what vs. why

This turned out to be my longest post yet!  But I promise you won’t be sorry if you take the time to read it.

Last Fall, I was invited to be a guest speaker at a university.  I introduced the central theme of The Best Advice So Far, which is that, while we cannot always choose our circumstances, we can always choose our response.  Our “what next.”  Building on this foundation, I talked about choosing positivity over negativity, and about being others-centered instead of me-centered.  As part of the talk, I told a story which has become a clear favorite over time.  I’d like to share that story with you here.

This story is about Jerry.

I met Jerry when I was working in an inner-city high school program.  The program met in the basement of the school and was funded on a grant as an experiment.  The kids in the program were teens on parole or probation, or who were in gangs, or who were otherwise students at high risk for truancy.  The aim of the program was to find ways to keep them in school.

My first day on site, I pored over files, choosing out my first students.  My goal was to choose those I felt were at critical risk level from among the already high risk population.  Jerry was a clear frontrunner.

Jerry was 17.  They’d told him he was a Junior; but as far as actual credits, he was only in high school because of his age and the special nature of this program.  Jerry was on a strict, court-ordered probation for a number of crimes.  He had already done time.  One of the stipulations of his probation – the only thing preventing him from going immediately back to lock-up – was that he attend school daily.  He was to obey the rules.  He was to attend all classes assigned to him.

The problem was, Jerry could not read.

Jerry’s file showed that he had received years of state-funded special services in reading and math.  Yet, his last available test scores from only a few years earlier showed that he was still on a first-grade reading level.  My priority with Jerry would not be counseling.  It would not even be academic support, per se.  My goal had to be to try to teach this near-man to read past “Do you like my little dog?”

I knew I could succeed – that he could succeed – if I could get him in the chair.  My roster was complete.  I went to meet the kids.  Jerry was my first visit.  I entered a classroom, where the teacher lounged with his feet up on his desk, and students looked at the pictures and stats of sports teams in daily papers strewn across tables.   Heat began to rise in my chest.  I hoped this was some sort of break time and not the norm.  “I’m here to see Jerry,” I announced.

Heads turned toward a lanky African-American boy, with half-closed eyes that said at once that he trusted no one.  Jerry’s eyebrows raised self-consciously but his face remained a stone.  He did not look toward the doorway where I stood.  I felt for him immediately.  “Hi, everyone.  Hi, Jerry.  Why don’t you at least come out in the hall for a second so I can tell you why I’m here to see you.”  He pushed himself up roughly, the waist of his pants hanging just above his knees and the rest pooling about his sneakers in seeming bolts of denim.  He sauntered to the door with a look of defiance, almost threatening.  He still would not look at me, his eyes seeming to trace an invisible, zigzag line on the floor.  Once he was outside the classroom, I quietly closed the door.  Even leaning against the wall in a slouch, staring straight ahead, he towered over me.

I felt confident.  Excited.  I was going to teach this kid to read.  More importantly, I was determined to help him see his own worth as a person.  I had my work cut out for me.

“Hey, Jerry.  I’m Erik.  It’s my first day.  Listen — I read your file.  So I know a little about you.  But I don’t know you.  I hope I will.  But right now, I want to ask you to take a risk with me.  Look at it as a sort of dare.”

He glanced toward me, though not quite at me.  At least it was something.  I kept going.  “I want you to give me two weeks, an hour each day, to work with you on reading.”

That was it.  He was already shaking his head and gesturing vehemently, an acrid look on his face.  “Naw, naw, naw.  I’m not [expletive] going to your [expletive] retard classes, man!”

The window was closing.  I had to act fast.  I pushed forward.  “Jerry, it won’t be the same as before.  I promise.  Give me two weeks.  Just ten days.  And if you don’t feel like you are reading much better by then, you can quit.”

“I can already quit,” he countered.  “You can’t make me do nothin’.”

He started walking away down the hall.  I drew in a breath, gearing for the big guns.  I hated to have to use them, but I knew it was for his best.  I followed him.  “Jerry, your file says you are on probation and that you have to go to classes and follow the rules.  If you don’t come to my class, I will have to call your probation officer and tell him that you aren’t following the program.”

He stopped.

You could feel the air change, almost crackle.  He spun on his heels to face me and looked me dead in the eyes for the first time.  “Aight. ”  It sounded like a question.  A menacing challenge more than an assent.

“Good decision,” I said.  “You won’t be sorry.  I promise.”  I turned and started down the L-hallway to the end, where my room was.  Jerry followed.   I tried to make small talk about what he liked to do outside of school or if he played basketball.  He didn’t reply.  At least I would get him in the door.

I walked in and set down my things on a table.  The room was stark, the walls made of large, yellowed cinder blocks that appeared to have been trying to pass for white at one time.  The floors were badly chipped linoleum, with many tiles cracked or missing altogether.  I thought to myself, This isn’t a far cry from what he had in lock-up.

I turned around to invite Jerry to a seat.  Jerry was squatting with his hands placed fingers inward on his thighs for support.  His head was down, as if he were going to vomit.   Then I realized what was happening.  He wore his jeans low to begin with, but his boxers were now pulled down as well.  His bare thighs were visible between them and the hem of his XXL jersey.  Something dropped to the floor.

Jerry was taking a dump.

Right there on my classroom floor and in front of me, Jerry was relieving himself.  After leaving his last deposit, he unceremoniously hoisted his boxers back up and straightened his shirt.  His face was all smug self-satisfaction.  “That’s what I thinka your [expletive] readin’ class, boy!”

