I have been kicked, spit upon, had my hair pulled, glasses broken, been scratched, punched, slapped, cussed at, threatened with lawyers, received death threats, and slandered more times than I can count. I have also seen the beauty and wonder of children’s lives changed through love, determination, and God’s benevolent hand.
I am a teacher. For the first fourteen of my 32 years in the classroom, I taught very young children who were identified with emotional disturbance. Classrooms dedicated to providing an education to such children are labeled Emotional Support. Emotional Support: A Teacher’s Journey chronicles my experiences with arguably the most challenging population in special education. My classroom experiences are a backdrop to my personal journey toward Jesus Christ, the true Teacher in my classroom.
Please read this sampling of my book. My hope is to be published, to tell this remarkable story of what God has done in the life of an ordinary teacher. Drop me a line to let me know if you would like to hear more.
Emotional Support, Introduction
He was tiny. His dirty blonde (and I do mean dirty) hair hung in spiky points over his ears, the grown-out remains of an early summer crew cut. I’d remembered reading in his file that his family kept chickens, and the smell of him confirmed it. He stood in the morning sunshine on his first day of first grade, no backpack, no lunch, watching the swarm of excited children in their brand new duds with cartoon-adorned backpacks bobbing on their backs. His name was Joey, and he was filthy from the tips of his grimy fingernails to the soles of his badly worn shoes. I fell in love with him in an instant.
This was my first day of first grade, too. I had graduated with a degree in special education less than a year before, and had spent one miserable semester in a resource room for learning disabled and emotionally disturbed children in a junior high school. I’d never wanted to work with children over the age of 10, but I had been hired as a long-term substitute and placed where the need arose. On my first day at work in the junior high, I got stopped in the lunch line for butting. I was 23 years old with the face of a 12-year-old. Welcome to the professional world.
But here I was, with one semester of teaching under my professional belt, staring into the grimy face of a six-year-old child with emotional disturbance. My assignment, much to my excitement, was, in 1985, labeled an SED (Socially and Emotionally Disturbed) room . The classroom was designed to educate up to twelve first through sixth graders with social and/or emotional disorders. I had virtually no training in this area, and had failed miserably at my last assignment. But I had a strange excitement gripping me, and although I had never intended to teach in this type of classroom, I felt as if it was the most natural thing in the world to be there.
I greeted Joey enthusiastically and he smiled. I noticed that he was trembling and that the tips of his fingers had been picked raw. I have never seen a dirtier or more wired child. I directed him to our lining up area, and he skittered into place in tiny, tippy-toe steps. The few other boys who had already arrived snickered. Joey’s smile faded and he quickly turned his face to the wall. I welcomed Joey again with an arm around his shoulder, and threw an admonishing glance toward the other boys. As the rest of my students arrived that morning (12 in all, all boys), I was terrified and exhilarated at once.
This was the beginning of a journey through a roller coaster career, but it was just a point on a much more fulfilling journey. At the time of my first classroom, I had no idea that God was orchestrating my every move, preparing me for each step along the way, and ultimately to a relationship with Him that has forever changed my life and my destiny. It is my hope and prayer that this book will inspire its reader to pay attention to life’s spiritual markers, and to tune into the greatest Giver of emotional support! Your plans may not be His, and He has the power (and the right) to turn you in any direction that would further His Kingdom. This is my story, as it relates to Him. He is my Emotional Support.
Emotional Support, Chapter 8
Toward the end of the school year, I accepted a position as a camp counselor at a week-long overnight camp for emotionally disturbed children. Camp Serendipity was designed to give children with emotional disturbance an opportunity to experience the fun of summer camp, an experience that many of these children are denied because of their volatile behavior. Campers who resided in the camp’s home county could attend for one dollar. Children outside of the county had to pay two hundred dollars, which was subsidized by camperships paid for by the school district. Only eighteen children could be selected, based on need as described in an application filled out by their teachers. Because of the exclusive nature of the selection process, the camp was comprised of the most severely disturbed children in the area.
I had worked as a camp counselor for several summers during college, so the camp experience was nothing new. Overnight camp, however, would be a novelty, as well as spending twenty-four hours a day with children like my students. In fact, Jimmy was one of the campers. There would be no respite from the intensity of their care, and it would be in an environment that was hard to structure. I could barely wait for August to tackle this challenge!
