Mrs. Eldridge came screaming down the hall, “Dr. Furr, HELP!” I ran out of my classroom to meet our school secretary and other female office workers. They were very excited. They yelled that Mrs. Davis had just called over the intercom that there was a big fight in her room and that she needed help. We all ran up the stairs to the middle school section of our building.
I thought it must be bad to cause all of this excitement. Mrs. Davis taught seventh grade, and I knew that some of her students were really big. When I entered her classroom, I saw Cory. I’m six feet tall and weigh 230 pounds; Cory outweighed me but was a foot shorter. He was holding a much smaller boy against the wall.
With the deepest voice I could muster, I said, “LET HIM GO!” Cory looked at me and let the smaller boy go, who promptly ran to a counselor standing at the door. I said to Cory, “Please talk to me.” I didn’t know Cory, but I thought it would be best to let everyone, the adults too, calm down.
We walked to the stairwell and sat on the steps. I asked him what the problem was. Very calmly, he explained that this boy had been saying nasty things about his mom. He told me it really made him mad because his mom had died two years ago. We talked some more and I escorted him to the office. As we walked there, he thanked me for breaking up the fight and talking to him! I was amazed!
When we reached the office, the principal said to Cory, “Not you again! What did you do now?” I went back to class.
After school that day, numerous teachers asked me about the “riot” upstairs and told me I should be more careful when I went into the middle school. Our school has an elementary component, where I teach in what is known as the Language Lab (really just special education), and a middle school component, which is housed upstairs. I usually don’t go up there.
Mrs. Jacobs, our master teacher, stopped me in the hall and said, “I hear you met Cory. Tough kid, huh?” I told her about how he had thanked me for talking to him and she told me about Cory. Mrs. Jacobs had tried to work with him a couple of years ago, but things just hadn’t worked out. She told me that he was very smart but almost never came to school. They had tried everything, even sending the police to his house. His mother had died of a drug overdose when he was in fifth grade, and it had all been downhill from there. He had never met his father and was being raised by his grandmother. He was in fights almost daily “at least when he did come to school. His attendance record indicated that he had missed 52 days and it was only midyear.
I just could not get it out of my head how he had thanked me for talking to him. Having a background in psychology and special education really did not give me much of any idea of how to help him.
The next week I attended a seminar in Ohio, presented by the National Educational Service. I went mainly because I speak at numerous seminars and I always like to see how others work. This one seemed a little odd “they were going to speak about working with troubled youth using a Native American approach. I thought, what the heck.
The seminar was excellent. I saw some good stuff, some boring stuff, some great presenters, and a few not so great presenters. One thing I did learn was about children like Cory. I read a few of the books they were offering and learned how children like him were “disconnected,” how they need to belong, and how sometimes you could get them hooked on helping others. I also learned a few things about dealing with very troubled youth that I knew I could use in the inner-city school where I worked. I also confirmed what I felt very strongly about: the need for respect and dignity for children, even in the toughest situations.
When I returned to school, I went to see our principal, Mrs. Horsey. She really enjoyed hearing about what I had learned. We both said, “Oh, yeah! Now I understand,” many times. We had worked together on a very difficult case two weeks before, and the seminar had shown us both where we had gone wrong. Afterwards, I was feeling so pumped up that I said, “Oh, yeah. I learned a lot about kids like Cory. Do you mind if I work with him some?” She replied, “Praise the Lord! Please, yes.” This was the beginning of a journey that has taught me more about Cory, myself, and “the system” than my two masters and doctoral degrees.
I called Cory at home because he had not been to school all week. When I told him who I was, he said, “I know you, you’re the nice big guy, right?” I told him that I needed some help with the second grade class I worked with, that I had heard how smart he was, and was just calling to see if he was interested. I could almost feel the excitement in his voice. He wanted to know if he should come to school right then. It was 3:30 in the afternoon. I told him to come in the morning.
