Seven years ago, on 13 October 2006, I wrote this, I worked at a day treatment facility for kids who had been unable to find a path to success in school.
Yesterday, one of the boys in our program asked if he could use the computer for a little while. “No problem,” I said. He’s had a great week, and it was a slow morning.
The week was much improved over the past. We were both frustrated about how things were going in my class — he much more than I. At the end of the last six weeks, when we were working on science (now we’ve switched to social studies for the second six weeks), M-Jezzy (his nom de plume at our program’s blog) was trying to make up some missed work, and getting very frustrated about it.
“Man, I just hate science,” he exclaimed.
“That’s fine,” I said. “Not everyone likes science. What we can do, though, is use that as a way to make up some of your work.” I instructed him to log into our blog, akacoolpeople.com, and write about science and why he hates it. “Explain three reasons you don’t like it, and we’ll count that as one of your missed assignments.”
I do not like science at all. And i,ve got three reasons why. One reason is because it is so confusing. likewhe gives the homework out. I dont know what he is talking about beause. They would be so many things that he is talking about. An the other reason iswhen he gives the i want know what to do because. It will be so many things that you would have to look for an you would have to do so much research. And the last reason is the things that he teaches in class i dont know wat in the world that hebe talking about. Likewe was talking about an atom an what i have to study about it is so hard because. The atom has so many things in it. And you will get mixed up with all the parts of an atom. Beceause you will not know how to put them in oder. An if you get this and you are really feeling wat i am saying to you then mail me back M-JEZZY out. I hate science so bad i wish i did not have it at all. (science)
I read it and thought, “What an indictment of me. I obviously don’t explain things for him, and I can’t even make myself clear when assigning homework.”
I talked to the head teacher about it; I talked to the program director about it; I talked to the head counselor about it. The consensus: M-Jezzy does not deal with ambiguity well (as if anyone really does). Like most people, he wants to know where he’s going and what he’s going to have to do to get there.
Starting this week, I began something new. Something obvious. Something basic. Something I should have been doing all along. I blocked off a portion of the white-board and wrote an outline of what we’d be doing, including information about what kind of activity it would be.
Next class, M-Jeezy was like a different young man — much more attentive, much more focused, much more involved. He asked penetrating questions, and he didn’t giggle too much.
A success, I thought.
Back to yesterday morning. M-Jezzy sits down at the computer and logs into “aka cool people,” and starts typing. This is what he writes:
now sence my teacher was started to put the agenda on the board i am starting to learn more in class and i know no wat to do.And i am not getting confused write me
I can’t remember the last time I felt so good.
Yet it was not what M-Jezzy wrote that made my day — it was that he did it spontaneously.
M-Jezzy was fifteen when I wrote this, theoretically a tenth-grader but he was still in eighth grade because of behavior. He’d been tossed out of regular school because of his behavior — basically an unwillingness to regulate his impulses in any way whatsoever — and then tossed out of alternative school for the same reason. All of this left him with few alternatives, which is how he landed in our day treatment facility — a last ditch effort to teach him the social and personal skills he so clearly lacked and so desperately needed.
In the end, it’s clear that we didn’t get through to M-Jezzy, for later this week, he’ll be going to trial facing six charges: misdemeanors and two felonies. The former: trespass charges and assault on a female; the latter: first degree murder and intentional child abuse with serious physical injury. He stands accused of beating to death his girlfriend’s four-year-old son.
From the accounts I’ve read in newspapers, it seems a reasonable assumption that he’s guilty. Knowing him personally and seeing his temper in action, I find it tragically plausible that he did indeed beat a toddler to death.
The vindictive (read: human) side of me thinks his punishment should be based on a simple mathematical equation. A proportion, really. Take the pounds per square inch of his punch over the weight of the child he beat to death. The other side of the proportion you can probably figure out: x over his weight. Solve for X. Then he should be beaten regularly by someone who can hit with that much force. Beaten for weeks on end. Months on end. The end will come — eventually, he’ll be beaten to death in one, long session. But he’ll never know which one it will be. So each time he sees his executioner, he’ll have to ask himself the same question his victim asked himself: how will it end this time?
Fortunately, I’m not in charge of sentencing. The compassionate side of me realizes that such punishment is cruel, but again, the vindictive side says, “Who is he to deserve mercy?” It’s a conundrum.
I write this to you because I want to be perfectly clear with you: I don’t know how M-Jezzy got from where he was merely a disruptive kid in an under-funded day treatment facility to a young man facing serious prison time (if he survives: my aunt, who worked in the prison system for twenty years, assures me that as soon as inmates find out what M-Jezzy got convicted of, if he’s convicted, they’ll take care of the problem). I don’t know the road he took, but I do know this: you remind me of him so much sometimes it’s terrifying. And now, it should be terrifying for you.