The camp was located in a remote area in the next county. Pennsylvania is known for its vast and beautiful woodlands, and this spot fit the state’s billing. Huge maple and oak trees surrounded a long log lodge with a vast wrap around porch. Sixty-five railroad tie steps laddered up the side of a steep hill, which led to the bathhouse and rows of tiny cabins. Thick woods stretched out from the camp in every direction. At the foot of the camp, a single dirt road cut through the forest, past the swimming pool and pump house, to a back country road which led to a main route into the nearest town. The lodge also served as a chapel, as this was a Bible camp, run by area churches. Camp Serendipity reserved time at the site each year.
On a sticky Sunday afternoon in early August, I made the 30-mile trip to the camp, gear packed and enthusiastic. My enthusiasm cost me eighty dollars, as in my haste to make the orientation on time, I received a speeding ticket, the first and only in my life. My fellow senior counselors were all teachers of the emotionally disturbed. Young, perky, and full of the knowledge of games and camp songs, the junior counselors were employed by the Bible camp. We would be assigned a cabin, a dinner table, and a small group of children who would be our charges for the week.
The campers ranged in age from 6 to 17. The children under twelve would remain at the camp. The older campers would set out with several of the counselors on a five-day hike through the Appalachian Trail. I stood in awe of these counselors, fit, rugged, and donning very expensive hiking boots. Not only would they be spending five days in the Pennsylvania wilderness, but they would be spending it with six very mentally ill adolescents. They possessed stuff that was foreign to me.
After the orientation, which consisted of learning the ultra-rigid schedule, camp rules, and behavior management plan (no program for emotionally disturbed children is ever without one of these), we settled into our cabins. Winded from the sixty-five steps, I laid out my sleeping bag on a bottom bunk and sprawled out on top of it. Each cabin held six campers, and I would be sharing it with one other counselor and four children. Female counselors roomed with girl campers, and male counselors with boys. The ratio of counselors to children was one adult for every two children.
They arrived on Sunday evening. Some parents lingered to give farewell hugs and kisses, and some, after depositing their child with a counselor and the child’s medication to the camp nurse, fled to their week long respite. The children were pumped and the energy was high. After the last parent drove down the dirt lane, we herded the campers into the lodge for a rundown of the rules and expectations. Though generally fidgety, they listened attentively, wide-eyed and still in awe at what was for most of them their first trip to the woods. I surveyed the group, falling in love with what I saw. This was going to be a week to remember.
After the rules were laid down, and the adults were assured that everyone understood, the next order of business was to teach the camp song. A junior counselor sang the ditty in its entirety, then one line at a time with the rest of us echoing. Hand motions followed, and soon we were singing the thing all the way through. It took six months to dislodge that song from my mind. After snack, and with suitcases and bags in tow, we ascended the hill, settling the children in for the night.
A buzz had gone through the counseling staff that a little boy was being excluded from the group because of a severe case of head lice. Sure enough, a tiny camper had been dropped off on the front porch of the lodge with barely a word from his mother. A counselor had noticed something odd about his hair, and upon closer inspection found his head alive with the tiny insects. In addition to an infestation of nits, this case of lice was active, meaning the nits had hatched. Bugs were everywhere, crawling in and out and around and between his hair strands, clinging to the ends, weaving around the roots. He must have been mad with itching. The camp nurse made repeated attempts at calling the boy’s family, but to no avail. It was obvious that this mother was fully aware of her child’s condition (it was impossible to miss, and the boy related that his family had tried lice treatments) and dropped the child off anyway, most likely not wanting to sacrifice her anticipated break from her difficult son. The boy, in compliance with camp policy, needed to go home. However, by eleven o’clock, the child’s family was still unavailable, and the poor child had to spend the night confined to the nurse’s cabin. His mother was roused from a sound sleep early the next morning, indignant about the hour and about having to get out of bed to come and retrieve her son. She attempted to bring him back the next day, claiming that the lice were gone, but the persistent creatures were still milling about on his scalp, so the nurse was forced to expel the boy from camp. The mother dragged the sullen child off in a huff, and kicked up dust on the dirt road as if to make a statement before she drove out of sight. Our hearts went out to that boy.
