Saturday, March 8, 2014

Sometimes It's Better Not to Know


 Where do I start? Should I tell you what a handsome, intelligent, and charming young man he was twenty years ago? Or, should I describe his photo I saw yesterday on the county jail website?
         The edgy and harsh face staring at me from my laptop screen almost escaped identification, but then I glanced at the name. A former student. I see a few of them every time I log onto the site, but yesterday was different.
         Having taught in "out-of-the-mainstream" classrooms for the past thirty-some years, I sometimes give in to the temptation of searching the county jail web site for former students. Invariably, I find the ones who were the most sure that all the adults in their lives were just trying to "spoil all the fun" of being a teenager. They were the kids who kept using drugs, kept drinking, kept fighting, kept stealing, and kept running away from home. Their fathers, if they were known, would threaten them. Their grandmothers would sit in my room during parent/teacher conferences and cry. Their Juvenile Court Officers would lock them up for a weekend, let them out after receiving promises of improved behavior, and then lock them up again a month later. For too many of my students, mostly boys, it simply turned out to be a rehearsal for adult prison. Truthfully, some of them really needed to be incarcerated.
         This was not true for the young man on the website yesterday. He had wonderful parents. His mother was a fellow teacher in the school district; she and his father were happily married. There was an older sister who was a successful student and a cheerleader at a nearby suburban high school. However, their picture perfect family was not complete. Their son had teenage-onset schizophrenia.
        When a teenager acts lazy and unmotivated, talks in a dull voice to his parents, and complains that everyone is picking on him..what's new? Those behaviors might seem normal, and they just might be one of those "difficult stages". On the other hand, those behaviors can also be early signals of one of the most serious metal disorders...schizophrenia. It's a downward spiral, headed towards hallucinations. delusions, and complete disorientation.
        I worked with this young man, who was helpless in the grips of this illness. He could be happy, friendly, and cooperative. Most of the time, sadly, he was forgetful, depressed, and unpredictably out of touch with reality. It was nearly impossible for him to learn anything. He was in high school, but really not educable. When he came to me, he had been in an adolescent mental health treatment center, and just recently released. His time in my classroom lasted nearly nine months, but at the end of that time, he had to be readmitted to a treatment facility. It was winter and they took away his shoes so he could not leave. He left anyway. They found him, wearing his paper slippers, before he was seriously injured.
      I have seen his mother several times over the twenty years since he was in my class. Each time I inquired about him, and discovered he was being shuffled from group home to group home. His story was one of a lost soul who was experiencing serial supervised living, as he went through his young adulthood. She invariably appeared frustrated and fatigued as she told me his latest update. I saw her about two years ago at a staff in-service day, and the story continued. This time, he was having an especially difficult time with finding the right mixture of medications, and things were not going well. It appeared to be fairly certain that he was going to have to transfer to yet another facility.
         After seeing his photo on the jail website, I did a quick internet search. He had been arrested several times. Once for 5th degree theft, probably shoplifting. He had been arrested for buying cigarettes for a minor. Some offenses resulted in jail time and some received fines. I saw nothing I would consider "dangerous", but I did see a "committal" hearing. All I could think was that it was probably all very frightening for him.
        So, when I saw his mug shot on the county jail website, it was jarring. I remember seeing him smile sometimes in my room, with a little twinkle in his big brown eyes. There was no twinkle in the mug shot. His eyes could best be described as "wild". I remember his wavy black hair as stylishly long back in high school, and always impeccably combed away from his impish face. The jail photo showed straight spiked hair, cut quite short and looking a mess. He had remarkably clear skin for a teenage boy, but  his jail face looked dull and blotchy. He's thirty-five years old now, and looks like he's at least ten years older.
       I just checked back on the website tonight, and he's no longer on the list. He's out of jail, but who knows where? 
       With many of my other posts in this blog, people have asked me if I know where any of those former students are today. Do I ever see them again? Do I wonder about them?  I tell them, "No, I haven't seen them again, but yes, I do wonder about them."
        My new reply?  "Sometimes it's better not to know." It hurts my teacher heart. It hurts my mother heart. I hurts my human heart. It just hurts.