Now knowing he was coming, I had to find the second grade class I had told him about! There was only one choice. I knew the others would not be interested. Mrs. Dimling was young and new and as smart as she was nice. I went to see her, and without hesitation, she said, “Sure.” We discussed what Cory would do, and we both came up with some great ideas. We would introduce him to the class as Mr. Conner, a new teacher’s aide. He would work one-on-one, helping whoever needed help during his extra lunch time and homeroom period.
The next day, Cory arrived and stuck out his hand. I shook it and told him to step outside. We talked about what he would do, and I told him that he had to follow a couple of rules. He was not to fight anywhere in the school and could not miss another day of school. He agreed!
I asked him why he had missed so many days and been in so much trouble. He said he really didn’t know completely but that at least sometimes, he didn’t come to school because the bus did not pick him up. I told Cory that was baloney and that if he was going to lie to me, we would just end this deal now. He promised he would be there every day.
One week later, the principal asked me to do her a favor. She had received many complaints about a certain bus not picking up kids two or three times a week. Would I call them and see what was up? I did, and among other things, found out that I had called Cory a liar when he was not.
I got him out of class and apologized. He said, “That’s okay. That happens to me a lot. You know, I sometimes fight, but I really don’t ever lie. It’s something my mom taught me.” I walked down the steps feeling two feet shorter.
Cory loved coming to Mrs. Dimling’s class. I asked him why and he told me that he liked coming “because everyone likes and respects me here.” He was a master with the second graders. He spoke their language, and they loved him. He lived in the pit of poverty, yet he almost always bought the second graders candy to reward their efforts.
One day, he asked me why Ryan was such a problem. Ryan was always in trouble of one sort or another. I told him I didn’t know, and he said, “How about if I talk to him in the hall and find out what he likes? Then we can make up some work for him to do based on that.” I almost fell on the floor. Hey, I knew that! Why had I not done it? He spoke to Ryan for almost an hour, and not only came up with a plan for school but also found out about some serious problems Ryan was having at home. I said, “Cory, you’re a genius!” Cory replied, “No, he’s just like me, that’s all.”
Things were going fine. I asked a couple of teachers whom Cory liked to mention to him that I had told them how well he was doing. The principal called him to her office and made a big deal over him. He loved it. His grandmother called to tell me that she could not believe he was the first one up at 6:00 A.M. and could not wait to go to school. I had invested five minutes maybe fifteen times, and this kid was totally turned around!
Our school is public but requires uniforms. One day, Cory arrived with his uniform shirt on, but he wore sweat pants instead of the navy dress-type pants required for the uniform. The vice principal sent him home! I saw him on his way out the door, and asked him what was going on. He told me that he did not have any clean pants except for the sweat pants. I called his grandmother, and she said she had not done the wash. I reported this to the vice principal, and he said, “Too bad. We have rules here.” I went to the principal and she agreed to make an exception. She told Cory she understood that he had no control over the situation and she promised to get him a few more uniform pants and shirts. She never did. He never complained.
He had done so well that I wanted to reward him somehow. I asked a charity to supply him with two tickets to the professional wrestling he liked so much. They agreed, and gave his uncle thirty dollars for two tickets and enough left over for hot dogs and cokes. On Monday morning, I looked forward to hearing about his journey. This would be the big time for Cory! He arrived and when asked, said, “We couldn’t go. They were sold out. My uncle called.” I asked him where the money was, and he said that his uncle had spent it and would refund it later. I called the coliseum that had held the wrestling event, and they told me it had not sold out. But I did not tell Cory. He did not complain and he didn’t ask for more tickets.
He was doing superbly “he still had not missed a day of school or been in any fights, and he was cruising through his schoolwork like a pro. I asked Mrs. Dimling’s students if it would be okay to move him to another class, and they rushed to him, surrounding him as if to protect him from me. I said, “Never mind. He can stay here.” He later told me that I almost made him cry when I said that.