The first morning dawned a sweltering eighty degrees, and by noon the mercury registered in the low nineties. The swimming pool provided an afternoon of welcomed relief, and some of the scheduled activities were postponed in favor of a longer swim time. This was one time the children did not balk at the change in routine.
Although the week was not without incident, the children seemed more compliant and relaxed in this environment. The expectations were high and the structure tight, but the atmosphere was more relaxed and, well, more fun than the classroom. The campers blossomed in the fresh air and wallowed in the nearly individualized attention they each received. Many of them had never even been swimming, let alone singing around a campfire or sharing a meal with other children in a rustic lodge. Praying before meals was something new to most of them, as well. The love of the counselors and the beauty of the place had a soothing effect on these children. I wished I could have carried the ambience of that week back to my classroom.
Three campers in particular will always stand out in my mind as some of the most memorable children I have ever worked with. Steven, Charlie, and Eric provided most of the subject matter for after-lights-out conversation among the counselors.
Steven was a ten-year-old boy who possessed the rare diagnosis of childhood schizophrenia. A family curse, only Steven’s sister was without the same diagnosis. Both parents were ill with the disorder, and were raising their children in an environment of coping and medication. Steven’s house was kept perpetually dark, blinds constantly drawn tight to keep the world out. Steven was not aggressive or dangerous in any way. He was, however, strange and interesting and compelling to be around. At mealtime, he would hold lengthy conversations with the flies buzzing about and landing on his food. He would pause after each monologue, obviously listening to the fly’s reply. It was apparently a dual exchange. During sports time, he would crouch in the grass and study the ground for minutes at a time, obviously lost in a world that only he was privy to. Otherwise pleasant and sweet, our world was of no interest to him. He would tolerate polite conversation, dutifully and mechanically answering questions, but lighting up if you hit on a subject that interested him. And if a subject interested him, it was a sure bet that he knew every possible bit of information about it. Steven was a delight to be around, and although the staff knew it was not appropriate to choose favorites, they harbored a secret preference for this sweet, strange child in their heart.
Charlie was adorable. Tiny, but remarkably solid and muscular, he wore huge horn-rimmed glasses and a killer smile. Charlie was happy and animated most of the time, unless he lost at a game. One of the objectives of Camp Serendipity was to foster a sense of good sportsmanship, a quality that most emotionally disturbed children lack due to their inordinate sense of self-absorption. Although some professionals scorn the use of competitive games for certain children, it was the philosophy of the camp staff (and I share it) that these children should be exposed to winning and losing in a safe environment that would teach them how to win and lose with grace. The goal of the games and sports at Camp Serendipity was not only to have fun, but also to teach specific social skills related to friendly competition. Charlie was the poster child for such a program.
During my second summer at Camp Serendipity, I served as camp director. My experience the previous summer was so positive, that I had jumped at the chance to direct Camp Serendipity when I learned that the position was available. I had never directed anything before, and the challenge was exhilarating. I scheduled the week’s activities, hired counselors, and organized every detail of the week. I enjoyed it so much, that I did it the following summer, as well, giving it up in the subsequent years to begin raising children. I count my three years at the camp as a highlight of my career, and three weeks that I will always cherish.
It was during that second summer, as I was sitting on the porch of the lodge talking with Andy, who was visiting for the afternoon, that a harrowed and disheveled counselor came huffing onto the porch, Charlie in tow. He obviously was giving this poor junior counselor a run for her money, and giving up the tussle, she had decided to appeal to the director. The counselor explained that Charlie had just struck out in kickball, and didn’t agree with that call. He was having trouble accepting his trip back to the bench, and began swearing, kicking up the dirt, and threatening people. I instructed the frustrated counselor to leave Charlie with me and to return to the game. I didn’t envy her trek back up the sixty-five steps.
The counselor thrust the protesting Charlie into my arms, and I reeled him around into a basket hold on my lap. He was furious, heaving and straining to be free.
“I’m gonna kill them!” he hissed. “I was not out! I called do-over. They were supposeda gimme a do-over! Lemme go so I can go kill them!”
I was aware that Andy was sitting across from me. I felt like I was in the spot light. “Wow, Charlie. You’re really angry,” I cooed. “But do you really think killing everybody will solve your problem? Why don’t you settle down and we’ll talk about it.”
