Many of my third-graders are very angry. They have good reason. Growing up in the most violent area in Oakland, many have lost family members to violence or experienced racial injustice. They distrust the people who are supposed to protect them.
Anthony was one of my angriest students. His father was in prison. Anthony told me that he wanted to kill his father because fathers aren’t supposed to leave their families. He was 6 years old at the time.
The smallest things could set him off: another student looking at him for too long, not understanding a math concept or rain keeping him from outdoor recess. When he would get angry, even older students ran away.
I tried different techniques to help Anthony deal with his anger, some more effective than others. I had a college-student volunteer who took a great interest in him. Anthony worked with the counselor at school and told me he had learned to imagine himself calmly eating ice cream and playing Go Fish with this volunteer whenever he got too upset.
One time, Anthony told me that there was nothing good about himself. I decided to create a “Ten Good Things About Anthony” list. As soon as I told him my plan, he became angry, but he didn’t leave. I’d suggest an item, type it and ask him if he had any ideas. He would yell that this was the stupidest thing he had ever heard of. It was excruciating, but we finally got to number 10.
I printed the list out and told Anthony I wanted him to know that there were good things about him. He screamed that there weren’t any good things about him, crumpled up the paper, threw it in the garbage can and stomped out.
I turned back to the computer and heard the door open and someone rustling in the garbage can. When I turned back around, Anthony’s backpack disappeared though the door. The garbage can was empty.
I lost touch with Anthony after elementary school, but recently saw him in a PBS documentary about incarcerated young African-American men.
I have no idea if anything that any of us at the school did ever helped Anthony. After he left my class, he would sometimes find me and say, “Ms. Harris, you need to help me calm down! You’re the only one who can calm me down!” Maybe it was simply that he knew I hadn’t given up on him.
Seeing him in the documentary reminded me of all this. I still don’t think it’s too late for him. As an adult, I’m sure Anthony has realized that the world, in many ways, is even more unfair that he imagined. But I hope he can also know, somehow, that there are still people who believe in him and believe that he is more than his anger.
Harris is a teacher, tutor and volunteer in California.