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    The Good Society

    A trashed office is a small price to pay for inner progress.

    Springs Toledo

    July 13, 2020
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    • Jeff

      I like it.

    My arm was draped around him when I booted my office door open and hustled him in before things got completely out of hand. Once inside, I pulled a chair against the door and sat down. He was pacing and cursing and promising all kinds of mayhem.

    “You can’t keep me in here,” he said. “I’m gonna fuck them up!”

    “Yes I can, and no you’re not.”

    He took a step forward. I stayed seated and spoke calmly. “Come on now. You know you’re not getting past Mr. T.”

    “Mr. T” was my nom d’appel. I was the behavior specialist for a special education program in a public school not far from Boston’s Mission Hill. It provided structure and support for roughly twenty-five students with long histories of failure and the kind of self-management problems that frighten new teachers right out of the field. Their complexions varied, socioeconomic status not so much. Most lived in the projects with no dad in sight.

    James (we’ll call him James) didn’t try to get past me. He trashed my office instead. I let him. He knocked over the bookcase, dumped a desk, tore down the inspirational quotes taped on the walls, and broke my framed print of Thomas Hovenden’s The Last Moments of John Brown. When he arm-swept the top of my desk, I didn’t care, but then he lifted up the computer. At that, I got to my feet – caring is one thing, a concussion is another – “James, put that down or you’ll be on the floor.” He put it down, and started kicking the metal drawers. A concerned teacher came knocking. I cracked the door and told her everything is fine, fine, and please keep the deans and security away.

    What set James off?

    A lot of things. In the morning that growl you heard was his empty stomach, and he’d greet you with a look as vacant as the list of his achievements over seventeen years. Every assignment was a reminder of what he didn’t know, every directive a poke at his powerlessness. After school he’d go home to nothing.

    He’d get more of nothing if any time was spent finding ways to justify his loss of control. Far better that time be spent affirming his person, separating it from his conduct in the hall, which was regressive self-sabotage, which was beneath him, which was an injustice.

    A good society is not there to make everything easy, to abolish every fence and flatten every hill.

    He knew it wouldn’t be for free. He was learning little by little that a good society is not there to make everything easy, to abolish every fence and flatten every hill, but to ready him for what awaits.

    And what awaits is not a womb where everyone is Oprah Winfrey feeling your pain, but the world, and there – there be dragons.

    I purposely left my office in shambles. The next morning James arrived to begin “Directed Study” – an in-house, off-the-official-record consequence where he’d be separated from friends and iPhone and expected to work quietly on class assignments for credit. His breakfast was waiting for him. “Thanks, man,” he muttered.

    While he was eating, he watched me get down on my hands and knees and start cleaning. Then I heard what I’d hoped I would, an indication of progress: “I can help.” He left his plate and started taping the quotes back up on the wall. “Respond, don’t react,” read one. “When you point a finger there are three pointing back at you,” read another.

    I was pounding the inside of the drawers to get the dents out when he picked the framed print up off the floor and stared at it. “John Brown’s got a crack in him,” he said.

    “We all do, James.”

    Two mornings later he was prepared for his reentry back into the little society. He nervously presented himself to his teachers and peers and apologized for the ruckus he’d caused. He said there were things he was working on, and blaming others wasn’t among them.

    The little society applauded, welcomed him back, and carried on – whole again.

    Contributed By

    Springs Toledo is an award-winning essayist and the author of The Gods of War, In the Cheap Seats, Murderers’ Row, and Smokestack Lightning. His work has been featured on NPR’s Here & Now, recognized dozens of times by the Boxing Writers Association of America, and was honored in Best American Essays 2019. He is from Boston.

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