“I don’t think so,” he spat through clenched teeth. He was squirming and straining against my grip. I held on tighter. His arms and my hands were slippery with sweat. I turned to brace my back against the log rail at the back of the bench.
“Settle down, Bud,” I continued. “It’s just a game. Settle down and we’ll go up there together and check it out.” I began rocking slowly back and forth, as a mother does when comforting her child. Charlie began to cry.
“It’s not fair,” he moaned. “I didn’t mean to kick at the last pitch. It was a mistake. They said I was out, but I wasn’t. I still had one more pitch. I’m gonna kill them!” He was escalating again, as he thought afresh of the injustice leveled against him. I pulled him in closer so I could speak directly into his ear.
“Charlie, I will not let you go until I see that you have control. Show me that you are getting some control by sitting still and quiet. When I see that you have done this, I’ll count to three and let you go. Then we can go up to the field and talk this over.”
Charlie gave one last heave against my grip, and allowed himself to go limp. I could feel him relax a bit, and I loosened my grip. “That’s good,” I cooed into his ear. “Just take a deep breath and settle down. It’s just a game, kiddo. No big deal. Relax and we’ll go up to the field. You ready for me to let you go?”
Charlie nodded his head. I counted to three and let go of his arms. He remained where he was, leaning back against my body. I gave him a little squeeze, and then stood him up on the porch. “Let’s go,” I said, and we, Andy included, climbed up the hill to the ball field. On the way, we discussed the rules of kickball. By the time we got to the field, Charlie was able to apologize to his teammates and rejoin the game. He assured me that if he got out the next time, he would accept the decision of his teammates. I left the field, satisfied that Charlie felt safe and there would be no more tirades. The rest of that evening was peaceful.
I met Eric in my first summer at Camp Serendipity. At eight years old, he had endured a severe case of epilepsy since the age of two. Without an arsenal of medications, Eric would be in an almost constant state of seizing. Unfortunately, the medications left Eric with severe mental illness. Without the medications he would die. With the medications, he lived a life of violence and psychosis. The counselors took turns supervising Eric. He was unable to go unattended for any length of time, as he would wander off. We knew that if he wandered too far into the woods, we might never find him. The counselor assigned to Eric was relieved of the responsibility of any other children. We all took him in one-hour shifts.
On Thursday night, the children were being treated to an overnight campout under the stars, a tradition at Camp Serendipity. It was our biggest piece of behavioral leverage, and the children strove to earn this adventurous privilege. I, on the other hand, am not partial to sleeping unsheltered, so when it was decided that it would be too risky to take Eric on the trip, I happily volunteered to stay behind and sleep with him in his cabin. Eric was too unaware of his surroundings to feel left out.
It was decided that the camp director should also remain, sleeping in his own cabin in case I needed some assistance. The biggest challenge would be keeping him inside the cabin while I was asleep. The counselors assigned to his cabin had already solved this problem by devising an alarm system to wake them up if Eric decided to go for a middle of the night jaunt. After hanging a cowbell on the door of the cabin, they pushed the dresser in front of the door to block his escape. If the sliding of the dresser didn’t wake them up, the cowbell would. It was a brilliant plan, and proved effective in keeping Eric in at night. Eric slept for only minutes at a time, so barricading him in, despite certain breeches of fire code, was crucial.
At bedtime, after the rest of the camp disappeared down the trail to the campsite, Eric and I turned in for the night. I chattered to him about a wide variety of subjects, knowing I would not get a response. Eric was locked in his own world. He had a peculiar system of communication, which his mother was fluent in, but that was perplexing to everyone else. The only phrase I recognized was “do diggity,” which meant that he had to go to the bathroom. Not wanting to undo our dresser/cowbell alarm, I made sure Eric went “do diggity” before we turned in. But after about an hour, he was repeating the phrase and gesturing toward the door. I sighed, pushed the dresser aside and gingerly opened the door so the cowbell would not disturb the camp director who was bunking in his cabin next door. I took Eric to the bathhouse, where he did his diggity, and returned to our cabin and reset the alarm. Five minutes later, Eric was repeating the phrase again, but by his expression I deduced that he was playing me and simply wanted to go for a walk.
“Sorry, Pal,” I said. “You just went. We’re not going out again. Go to bed.”
“No, Eric, you’ve already gone. We are not going outside. It’s time to sleep, now get into bed.”
“Nope. Now go to bed.”
