Girls Like Jenny
Until I did my student teaching, I didn’t know girls like Jenny Latham* existed. She bragged about her nickname – Jenny “Lay-Them-Out” Latham, and told me in great detail about people she had beaten up and cut up, and teachers she had run off.
With good reason, everybody was afraid of Jenny – even the boys – even me, but I knew if I were to survive this teaching assignment with the kids nobody else wanted, I needed “Lay-Them-Out” Latham on my side.
I struggled to discover in Jenny some sort of talent or ability but struck out. The catch-them-being-good approach wouldn’t work. Using grades as a threat was a joke.
She had the power to destroy my attempts at maintaining order in the classroom and sabotaged any classroom management strategy. She was definitely the leader of the pack. She knew it, and the other kids knew it. I was kidding myself to think that I was in charge.
To make matters worse, I didn’t like Jenny. Lots of my kids were bad, but usually had some redeeming quality. In Jenny, I could find nothing – until I stumbled onto something Jenny Latham loved – poetry. Poetry!!!
She not only participated in class activities, but volunteered to share her own poems with the class. This tough girl was a true poet. I immediately extended my one-day lesson on poetry to an in-depth unit and another side – a beautiful side - of Jenny Latham came to life.
I knew not to openly praise Jenny in front of her peers. She was too cool for that. But, I wanted to encourage her so I sent notes home through the mail. “Jenny stayed on task today.” “Jenny did a great job on her homework.” “Jenny is showing tremendous improvement in her writing.” “Jenny is a natural poet.”
The correspondence seemed to be working. Lay-Them-Out was finally on my side, and all was right in the world, or so I thought. All was right in my world, but Jenny’s world was anything but right.
“Please stop sending the nice letters!”
I’ll never forget the day her younger sister – a shell of a girl – walked in to my room during my planning period. When she told me she was Jenny’s sister, I couldn’t believe it. Jenny was a kick-your-butt big girl, and this younger sister was nothing but a mouse.
She was little, but her words were big.
She asked me not to send any more letters home to Jenny. Even though the letters were full of compliments, praise, and encouragement, the father beat Jenny and the sister every time anything from the school came in the mail. He couldn’t read so he just assumed anything from the school was bad news. If they tried to explain, he would beat them for trying to lie to him or trick him or for thinking they were better than him.
I wanted to put my arms around her and tell her that I understood, and that I was sorry, and that there were people who could help her, and that things were going to get better, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I simply told her I would not send anything more to her house and that yes, we would keep this matter to ourselves. I followed the protocol for abuse, knowing even as a student teacher, that no good would come of it.
I felt like such a failure as a teacher. I was mad at the system that let this happen. I had tried so hard to make things better, only to make them worse. I wanted to march straight to the principal’s office, tell him I had made a terrible mistake, and quit. I was actually typing my letter of resignation when the bell rang and my kids that no one wanted filed in and found their desks.
They began pulling out their homework assignments: “ Find a Poem That Uses a Metaphor.” Jenny volunteered to read hers first. She stood by her desk and read Langston Hughes’ Mother to Son.
Well, son, I'll tell you: Life for me ain't been no crystal stair. It's had tacks in it, And splinters, And boards torn up, And places with no carpet on the floor— Bare. But all the time I'se been a-climbin' on, And reachin' landin's, And turnin' corners, And sometimes goin' in the dark Where there ain't been no light. So, boy, don't you turn back. Don't you set down on the steps. 'Cause you finds it's kinder hard. Don't you fall now— For I'se still goin', honey, I'se still climbin', And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
I didn’t go to the principal’s office that day, and I didn’t quit. I plugged along, trial and error, following my gut, trying to make a difference with these children that didn’t matter much to anyone. The nobody’s, that’s what society said they were. I was trying to make a class of nobody’s feel like somebody’s – even if for only an hour a day.
Unofficial Field Trip
Fast forward to Spring, a Saturday morning in the Township Auditorium - my college graduation. I didn’t know it, but we were about to have what teachers call a cumulating activity. I looked out into the audience and saw some of my rag tag little middle school students. Jenny Lathan was right there in the pack. They had come to see me graduate. I’m guessing they walked or took the bus. Were they just looking for a bit of adventure? Was college graduation something they needed to see to believe? Were they wanting to show me they were proud of me? I think it was simply this: I had been their teacher. They had been my students, and we had been a team.
I was young and probably made a million mistakes, but as best I could I was there for them. That morning, they were there for me.
Sometimes I wonder what became of Jenny. I would like to think she graduated high school, then college and is a writer or an English teacher somewhere. I would like to think she is safe and that nobody beats her anymore. But I don’t know. She could be in jail.
But I do know this. I can’t read that beautiful poem without thinking of that girl. Her life was no crystal stair, for sure.
For those few months that spring, she turned some corners and reached some landings.
I hope she didn’t sit down on the steps. I hope she’s still going. I hope she’s still climbing. For sure, Jenny Latham’s life was no crystal stair.
But for those few months, in that classroom, Jenny Latham’s voice was heard. Her voice mattered. For a few months, that spring, Jenny’s soul got to soar, if only for an hour a day.
*name was changed for privacy