Brian was lost did seem to make sense, but not sensible. Tim was, apparently, unaffected. I, on the other hand, was just short of devastated. Here was a student who, for the better part of several months, had almost no existence, no proof that he was once a student in my class. Here was an apparition of a boy who had since disappeared, and as far as I can tell, none of his peers had even noticed that he was gone. If he ceased to exist completely, would he even be missed? Would there be any evidence that he had existed at all? Had he contemplated these same questions in his own mind? How awful it would be to think that a child at sixteen may have such thoughts. Maybe worse, here I was, his teacher, inexperienced and probably incapable of being that influence he may have needed to make a difference in his life, however small.
I’m sorry, Brian. I just wasn’t ready for you, and I have yet to bring peace to this haunting experience.
About the Author
Jack Cooper is author of A Boy Lost, and other bio-mythographical pieces of life’s painful experiences - intolerance, and injustices, and the resulting tragedies. He has a MA from Union College in Upstate NY where he spends his time renovating properties with the love of his life, and his Great Dane, Jack. Jack spent twenty years in the private sector as an operations director, and twenty-five years teaching. His past time is writing, renovating, and retiring.