After about a minute of this, I decided that ignoring him was my best course of action. So I turned out the light and nestled down into my bunk. I heard Eric softly crying in the corner, but after about ten minutes he conceded and climbed into his bunk. I forced myself to stay awake until I heard his breathing turn to a steady rhythm.
It was midnight when I finally felt comfortable enough to doze off. It was one a.m. when I was awakened the first time. Sensing someone was near me, I opened my eyes and nearly jumped through the top bunk. Eric’s face, nose barely touching mine, was hovering over me. He was quietly staring at me. When I opened my eyes, he whispered, “Do diggity.” I was freaked out. Heart pounding, I forced myself to stay calm and pushed him gently away from me. I sat up and turned on the light. Remembering that his mother said that he was not a bed wetter and could make it through the night (and not relishing the thought of going out to the bathhouse in the middle of the night), I decided to hang tough.
“Eric,” I ordered, “get into bed now!”
Pouting and tearful, he retreated to his bed, sobbing quietly. “Do diggity now,” he whispered over and over again until finally, around 1:45, he fell back to sleep. The rest of the night was the same. About every hour, I would awake with my heart in my chest to find Eric nose to nose with me, whispering, “do diggity.” Finally, as the sun hinted at the window, I quietly disarmed the Eric alarm and took him to the bathroom. We got dressed and took a walk around the camp. That afternoon, I was rewarded with an extra break time. I slept through the whole thing.
Eric returned the next summer, more ill than ever and twenty pounds heavier. Apparently, the medications he had been taking failed to prevent the seizures, and he was put on more potent drugs. One of the medications made him gain weight, and he barely looked like the same child. He was more violent, as well. Within the first hour of his arrival, while parents were still dropping off their children, Eric became agitated by his shirt. It was unclear if it was a tag or the texture of the material, but his irritation with the shirt quickly deteriorated into a violent fit of rage. As the camp director, I was responsible for handling the most severe behaviors, so I rushed to Eric when I heard the commotion. Quick as a flash, and before I could reach him, he stripped down naked and began toppling furniture. Sweat poured from his body as he ran from chair to table, trying to trash the lodge. I intercepted him before any damage was done, and wrestled this sweaty, naked boy to the ground. He was rambling in his strange language, furious and wild. His strength was immense for his age, and it took all I had to hold him down. To compound the difficulty, he was slippery and, well, naked. I had to take great care in placing my body and hands. It was a bizarre scene.
Another counselor brought a towel and tried to cover him up, but Eric was flailing so wildly that the attempt was in vain. The other counselors cleared the lodge, and I was left alone with him to try to settle him down. I sensed that this child was inconsolable, however, and I braced myself for a long restraint.
After a half an hour, I decided that Eric must go home. I instructed the counselor who stayed with me to call Eric’s mother. By the time she came to retrieve her son, I had been restraining him for nearly ninety minutes. I was soaked to the skin and exhausted. This boy’s will was iron and unflappable, and he never relented his stamina or his focus during the entire episode.
Eric’s mother was not surprised when she received the phone call to come get her son. She had worried through high hopes that he would not be able to handle camp this year. Eric had been deteriorating rapidly over the past months. Before taking him home, she made a phone call to the doctor and took him straight from the camp to a psychiatric hospital. He remained there for several weeks so his doctors could monitor and adjust his medication under close supervision.
Eric stayed in programs for emotionally disturbed children his entire school career. His story was especially poignant because of the origin of his disturbance. I cannot imagine having to make the choice between death and mental illness for my child. Eric’s parents dedicated their lives to their son who they could never really see or get to know. Great is the love of a parent for their child.
God was in that place. I remember praying before each meal in the lodge, and feeling peaceful and glad that the children were being exposed to prayer. Though I still had not come into a relationship with Him, being in His creation in a Christian environment seemed to wrap me in an indescribable warmth. Peace permeated that camp. It was evidenced in the demeanor of the children and in the closeness and camaraderie of the staff. I know now that my ability to direct Camp Serendipity for two years sprung from God’s providence. My past did not foster this ability to lead and organize. I can remember how smoothly the planning flowed, and how the camp routine ran like clockwork. The personalities of the staff meshed, and everyone functioned as a team. Although the children’s disturbance did not disappear, it seemed that episodes were short and the children grew emotionally. Camp Serendipity was an important part of my spiritual journey. I now know the familiar feeling of God’s presence. That was the warmth I felt upon driving down the dirt lane to that Bible camp, and which stayed with me through the week and long after I left. He had prepared the lodge, the cabins and our hearts for a challenging week. If only I had recognized Him then, this sweet experience would have been even sweeter.
