A Memoirby Maggie Panko
Out of twenty-three students, twenty were boys. “We had to put these ones together,” our principal told me, “so that they don’t poison the other classes.” This group of students wouldn’t have been shocked to hear it themselves. Almost all of them had been together in almost every class since grade seven. Only one new boy was being added.
I didn’t know Toby Moreton personally before he entered my classroom, but, like every student and every teacher in the school, I knew him by reputation. Last year Toby walked around the school after hours, his phone camera set to video, and found problems. Holes in hallway ceilings. Bathrooms with broken toilets. Sinks without paper towels or soap. Like everyone else, I saw the result on YouTube. A tour of the school, offenses pointed out. Except they weren’t. Holes in the ceiling had been multiplied so that they seemed to span every floor. The ash-green bathrooms had been doubled, so that there were no acceptable toilets. The entire school was debilitated. Nothing was safe. No one cared. At the end of the video Toby’s voice, low and even, asked, “Whose fault is this?” The Administration, it read across the screen in red letters.
“This is not a freedom of speech issue,” our principal seethed during an emergency staff meeting. “He has misrepresented the school and tried to deliberately harm our community. We are going to send a message to Toby and to every student here. This will not be tolerated.” Toby was suspended for two weeks, the longest suspension possible before expulsion. Two-week-suspension students aren’t sent home to play video games. Toby went to the Off-Site Planning Room. In other words, the students were sent to a public school holding tank a good distance from where they lived, where they would be tasked to do their work, isolated from everyone they knew.
“Toby’s all right,” my friend Julie Thompson told me, piling up history textbooks, a few days before September classes would start. “He really is. He’s troubled. He hates living at home. He struggles with his mother.” Julie sighed. “He’s more wounded than anything. It’s like he’s permanently hurt.”
Julie is one of the best teachers I have ever met. Thin and light-haired, exceptionally polite, she is so warm that her strict order and fairness are never brittle. I’ve seen her work with student after student who was dead set against doing any classwork. They light up when they do well, and she smiles, genuinely. Even lovingly, in the way that solid teachers do. Showing love for humanity through this single individual. That light stays, even if it wavers, when they do badly, since Julie pulls up a rocky plastic chair, sitting with them and talking them through it. She’s a tough marker, her students say with pride. Julie was letter-perfect with Toby.
“He wasn’t the same after he came back from that suspension.” Julie’s eyes rested on mine, in the way I’d see Toby’s do many times afterward.
Perhaps that was part of Toby’s decency in Julie’s classroom. That familiarity. You saw that often. A particular student would, by happy coincidence, have a touch of similarity with a teacher. It could be something predictable, like a bookish student who bonds with their English teacher. Or obscure. A place, significant to both student and teacher, where they longed to go. A cult movie. Maybe even a way of being: quiet, shy, in a school full of roaring noise. Connections like this were invaluable at a school like ours. Our students often didn’t have much money, clothing, parenting, or food. But they had boundless loyalty. They knew how much it was worth. They knew what it meant to mete it out.
That Toby had decided on loyalty to Julie, that she had succeeded with him and taught him to pass the graduation-requirement history exam, did not surprise me. But it didn’t reassure me that Toby and I would work out. After his suspension the principal decided Toby would be moved out of the French immersion program in the next school year and into core English. A demotion. French immersion was more rigorous academically, demanded more independence, and generally had students who were better behaved. Core English was for academic last-chancers and behavior problems. My class of twenty-three culled away from the rest of their grade was core English.
Toby’s shift wasn’t a surprise, but I was anxious about it immediately. Would he find the pace of the class too slow, get frustrated, act out? Would having students who were serious behavior problems provoke him? Either would be textbook educational fallout. Both were likely. I knew most of the students Toby would be mixing with.
Two years before, I had taught most of his core English class when they were ninth graders. In October more than half the class had been suspended for a week. They had skipped class and gone out back to the athletic field, where they’d lifted up a set of wooden bleachers above a student’s head and threatened to drop it. The unsuspended students had plowed forward with the writing—the classroom environment was far more stable—but at some points, class broke down into curious discussion, the kind of thing that happens at a school where everyone has learned to absorb and tolerate chaos.
“Miss.” One girl had politely raised her hand. “What is the worst thing you have ever done?” Skylar was smart, articulate, marred by moves from family member to family member to foster home, and the school absences that went with that.
“Uh,” I’d said. “I don’t think I can—”
“Come on, Miss.” Students had smiled and asked again and again. There were only a couple of boys and three girls left.
“All right,” I’d said, feeling hesitation sink into my muscles. To tell them I’d have to crop the whole experience into simple language. Then use all my will to push the words out. “When I was younger, years before I became a teacher, I was living with my best friend. But I had a terrible temper, and I didn’t control it. Eventually she left over it.”
Skylar beamed, and I was awash with relief until she spoke. “I’ve done that a bunch of times. Why do you think I was in Ottawa for a year?” Other students nodded in agreement, testifying to their own moments when anger had destroyed a part of their lives.
I liked those students. They were rough. But they fit the staff-room description for core English: easy to like, hard to teach. Still, I wished Toby, new Toby, vitriolic Toby, would have a place away from them. The principal was adamant, though. No more immersion.
On the first day of grade eleven, Toby walked in with his six-foot frame slumped, a black bandanna tied around his head. A uniform violation. I let it pass. Toby already reverberated with rage. I was unsure of myself, in front of a class for the first time that year. A few students greeted Toby, and he merely screened them with his eyes and sat down.