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The Boy Who Threw a Book at My Head

Date: December 24th, 2013
By: Polly Bath

I spent the weekend trying to resurrect an inviting classroom from a carnage of mismatched plastic furniture. Every chair and desk wore battle scars or patches of duct tape. The closet overflowed with garbage. I’d been hired just three days before school started so, with almost no preparation time, I was grateful I’d be teaching an old favorite for my first class, “Catcher in the Rye.” Officially my title was teacher of the Emotionally and Behaviorally Disturbed; unofficially, it was 9th grade English.

On Monday, Zach backhanded his copy of “Catcher in the Rye” off his desk. On Tuesday, Zach flipped the book at the window, which looked out on a patch of blacktop that was already steaming in the mid-morning Florida sunshine. On Wednesday? He threw “Catcher” at my head.

Zach was already intimately familiar with in- school suspension, and I knew it was never going to change his behavior, given the way it was merely a holding pen in that school. So I didn’t send him out of the classroom. If I had a job here, it was to identify the causal factors for his behavior and help him learn the academic and behavior skills he was missing. That was going to require patience. I kept reading aloud, “It was that kind of a crazy afternoon, terrifically cold, and no sun out or anything, and you felt like you were disappearing every time you crossed a road.” The room was quiet – were they listening?

I never put a copy of “Catcher” on Zach’s desk again and I kept an eye out for flying objects. A couple of students began to understand the novel and actually opened the book. A few more joined in a discussion after I finished reading for the day. In this class of these particular ten students, I was overjoyed to have even a couple kids participate—this was a group of kids that long ago had shut down at school. I was having my first glimmer of hope. It was going to get better. I knew it would.

Little by little, over the weeks, students warmed to me and warmed to the subject, and we began to make slow but steady progress. I knew how to teach this population, and I knew I could build on these beginnings, which were for some students the first school success they had experienced. But Zack remained remote and unengaged. Nevertheless, I kept treating him with courtesy, and making sure he knew he was welcome, whether he wanted to be there or not.

One Friday, just after the winter break, I was dog tired at the end of the day and looking forward to sleeping in on Saturday. I was collecting books and papers to head home, and rooting around in my purse for some aspirin. “Mrs. Bath?” Zach stood over my desk, his 5’11” frame slouched there, his hands deep in his pockets. “Could I ask you something?” This was the first time he had addressed me by name.

I nodded.

“I’m having trouble understanding some papers,” Zach said. He gave me one of his crooked smiles—a smile I’d seen aimed at a couple of his buddies, but never at me. “Could I bring them in and you help me read them?” At 16, Zach was on his third round of 9th grade English.

“School papers?” I asked.

“No,” he mumbled. “Not like that.” He looked at the floor as if it held some interest for him. “It’s more like, um, for my job and stuff. And like the DMV.”

“Okay,” I said. “I can help with those.”

“And some other stuff I need to read for home.” He avoided my eyes. “It’s just temporary,” he said. “Until I can figure it out.”

“Sure,” I said. “Just temporary. I can tutor you after school on Monday.”

Zack had decided I might be on his side.

I suddenly wasn’t so tired anymore.

Over the next few weeks, I met with Zach as often as his work schedule allowed. At first, he mostly brought work-related forms. He’d lied to his boss about having read them and, worse, that he understood them. He worked in an automotive garage so, if he couldn’t read the manuals, it might be a matter of safety – his own or someone else’s. There was no time for phonics. This was a matter of learning high frequency words that he’d use in his job.

One day it would be, “Mrs. B., what about this?” Zach would grimace and hold out a bank statement as if it were poison. Another day, he’d give a half smile and open the driver’s manual. “Can we try the practice tests? If I can get my driver’s license, I can drive my…” Zach broke off mid-sentence as he often did when it got too personal.

Then something happened in Zach’s life. I didn’t know what, but I could see it in his face and the way he held his shoulders, tense and up towards his ears. Suddenly Zach was asking to meet mornings instead of afternoons. He said he had to get home right after school. I agreed. But Zach wasn’t there the next morning and he wasn’t in school either. He missed the following morning too and I felt like flinging something at the window myself. My mornings are precious. The morning after that I brought papers to grade, convinced he wouldn’t show and not sure at all what was next, nor why I was still showing up.

“Here, Mrs. B.” Zach handed me a cup of coffee. “I’m sorry I missed our appointments. I hope you like milk and sugar.”

I took the coffee. “You know, Zach, it just so happens that I love milk and sugar.” His simple apology and small kindness melted my impatience. This kid might not be able to read well, but he was learning to read me like a book. I hoped I could turn that into literacy.

Zach handed me a slip of paper and slid into his usual front row chair. I scanned the paper and sat in the desk beside his to read it again, slowly.

Zoledronic acid…. bisphosphonates. Bone strength. What was I reading?

“Zach, who is this for?” I asked.

The Metastron will be administered intravenously, every four hours. For breakthrough pain…

Zach’s head was bowed over his desk, his eyes squeezed shut. “I don’t know if I’m helping her,” he said. His voice was just a whisper.

“Who?” I asked quietly and reached across the space between us to touch his arm.

“My mother. She has cancer.”

Zach and I worked together for the rest of that year. And I never again questioned why I was helping the boy who had thrown a book at my head to learn how to read.


Polly Bath’s articles are about real people and real situations. Changes are made sufficient to protect everyone’s privacy. A veteran educator, she is a behavior consultant, trainer, author, and keynote speaker in the United States. Read more information on Polly Bath’s in-school workshops, consultations, summer institutes, and keynotes. And contact us to make arrangements for her to come to your school.