Emotional Support, Chapter 10
I returned to work six months later. We had hired a nanny to care for Michael. Although she was gentle and loving with him, it grieved me to have to leave him every day. Now that I am a Christian, I regret not having stayed home to raise my children. Though teaching allows me to have summers, weekends, and holidays off, I will never regain the time I missed with them while they were in daycare.
I finished out the second half of that year, and enjoyed the next summer with my son. All too quickly, however, another school year rolled around and brought with it the most mentally ill student I would ever teach. His name was Kenneth.
Kenneth came to me in first grade. My heart ached when I read his file, and I wondered if I could make a difference with this boy. Though, according to his IQ test, he was quite bright, he had a severe learning disability. He was hyperactive, hostile, and extremely aggressive toward adults and children. He had begun medication at age four to control his hyperactivity, depression, and aggression. His grandparents had been very instrumental in helping him to receive the very best care possible, and at age six, he had already been hospitalized twice for his behavior. It was also reported that he had a tendency to be cruel to animals, torturing the family cat and attempting to kill birds in their yard. He had occasionally verbally threatened his grandmother, as well. I wondered how such a small child could have gotten so sick. His grandmother provided the answer to that question.
According to Kenneth’s grandmother, Kenneth’s mother had used cocaine and heroin during her pregnancy with him. His mother raised him until he was three, during which time she lived with various men and sometimes prostituted herself. Kenneth was sexually abused as a toddler. His mother finally abandoned him and he went to live with his grandparents. Though they were loving and cared for him very much, the damage was so deep that all of their efforts failed to bring this boy out of the mire of his condition.
On the first day of school, Kenneth’s grandmother brought him into my classroom. He was so small and adorable, sporting little Oshkosh overalls and brand new sneakers. He was very nervous, avoiding eye contact and picking at his fingers. I welcomed him gently, and showed him to his desk. He quietly answered my questions and thanked me politely when I admired his new sneakers. He stared blankly at the things on his desk. The stuff there typically wreaked delight in the average six-year-old: pencil box, brightly colored nametag, crayons, a big pink eraser, a composition book. Kenneth maintained a blank, sullen expression as he apathetically surveyed the trappings. I directed him to draw a picture on his composition book, and he obediently, almost mechanically chose a black crayon from the crayon box and began making dark scribbles across his book. His grandmother requested to speak to me in the hallway, so I left Kenneth in the care of Pauline.
In the hall, Kenneth’s grandmother explained that he was quite nervous and hadn’t slept well the night before. He had been agitated at breakfast, and didn’t want to come to school. She said if he became too disruptive that I should call her and he could come home. I assured her that I would probably not need to do that, but thanked her for the offer. She left, clearly concerned, not about Kenneth’s well-being, but mine.
The energy in this class was as high as I had ever seen. In addition to Kenneth, most of the boys were in first grade and diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, definitely with the hyperactivity component. As usual, it took about six weeks to gain some semblance of a routine, although Kenneth was unpredictable from the beginning. Occasionally he would have a day without incident, but those days were rare. Extremely hyper and volatile, he would explode without warning, toppling chairs and desks, dumping blocks and Legos on the floor and terrorizing the other children. His tirades would be accompanied by foul commentaries and personal affronts against anyone who he deemed unfit to be near on any given day. Black children were especially at risk as targets, and he declared his white supremacy quite often, spouting racial slurs and threatening violence. He was sent back from his mainstream classes quite often for things such as squirting glue on students and furniture in Art, or sexually harassing his classmates. It had never occurred to me that a first grader could engage in sexual harassment, but the sophistication of his vulgarity left me with no other way to describe it. Ultimately, we were forced to ban Kenneth from any mainstream classes for the safety of the other children and the sanity of the teachers. After that, he actually seemed to calm down. Apparently, the stress of the mainstream classes caused him to act out, and he seemed to feel more comfortable knowing he would not have to endure the anxiety that accompanied his leaving our classroom.