Now, this story could be used to illustrate a number of things I feel passionately about, and which are topics discussed in “The Best Advice So Far” by way of advice.  The fact that, regardless of our circumstances, we always have a choice.  The benefits — and challenges — of choosing positivity over negativity.  Seeing people as people and not as problems.  The idea that no one can make you mad.  But here, I want to use it to talk about something else.


In those few seconds, I had some decisions to make.  I was certainly well within my rights to be furious with this kid!  I could have called his probation officer on the spot and had him sent back to lock-up, or sent him on the run until they found him.  I could have called school security and had him removed.  Heck, I could have called the police to come and arrest him, adding another charge to his record for exposing himself in public, and leaving him branded as a sex offender for the rest of his life.  No one would have seen it as retaliation.  Everyone would have understood and seen any of these choices as perfectly reasonable.

But I chose not to see the problem in front of me.  I chose to see the person.  The young man.  The boy.

It was not important to me what he had done in that moment.  It was more important to consider why he had done it.  And that seemed obvious.  This kid didn’t hate me.  He hated himself.  He hated his failure.  And he wasn’t about to allow himself to be humiliated.  Not anymore.  And so he was willing to go to this extreme — seeing defecating in public as less shameful than how he had felt up until now in his life branded as “stupid.”

I spoke in an even tone, even kindly.  “Well, Jerry, unfortunately, I’ll  have to give you a detention.  Please come back at 3:15.”

He seemed defeated that I hadn’t given him more of a reaction for all his effort.  But he was still defiant.  He began to shuffle toward the door.  “I ain’t coming to your [expletive] detention.”

As he exited, I made sure he heard me:  “Then you’ll leave me with no choice but to call your probation officer.  I’d hate to see that happen.  You decide, though.”

I did not report the incident.  Other students who came down to see me all noticed the “present” Jerry had left.  But I didn’t give him away.  I simply said, “Oh, yeah, one of the kids had an accident.  I’m going to clean it up later.”  One kid, strangely, didn’t even notice!

After school, I wondered whether I’d see Jerry.  But I was prepared, in the event that he did show.  3:15 – no Jerry.  I waited.

At 3:25, Jerry came around the corner and immediately noticed that his –  statement – was where he had left it all those hours earlier.  Beside it were gloves, a bucket with soap and water, disinfectant spray, bleach, paper towels and a red biohazard bag.  I noticed the slightest hint of shame come across his face.  Then it was gone.  He straightened up.  Hardened up.  “I’m not cleaning that up,” he informed me.

“I’m not asking you to,” I said, moving toward the supplies and donning the gloves.  I cleaned up the mess as quickly as I could, while being thorough.  It took less than five minutes.  Jerry didn’t say anything.  But he didn’t walk away either.

“Your detention is over, Jerry.  See you tomorrow morning for reading.  Have a good night.”

The next morning, Jerry showed up to my classroom on time for his lesson.  He said nothing.  I didn’t mention the episode the day before.  “Hey, Jerry!  Good morning.  Glad to see you.  Let the two weeks begin!  Trust me on this – you’re going to be reading before you know it.”

Jerry sat down.  But for the entire hour, he said nothing.  This was a challenge, since teaching reading usually requires that the student read aloud.  And we were working at the phonetic level.  I had no idea if this was going to work.  But I talked for the hour, giving myself the proper responses that Jerry should have been giving me.  When the time was up, I thanked him for coming and told him I hoped to see him the next morning.

He came back.  For two weeks he came back.  And each day, he said nothing.  Not a word.  He slouched in his chair, with those half-closed eyes, looking sullen.  Never looking at me.  But he came.  On the last day of the two-week period I’d challenged him with, I told him, “Well, Jerry, I told you that if you couldn’t read better after two weeks, you could quit.  The problem is … I don’t know whether you can read better or not yet.  But I’m going to leave the choice up to you.  There are other students who need the help, and if you don’t want to come tomorrow, I’ll try to find someone else.  But I hope you will come back.  I like you.  And I know you can do this.”

To my surprise, Jerry came back the next day.  And the next.  At the end of the third week, I told him how proud I was of him for coming.  He literally had not spoken to me in three weeks!  But I cared a lot about this kid all the same.

Week four, Jerry showed up.  Keep in mind that not only had Jerry come to my class all this time – it meant he had also showed up to school every day for weeks.  By now, I was used to giving the instruction and the response for the hour.  But today, mid-way through the lesson, Jerry spoke up.  His voice sounded strange to me, not having heard it in all that time.  He spoke loudly, almost belligerently.  “Why’d you clean up my sh*t?!”

I remember that my eyes stung.  All this time he’d been coming, thinking about this every day in silence.  “I cleaned it up because I care about you.  And because I’ve messed up many times in life, too, and been forgiven.  And I wanted to do that for you.”

He nodded, as if in acceptance.  That was it.

I continued with my instruction.  Only this time, he answered me.  He still slouched, leaning on one fist with half-closed eyes.  But he answered.  What’s more, he was right.

Four months later, Jerry was reading on a high school level.  He was a different person.  He had an insatiable desire to learn.  He wanted to know everything.  He began reading magazines.  Then books.  He wanted to know how to spell and write.  And he was like a bodyguard to me, walking beside me proudly down halls, as if daring anyone else to mess with me.

Go back to Jerry’s first day in my classroom.  Consider what would have surely happened if I’d focused on the what instead of the why – on the problem instead of the person.  Better yet, think of it in reverse.  Look at what did happen because someone chose to see Jerry in terms of why and not what.

Now think about your own life.  Do you tend to react to what people around you do, without considering why?  I’m convinced that, if we will choose to take the time to understand the why,  the what will no longer bother us so much.

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