I was called to the office one day to find Cory sitting there. The principal informed me that he had been in a fight for no apparent reason and she had to suspend him. As she was signing the paperwork, I sat next to him and simply asked, “What happened?” He said, “That kid spit in my face and I pushed him.” I asked whether he had told Mrs. Horsey this, and he said no. He said that he had such a bad “rap” that it was no use; no one would believe him. I spoke to a teacher that had witnessed the altercation, and she confirmed Cory’s story. I informed Mrs. Horsey, and she said that he had just sat there and not denied anything or added anything. The other child, however, had really embellished his side. I was able to “save” Cory that time. I told him he had to learn to speak up. He told me, “Dr. Furr, you just don’t know what it’s like. Sometimes I get so tired and then I don’t care.”
Through all of this, Cory helped the second graders with great charm and humor. He was a joy to be around when he was in Mrs. Dimling’s class. Mrs. Dimling and I used to watch him and be amazed at how he could teach these kids things that we could not. Mr. Conner, as they called him, was a jewel. They fought over who was going to work with him. And he kept bringing them candy. I asked him why he brought the candy, and he said, “I like to see them smile when I give it to them, and besides, some of them are poor and don’t get much.”
As the end of the year approached, Cory asked me if I was going to be disappointed in him for failing. I hadn’t heard anything about this. Why? All of his teachers agreed that he was doing well and that the only reason they had to fail him was because he had missed so much time during the first two-thirds of the year. I went to see the vice principal who more or less ran the middle school. After I explained the situation, he said, “Cory has to grow up and face the music. He broke the rules and he has to pay.”
“GROW UP?” I shot out. “My God, he’s twelve years old, he lives in hell, has no parents, and yet he busts his butt to help the second graders!”
“Too bad,” I was told. I went to see the principal, who directed the vice principal to work “something” out.
Weeks later, I was told that there was a plan. First, I was not to inform anyone of this plan, especially Cory. He was supposed to continue thinking that he was going to fail. (Now there’s a motivator!) If he didn’t miss any days, even if he was sick, and continued to do well, then he would be given a list of books to read and assignments to do over the summer. If he did them all, and was not absent until next Thanksgiving, and maintained an A average, and did eighth-grade work as well as seventh, then around Christmas, maybe they would allow him to move into the eighth grade. I asked why not require him to pay ten thousand dollars as well! Well, that was the deal, take it or leave it. I took it. What do you think I did next? Right. I told Cory.
The year was ending. Cory had still not missed a day and had had no other problems. The last week of school, I asked him what he would buy if he had a lot of money, and he said, “I don’t know, maybe something for our kids (the second graders).” I said, “No, Cory, something for you.” He said that he had often dreamed of a red, white, and blue ten-speed mountain bike. I went to the charity I had worked for and asked them to buy it. They agreed, but told me they could not get it until the last day of school. I said great. I told Cory that he was getting it, not for coming to school, not for studying hard, but for all the work he had done in Mrs. Dimling’s class. He was overjoyed.
But guess what? Can you predict the pattern here? When I went to get the bike they told me that they were sorry, but since Cory’s uncle had “cheated” on the thirty dollars, they had changed their minds “no bike. This was the morning of the last day of school. Again, Cory was going to be punished for something totally out of his control. No way could I let this happen, but there was no time to get a bike before school. When I saw him, I told him that there was a small problem and that I would have to bring the bike to his house the next day. Do you know what this twelve-year-old said to me? “That’s okay. I don’t want you to go to any trouble for me. Just let me work with these guys next year. That’s all I really want.” I told him I would, and that I would see him tomorrow with the bike.
When I showed up at his house with the red, white, and blue ten-speed mountain bike, he cried. He was just overcome with emotion and so was I. I had never done anything more important in my life! I will never, ever forget that day.
The story does not end there. I wish it did. This summer, Mrs. Horsey transferred to a different school. The vice principal left the following week to go with her. There was no one at the school who could help when Cory arrived to get his summer assignments. Recently, I was told that the new principal had stated that she had never heard of anything like this before and had no way to help Cory. I have an appointment next week to see her.
I plan to tell her what I have learned about rage. I plan to tell her what I want to tell you: we need to listen to these children, because if you hear them out before making up your mind, like I and others had done, they can teach you enough about rage and love and hope to burst your heart wide open.
This feature: Furr, D.L. (1996). Now I understand the rage. Reaching Today’s Youth, 1, 1. pp. 9-12.