I taught Kenneth for three years. Although he was extremely difficult, there was some progress in his first year, and by the second year, we were entertaining hopes that perhaps he would make it. For about two thirds of his second grade year, Kenneth showed stability. His tirades became less frequent, and, with the help of intense counseling and a regimen of medications, he calmed down enough to make some academic progress. In addition to his mental illness, Kenneth had a severe learning disability in the area of reading. He loved to be read to, and could comprehend concepts far beyond what his peers could grasp. However, he could make no sense out of the written word, and this was a source of intense frustration for him. He knew he was bright, and often expressed his desire to be “normal,” and not so “stupid.” He used aggression and threats to mask his fear of not being able to learn certain things. I explained to Kenneth many times the nature of his disability. I reassured him that he was, indeed, very bright, and that his brain learned differently. I told him that we would find the key to the way his brain worked, and that together, we would help him to learn to read. Kenneth seemed to appreciate this honesty, and responded positively.
By the spring of his second grade year, I was entertaining thoughts of placing him in a class for learning disabled students, instead of an emotional support class. He was rarely aggressive, and never outright violent. The cursing had diminished considerably, and the resuming of mainstreaming in the winter had been a success. His grandmother was quite pleased, and reported improved behavior at home, as well. It was then that Kenneth’s mother came back into his life.
Until now, Kenneth’s counselor had advised his grandmother to prohibit visits with his mother. But when his mother claimed that she had cleaned up her act, the counselor suggested that he could begin supervised visits. Although it had been over five years since his mother had abandoned him, and despite the fact that his grandparents were good to him, Kenneth never recovered from the loss of his mother in this way. He vacillated between anger toward her and a longing for her, and she was mentioned in many of this violent outbursts. It was clear that his being abandoned played a large role in his intense anger and mistrust of people.
Kenneth’s mother lived in a town four hours north of Lancaster. For days before this initial visit with her, Kenneth was excited and it was all he could talk about. He had spoken with her on the phone, and she described all of the wonderful things they would do together during their visit. Early one Saturday morning, his grandparents drove him to her small apartment in the college town in which she lived. However, when they knocked on the door, there was no answer. They waited outside of her apartment for over an hour. Kenneth’s grandmother reported that during that time, Kenneth repeatedly banged on the door, opening the mail slot and pleading with his mother to come to the door. He cried, “Mommy, it’s me, Kenneth. Please come and see me!” However, his grandparents finally decided that she was not going to show up and they dragged their screaming, inconsolable grandson back to their car. Kenneth cried for most of the four-hour trip back to Lancaster. He could make no sense of the cruelty of his mother’s actions. When they returned home, Kenneth’s grandmother phoned her daughter. His mother’s only explanation for her absence was that she “forgot.” This day was a tragic turning point for Kenneth. The little boy who had gained so much was lost to us forever.
When he returned to school, it was immediately apparent that he had changed. His grandmother had called to tell me about the situation. This was another circumstance that, looking back, would have been committed to prayer had I known Christ. Kenneth was sullen and his eyes angry. He refused to do any work, and reverted back to swearing and threatening anyone who tried to help him. With only a few weeks left in the school year, Kenneth decided that he was finished, and succeeded only in disrupting the class almost constantly. Mainstreaming stopped, as he began threatening the children and the teachers once again. I tried to talk to him about his mother, but it only made him bristle and call her a foul name. Kenneth had a habit of repeating a phrase, usually vulgar, whenever you would try to talk to him. He would sit with an angry expression and quietly repeat the phrase over and over, blocking out the sound of the person’s voice. Kenneth was far away, and, for now at least, beyond help. His mother’s pitiless behavior left him in a dark void of despair and mistrust. By the end of that year, Kenneth was hospitalized for the third time in his life.
Kenneth spent most of that summer in the hospital. He returned to me for his third grade year, chubby from the drugs used to fight his depression and aggression. The anger had not left him, and it was clear that he was no better than when he left us in the spring. In fact, his verbal aggression was much worse, and it was then that I began to suspect something more than mental illness. Again, I still had not come into a relationship with Christ, but I was a marginal believer and began to recognize Kenneth’s behavior as more evil than disturbed.
