When I met William three years ago, he reminded me of Francis Tarwater, the protagonist of the Flannery O’Connor novel The Violent Bear It Away, which I was reading that fall. Tarwater is raised in the woods by his great-uncle, a superstitious Christian who believes Tarwater will grow up to be a prophet. When the old man dies, Tarwater must re-enter society after being sequestered in the woods for most of his life, and he’s terrified. He trusts no one.
The first day William showed up to my class, he took a seat near the window and slouched down in his seat. From here, he could see the Brevoort Houses, where he lived. He had covered the front of his notebook with the word Brevoort and the name of a well-known Brevoort crime syndicate. His feline face was stony. In crossing the street to come to school, he’d entered enemy territory.
We soon learned that William was merry and affable, that when he trusted you, he loved you. We learned, too, that he used his friendliness as a cover for huge academic deficits. On his way into the classroom, he’d light his face up like a game show host and thrust his arm into the air to high-five the teacher, shake her hand, and give her a hug as he shouted her name. It was a performance: it delayed the moment when he’d have to sit down and be a student.
The last time he took my class, he failed it. By the end of the semester, after a long series of interventions and a signed contract, he couldn’t pay attention for 10 minutes without devolving. He seemed to need my personal, undivided attention every single second, but there were 25 other kids in the room. I rarely send students to the office, but I threw William out at least once a week in May and June that year.
William’s highs are high, and his lows are low. When he’s angry, he’s taken over by an alien spirit. Don’t fuckin’ touch me! he’ll scream at the teacher trying to help, his arms flailing, even if it’s someone he loves. When he’s in a rage, his face gives it away. It isn’t malice that drives his anger, it’s betrayal: I trusted you, and look what you did to me.
He isn’t a kid anymore; he’ll be 18 in the spring. He’s behind in his credits. He might not graduate on time. He might not graduate at all.
This year strolled into my class on the first day saying, Claire! like an old friend.I couldn’t receive his warmth without thinking of its flipside, his pattern of evasion, then fighting, then giving up.
But he was holding it together. He moved to the front so he could see the notes on the board. He completed the assignment carefully, in his exacting handwriting, using complete sentences. He looked up at me.
You gonna help me this year, Claire?
Of course. But I’m not going to drag you over the finish line myself.
You gonna meet me halfway? You gotta meet me halfway, Claire.
I’ll meet you halfway.
I clap his shoulder.
I’m glad you’re here.
After class, I pull him aside.
You were great today. You were on the ball. Keep it up.
He nods, beaming.
Claire, you think people change?
History tells me this will be our high point. I hope I’m wrong.