Not-so-terrible Terry

Teachers told me when they saw Terry’s name on my roster that he was an undisciplined terror.
The myth of Terry came pre-loaded with the following warnings:

“He will never do anything for you.”

“His home life is horrible and he will make your classroom just as unbearable.”

I had not even met Terry, yet others wanted me to be warned, guarded and even apprehensive about him and his reputation. He had certainly built quite a persona evidenced in the stories from other teachers, but even this did not mean Terry was this way, even wanted to be this way or that he did not want to change it himself. If I went into the term with a fixed mindset of his behavior and character, I would be dooming him to the limited parameters of biased expectations. What if I tore down those walls from the outset and gave him a fresh, blind start?

On the first day of the semester, I met Terry at the door with a smile and ushered him off to the side. He was used to being pulled over, for he instantly assumed a defensive stance. Once I established eye contact at his level, I told him honestly about what others had said about him and confessed I did not believe a word of it. “Show me who you want to be known as and that is how I will treat you, Terry. Your clean start with me begins today.”

Though he looked up at me thoroughly confused for a second, his stance relaxed, his expression changed, and he walked into the room with a stride that seemed less threatened. For the rest of the term, while giving him plenty of room to be an individual, Terry did not exhibit any evidence of what the rumors said he would. Not once. What I learned about his home life through observation and candid conversation did not excuse but certainly explained why he had been such an active and angry teen. He was upset and confused. No fifteen-year-old should have to endure what he had growing up. His angst was understood but his energy had been misapplied for years.

At the end of the term, I wrote his father a complimentary e-mail about how Terry had lived up to a new expectation and how his academic and social progress proved it so. The heart-felt reply from his father, a genuine, yet humbled, wheelchair-bound single parent is one I still keep in my professional portfolio as evidence of what positive things can happen when you meet students where they are and see them for more than what they present (or what others say about them).