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The Time Bombs in Our Classrooms

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Jared Loughner was one of my students--though he was never in my class and did not attend my school. He doesn't live in my state, but a lot of very troubled students do and some attend my school and have been enrolled in my class.

In the coming weeks, there may be speculation about who, aside from Loughner himself, was responsible for what happened. I'm not going to fashion an opinion about that, and I certainly hope that no one who ever had him as a student will be asked--or take it upon him or herself--to shoulder any responsibility. But it is a sobering moment for any of us who has ever had a student we wished we could do (or could have done) more to help.

A colleague of mine was one of Antionne Miller's teachers at Duke Ellington Continuation School back in the 1980s. During Miller's highly publicized trial--he is the man accused of pulling Reginald Denny out of his truck and participating in the near fatal beating during the first hours of LA's civil unrest in 1992--Miller's attorney, probably in an attempt to gain sympathy from jurors, asked him about his K-12 education and Miller summarized it as something between meaningless and oppressive.

The next day, my colleague was still incensed about what she'd seen on Court TV. She wanted to burst into the courtroom that afternoon and confront Miller for slandering her and tell the jurors how he had ditched her class and refused to do any work and how hard she had tried to reach him. She yelled about it for a while and then slumped in a chair, turned to our principal who had also worked at Ellington and asked, "What more could I have done?"

My own list of students I wish I'd more emphatically reached out to includes one who shot and killed a liquor store clerk during a robbery, another in federal prison for interstate drug trafficking, two young men who got to know each other doing cooperative assignments in my class and later were arrested robbing a motel near Disneyland. I've also discovered, to my dismay, that a young man I coached in basketball--where life lessons go right along with jump shots and help-defense--got in trouble for spousal abuse a few years after graduation.

None of these men have ever blamed me for their mistakes; if anything they have apologized for letting me down. But that doesn't keep me from second guessing what more I might have done to influence them differently.

I've also had students who showed signs of mental illness--though making such a diagnosis, without any professional training, in a room with 30 to 40 students in four to five hours a week, is at best dubious, especially given the emotional turmoil in which many teenagers quite normally find themselves. But schools are sometimes the only access through which any of us can find and identify troubled youths and try to get them the help they need.

I suspect that there are teachers throughout this country who have acted on such concerns and intervened on behalf of students and maybe even helped prevent tragedies such as what happened last weekend. Which is why whatever pressures we (teachers) may be under to produce improved test scores and the like from our students, we must never forget how much of our most important work will never be objectively measured--making students feel welcome, making them feel included and seen and heard and known and encouraging them to be free and independent thinkers and, above all, to be civil in this sometimes crazy world. And getting to know them well enough to know if something is terribly wrong.

Jared Loughner may have been beyond the civil influence of anyone and his mental illness might have gone untreated no matter what. But he is an important reminder of what can become of the troubled children in our classrooms, a reminder that real education not only must include the teaching of the humanities. It must include our own humanity.