Not Helping Johnny

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I could not help Johnny. I talked to his mother. She told me that she worked in counseling and her son was fine.

I changed his seat because he was talking nonstop to one of his few friends. He refused to move. He made weird noises at odd times regularly, mostly to disrupt the class, but sometimes I think he just had to emote in guttural moments of fear. He accused other students of bullying. “Mick called me fat!” he would say. (He was skin-and-bones thin.) Mick denied the accusation. Johnny kept saying, “No!” when asked to do daily work.  He made his class tense and other students complained. In these times, weird noises can be scary noises. The bullying issues became complex. How much of what Johnny said was true? I knew much was not — Johnny lied even when I had been standing right beside him — but kids pick on weak kids, and Johnny was building an image of weakness, bit by bit with random noises and odd behavior.

I sought help, but Johnny could talk a good game. His mother and the social worker did not see the problems I saw. Johnny knew all the psych words. I was not sure if I was watching this boy unravel or not. Maybe he was playing a game, messing with his classes and students’ heads for fun.  My take was Johnny was scared, and in response had launched himself on a mission to disrupt his classes.

Other teachers reported similar problems. They got no further than I did. I think Johnny might have been waiting for one of his teachers to rescue him, but he could always explain himself. He had not meant to blurt out that word or sound, he explained earnestly. He was sorry he had refused to … whatever — and there were a lot of whatevers.  He could talk about emotions and behavior glibly, almost professionally. I suspect he had been reading his mom’s books and magazines.

Eduhonesty: If outsiders want a glimpse into the stresses and struggles of teaching, this snippet may help. Across a few years, I can still see and hear this kid. I hope he is doing well in high school. Not all middle-school emotional dives end badly. But I also want to note that this one kid made a whole class nervous, except for a few friends, and I could not solve the problem.

You had to be there. You had to hear him. You had to watch his face. But outsiders did not see him or hear him, except through the carefully funneled channel of innocent, youthful, “Oops! It was an accident.”

So many accidents. So little time between those accidents. Everything could be explained. Everything was explained. To my knowledge, Johnny never got help. He managed to slip through the cracks.

I don’t know what to add, except this: Moms, dads and guardians — Your kid’s teacher has seen many, many children. When he or she calls you repeatedly, please don’t dismiss concerns with a quick, “He’s fine at home!” I never doubted he was fine at home, in his comfort zone with his loving mother. He was not fine at school, however, and he was building a reputation for weirdness that he will be years putting behind him, if he ever manages to escape that reputation.