The Bad Dream, the Book Bag, and the KKK
1993 found me at an alternative school with a mixed bunch of students. Trashy kids and nice kids. Plenty of thugs and more than enough rednecks.
Steven Shelley* had been an all-star football player until an injury ended his days on the field. He read at the third-grade level so, even if he wanted to, he couldn't do the work. He got in trouble one too many times and, without the coach to run interference, finally got the boot and ended up in our adult education center.
I met him where he was academically and started teaching that boy how to read and write. Most of his journal entries were about his mother who had recently died of cancer. He was lost and broken and, understandably, mad at the world. Teachers are not supposed to have favorites, but I loved that boy.
One night I had a bad dream about Steven. I had no idea how important that dream would be when I walked in to class the next day.
My room was set up with tables, not desks. Matthew*, one of my sorriest white boys, walked in with his trashy little pregnant girlfriend, Missy.* He threw his book bag on the table where Steven was sitting. Steven sprung up and had that boy pinned against the wall in a flash. I tried to reach his shoulders to pull him off Matthew, but he was a foot taller and outweighed me by at least a hundred pounds. A crowd formed quickly. Whites on one side and blacks on another. I was in the middle of a mess.
Something came over me, and I yelled, ”I dreamed about your mother last night.” Steven Shelley dropped the skinny punk and spun around. My heart was pounding, but I was able to make out the words that would diffuse the situation: “Walk away, Steven. Your mama wouldn’t want this for you. Come on. Let’s get out of here.” I’m not sure where we went or what happened next, but I remember the back story clearly.
Turns out Matthew used White Out correction fluid and wrote KKK on his book bag. When he threw the bag on the table, Steven snapped. According to district policy in 1993, there was nothing we could do about the message on the bag. That news didn’t sit well with me. I delivered my letter of resignation. Somehow our wonderful principal worked her magic the way good principals do. Matthew never brought that book bag into my classroom again.
Steven continued to work hard. From time to time he asked me about the dream I had about his mama. I told him what I could. He asked me if I made it all up and used his mother’s memory to stop the fight. We both knew I wasn’t that quick on my feet, but he was skeptical. One day I shared a new detail that had popped into my brain: a scar on his mother’s forearm. Steven froze. I described it the best I could, and he nodded his head. We were both a little freaked out. We pulled his file to see if I had read that detail in one of his journal entries. No reference to a scar. Neither of us understood how I could know that bit of information.
After the book bag incident, Steven and I had deep conversations about what the dream meant. Do guardian angels exist? Did I simply have a strong sense of intuition? Had he told me about the scar? We tried to make sense of it all, but the best we could come up with was that a mother’s love is both powerful and inexplicable, and that good teachers love their students like their own kids.
I left the alternative school before Steven finished his work. I don’t know what became of that boy, but I know this: something bigger than both of us happened that day. Forces of evil crept into my classroom and tried to defeat a young man doing his best, but love won that battle. People say love conquers all, and I hope that is true. Today, more than ever, I need to believe that love is stronger than hate.
In 1993, in a run-down alternative school, racism reared its ugly head. But hatred was no match for a mother’s love for her child and a teacher's sense of right and wrong. No, hatred did not win that battle. Not that day. Not in my classroom.
Other stories about my days teaching school....
What Have You Done Did Now? Tale of a First-Year Teacher
The Lamar Thomas Series - Part One
The Lamar Thomas Series - Part Two
The Lamar Thomas Series - Part Three
Lenora Jones - A Pain So Great