I recently attended a fundraising event. It was a local teacher and coach from a neighboring district who told anecdotes from his past 20 years in the classroom and on the field. All ticket sales went to helping local charitable organizations.
Some of his stories were funny; some were heartfelt; some were heartbreaking. But the one that really stayed with me was the one I’ll refer to as, “The Boy with the Red Ink.” I asked him if I could share it on my blog, and he graciously granted permission.
Rick was a new teacher and was getting familiar with the start-of-the-year routines; one of them involved index cards. Before the teachers ever met the students personally, they would get an index card filled with information about each child. The general information was written in black ink, but the really important information was written in red. When presented with the stack of cards for their class, most teachers would first flip through them quickly, hoping to view a black sea of notes. The more red; the more difficult the path that lie head.
When Rick came across one card, he was startled to see a shock of red ink. He noted the name and went onto the rest of his duties of getting ready before his class arrived for the first day of school.
His first interaction with the Boy with the Red Ink and his family was on Back to School night. The student came into the classroom and began picking up items off shelves and leaving havoc in his wake. The father was no different, yet he was yelling at the boy to put everything back where he got it from.
A bit perturbed, Rick asked, “Can I help you?”
“I know you; you’ve got my son in your class.”
“Yes,” replied Rick, “and do you mind putting down my globe?”
That set the tone for the year. But Rick was determined to be a positive influence on the boy. He found reasons to praise the boy. One particular incidence involved an elaborate setup with the office secretary. The plan was for Rick to “lose” his set of keys, whereby the Boy with the Red Ink would save the day. Rick gave the keys to the secretary and instructed her to wait about an hour and then call him over the PA system that the keys had been recovered.
When he announced to his students that his keys were lost, the whole class went into emergency rescue mode, turning over piece of oak tag and workbook, reassuring him that everything would be okay. When the announcement came over the loudspeaker, the class cheered.
Then Rick very dramatically said, “Okay, who can I trust to do the very important job of going to the office to get my keys?”
Immediately, all hands shot up. But then, he added, “I really need to be able to trust this person.” All hands stayed up, with the exception of one hand that slowly retreated. Rick’s heart sank; his plan had backfired. So he improvised:
“Listen, some of you may have made mistakes in the past, but that’s okay. When you came into this class, you had a clean slate.” Kids look confused. “That means a fresh start. So think really hard… who can I trust to get my keys?”
The Boy with the Red Ink slowly brought his hand up with the rest of his classmates’. When Rick called on the boy, all the students — including the boy — looked shocked. But the boy got up and left the classroom.
When he returned five minutes later, Rick bent down, got his keys, smiled and whispered in the boy’s ear, “I knew I could trust you.”
From then on, The Boy with the Red Ink changed. Many times, students like this come around gradually. But with this boy, it was an immediate and dramatic shift from the negative to the positive
One time, Rick decided to call home with a good report. But that same father answered the phone and as soon as he heard it was the boy’s teacher, the dad began cursing and bellowing for the son, using his first, middle and last name. When Rick explained that he was making a happy phone call home, the conversation went flat. But that didn’t stop Rick from working with the boy to keep his self esteem up and continue to improve.
That was in third grade. Once in fourth and fifth grade, Rick’s power to influence the boy lessened.
Four or five years later, Rick was driving in his car and he saw the Boy with the Red Ink run across the street with a bunch of his middle school buddies. The boy called out to Rick, and he stopped his car to get out and talk to the boy. His buddies must have teased him because his demeanor changed by the time Rick approached him.
“Hey! How are you doing?” Rick asked.
“Fine,” the boy replied in a very nonchalant way.
He wanted to say something about the crowd he was running around with. He wanted to ask how his father was doing. How was school? But, sensing the boy’s embarrassment, Rick kept is short. “Well, it was really great seeing you,” was all he said.
“I gotta go.” That was the last thing Rick ever heard the boy say.
A few years later, word got back to Rick that the Boy with the Red Ink had wound up in jail. It broke his heart.
At this point, you may wonder why he told this story to an audience of fellow teachers. His point was not do discourage people from trying. Rather, to realize that sometimes, you can do your very best and wind up doing a great job; Rick did make a difference with the Boy with the Red Ink. But sometimes, it takes more than just one person.
Rick’s message was that if EVERYBODY takes that type of interest in people who desperately need it, maybe we can have a world with a little less red ink.
Of all the anecdotes Rick told that night, this story stuck with me the most.
Make it your #153Promise to keep the cap on the red pen.