Kenneth’s bus driver reported that he had begun to threaten her verbally. She reported that he had said he would bring in a butcher knife and kill her. After two days of this, Kenneth was suspended from the bus for several days. However, when he returned, the threats continued. It seemed that anyone in authority was a target, and, as time went by, the threats became more violent and graphic. His work virtually stopped, as he refused to complete any assignments. He began threatening me regularly, telling me he would find me when he grew up and kill Michael and my husband, and then rape me. Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about these threats, even more than the content of them, was the tone in which he used to utter them. It was typically calm and cold, and his expression would be distant as if he was working out the details in his mind. Kenneth knew that Pauline or I would stop physical aggression and that it would serve no purpose. But his threats cut people to the core, which was his intent. If he was hurting, he wanted as many people as he could get to hurt right along with him. This beautiful child was wrecked by evil, and was slipping further and further from our reach each day.
It was later in the year that Kenneth began to target God in his tirades. He would often angrily blaspheme God, describing the vulgar activities he claimed God was doing up in Heaven. He occasionally said that Satan was making him do these things, and that he hated God. It was then that I began to suspect some other force at work. The Bible tells of demon possession, and it was this blasphemous speech that made me consider that we were working with forces that we were not equipped to deal with.
As the year went on, Kenneth’s behavior deteriorated even more. The threats of murder and rape were almost constant, and he began physically attacking his classmates. He would shove children, grabbing their genitals and making racial remarks. He began urinating on the playground and making sexual remarks toward very little girls. Finally, in early spring, after countless meetings with his counselor and grandparents, Kenneth did something that landed him in the hospital for the rest of the year. He stabbed a classmate in the back with a pencil. Kenneth had zeroed in on this child all year because the boy was black. It was on the playground that Kenneth, with no provocation, stabbed the boy, drawing blood, but not causing any serious injury. When asked if he realized that he could have done some serious damage, he replied “Yes,” and made it clear that he had intended to kill this child. He was hospitalized the next day.
Soon after Kenneth left us, I came across an audiotape that he used to record some creative stories he had been writing. He would dictate the stories on the tape, and I would type them up for him to illustrate. As I turned on the tape recorder, Kenneth’s voice came through in a low, chilling tone. In an eerie voice that was just above a whisper, I heard Kenneth describe in great detail my grizzly murder. He methodically depicted how he would mutilate then kill me, relating in detail each weapon that would be used. He ended the brutal recitation by saying that the whole thing would be documented on videotape. When Kenneth left my class, he was nine years old.
I kept in contact with his grandmother for the next year or so. When Kenneth returned from the hospital several weeks later, he was not much better. His grandmother had taken to locking her bedroom door at night, because she had awoken one morning to find a hammer by her bed. Kenneth had not remembered placing it there. In fact, during the preceding months he had had several episodes of which he had no recollection after they were over. Kenneth was placed in a center based school with intense instruction and counseling. Now eighteen, he has made little improvement since the day his mother forgot to be home.
The strength that it took to persevere in that classroom was from God alone. Without His hand resting on me, I would have quit with Kenneth’s first threat. It was heartbreaking not to be able to reach Kenneth. His grandparents wanted so much to help their grandson, but even their love and care did little to reach the intense pain and despair caused by his mother’s cruelty and the altering of his brain because of her drug use. Evil is real. From reading God’s Word, I know that the spiritual realm is more than angels. Dark forces roam the earth and devour anyone they are allowed to touch. It is a mystery why some people are chosen for good and some for evil. Working closely with such evil has caused me to rely on God’s sovereignty and the knowledge that His ways are just and right, and that there are some things I will never understand while I am on this earth. His ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are high above ours. Like a little child who does not understand the motives of a loving parent who puts limits on him, we often do not understand why certain things happen in this world, so we must have faith that God works on our behalf, even when the opposite seems to be true. I am so grateful that I can see God in Kenneth’s situation, instead of blaming Him for it. Our God-given freedom carries consequences for the choices we make. Kenneth is a tragic consequence of the choices his mother made. I believe that God grieves over Kenneth and his mother. However, I have faith in His system, and know that although He wants none to perish, some will because of their stubborn rebellion. I am so thankful for my own children and pray that I am “training them up in the way they should go.” I pray for Kenneth, that somehow God will work a miracle in this boy’s life, so that he may finally know a Peace that is greater than his pain. Only God can accomplish that, for nothing, and no one, is beyond His reach.