*as always, all names changed.
At seven years old, DJ was already hardened by violence. A beautiful child, he had dark, sparkling eyes and a mop of dark curls that covered a dent in his skull from being thrown into a counter top as a child. His father was a drug dealer who wandered in and out of prison, beat his wife and many children with appalling regularity, and stole his children’s ADHD medicine when home. The things he had witnessed in his short life had caused him to wall himself off from the world, terrified of adults, terrified of bursts of unexpected violence, unable to sleep at home. Other children avoided him; even older children feared him.
He sat off to the side at a desk in a taped off box, “DJ’s Space,” which the other children carefully avoided. Crossing the line into DJ’s space often resulted in punches, thrown books, and flying chairs. He spent most of his time staring at the floor, grumbling, ripping up supplies and lashing out at people who walked by. It was his second year in first grade and he couldn’t read at all, so his days were a long blur of letter review. I was warned about him before I began teaching, and my first year classroom was a three ring circus of wild and damaged children.
My first introduction to DJ’s violence was a fit in the hall; he threw himself down on the floor, screaming about some injustice, and I got too close. He pulled me down by the hair, tearing out handfuls of it while kicking me in the knees. I managed to free myself, and learned by lesson about how to approach children like that. He did apologize later, and I saw the briefest flash of tears in his eyes. “Din’t mean it,” he muttered. “Didn’t wanna hurt you.”
Over the next month, I watched him. He listened raptly to stories, especially about happy families and children. One day, while I read to them, he said, “Them people ain’t real. The dad would have hit the kid.”
“Most people don’t hit kids, DJ.”
“Yeah they do,” piped up another student. “We’d behave better if you had a belt, I bet.”
“I don’t ever hit kids,” I replied. “Never. I don’t hit my kids, I don’t hit my students. No hitting goes for everyone around here, you got it? I won’t hurt you. I promise.”
DJ sat up a little straighter. “Yeah. You didn’t hit me that time. You coulda. Thought you would. But you didn’t hurt me.”
I knew they’d test me to see if I kept my promise. So few adults in their lives did.
Eventually more teachers were hired and I split my classroom. Most of the teachers thought I’d get rid of DJ. I didn’t. I saw something in him, a spark of life. He wanted to be a good child. He hid his smile behind his hand when praised. He started to repair his supplies, grab his fist with his hand to restrain himself. He wanted people to like him; he’d just never been taught how. He walked in the hall with his arms tightly folded in dead silence so I’d give him a sticker. “Aww, come on, stickers are for little kids,” he’d mutter, and a bright smile would flash across his face as he tucked it into his pocket.
Slowly, we worked together over the first semester. He still struggled, but he learned to sit at his desk, walk in the hall, deliver messages to the office safely. At Christmastime, on the last day of school, I found him in the coatroom after school, hiding with his older brother. “Dad’s home,” he whispered, clinging to the his brother.
I didn’t know what to say. “Honey, you…have to go.” I had already made all the phone calls I could. Everyone knew, but no one could act. There was nothing I could do.
“He’s gonna kill us,” his brother said. “We may not come back.”
What do you say?
“I wish I could…”
“We know.” They got up and left.
They did come back. It took DJ a good three weeks to settle back into routine and get control of things again. In February, he asked shyly if he could try sitting with the class. I moved him into the group, and the other kids were nervous, but he was okay. “I can do it,” he said. “I can be a good guy, okay? Trust me?”
He proved true to his word. The only fights he got into were defending younger children. He continued to ask me questions about how to behave, what he could do to calm down. We worked on taking “cool off” walks, punching pillows, etc. He had a special corner full of pillows to lie down in if he needed a break. He prided himself on his “good days,” and corrected the behavior of other children. One day, a pair of second graders were playing with the hall lights. I told them to quit, and they told me to fuck off. DJ glowered at them from the line and said, “Don’t you mess with Ms. Ohnaka, man. She make your life hell.” they stared at him, glanced back at me, and muttered apologies before leaving. DJ tapped me on the arm, grinned and said, “I got your back.”
He loved a battered copy of Dr Seuss The Foot Book, and trained himself to read it. Miraculously, between me and the incredible special education teachers, he learned to read. Having a safe place to be during the day revealed a charismatic, eager child. In the spring, I caught him reading under his desk. “It’s math time, DJ. You have to put the book away.”
“But…” he flashed me a little smile. “But…you don’t understand! I’m so late, and I have so many books to read!”
“Tell you what. Do math now, and if you want, you can read to us later.”
At the end of the day, he sat in my chair and slowly, carefully read The Foot Book to the class. He blushed when the class applauded.
At the end of the year, I gave him The Foot Book as a gift. “Aww, man. That shit’s for little kids,” he muttered, stuffing it in his backpack. He paused as he lined up at the door. “Can I have a sticker?”
I found him a sparkly one to stuff in his pocket, and he went out the door. He read the book to other classes on Dr. Seuss day the following year.
DJ was fortunate that his next years of teachers loved him as much as I did. The following years, he was removed from special education and began to work at grade level. He maintained his tough exterior, but everyone knew he had a soft spot for younger children, animals and kind adults. He thrived on praise.
Later, I met his middle school teacher, and she said, “Oh, DJ! I love DJ!” He got into sports in middle school, and found a tough but kind coach who told him he was only welcome to play if he kept his grades up. He found his place on the team and did everything the coach demanded.
I was driving past the middle school one day, and saw DJ walking his brothers home. He kept him carefully on the sidewalk, directing them, laughing. He smiled and waved at friends. He didn’t see me, but that’s how I’ll remember him: tall, strong, protective. In spite of his horrific life, I know he’ll get out and break the cycle. Maybe he can even bring his siblings with him. Never underestimate the impact of love.