Sorry, Mr. J.

There is one day that will haunt me until my last breath, and likely beyond. “I’m sorry, Mr. J. Please forgive me?” I got up from my desk at school after grading papers of kids that were someone else’s responsibility. Kids fresh out of the gladiator arena of middle school; and dropped into a pond filled with sharks bigger than they were. No matter what or who stood in their way, they were still going to make it, or at least fake it until they made it through. I had subbed for them the year previous and was told, “Nobody cares for us, old man!” I was once those kids.

One of the older students, running the halls for some sports practice, ducked their head in the door – they always knew Mr. J’s room was a safe spot – reminding me that I needed a life other than the stupid classroom. So, I packed up and decided to go home. Everything was done anyway, and I was just trying to make sense of something troubling me for weeks. How to reach a certain student. Better yet, how to reach his father.

I took time to clear my head and made my way to the front of the school where my car was parked. I noticed two police cruisers parked out front. My heart dropped.

I had to remember to breathe. It was that certain student. The sound of the handcuffs slowly clicked in my ears.

The deepest breath filled my lungs. I continued onto my car, hearing every sound in creation as the door did not latch behind me, yet clunked on the hip revolver of the cop escorting his suspect.

Slowly fidgeting for my keys in my pocket, I stopped at the curb. From behind me, I heard those words that would fill every tear all the way home, and for a couple of hours after that. “I’m sorry, Mr. J. Please forgive me?”

People ask what remorse sounds like. It’s the sound of a ninth grader telling the only adult who had ever listened to him say, “I’m sorry, Mr. J. Please forgive me?”

We idly speak of bullies, outcasts, troubled kids, mean girls, un-helpable, losers, and loners. Sonder tells us that we are actors in the grand play of someone else’s making just as much as they are roles in our own. We speak of bullies and angry kids, trouble-makers and bad kids, and those that sit quietly brooding on the floors in the hall while others step on their feet for a joke. Those feet are now numb decades later to anyone who steps on them. Then we forget about them; lost to the halls of time.

I was told often by the administration at that school that I “wasn’t trained” enough to do what I was doing. I was trained more than the man who threw that certain child away after “rescuing him from foster care.” Wow. Here’s your medal, buddy.

I was trained more than most of the administration who drowned out their cries for help through labels of attitude disorders, hyperactivity claims, and the time-honored “troubled youth.” The most violent of them – even the ones who purposely hurt themselves, and others – are screaming to be heard through their pain. I was trained more than most to hear him. I knew he didn’t honestly mean what many had seen as threats. “I’m sorry, Mr. J. Please forgive me?”

Those words haunt me. Why? Because I was that kid whose parents didn’t understand what was going on in his life. I was that kid who spent many hours and days remembering the empty lockers in which I could store things. I wore a trench coat too. I was the one who told an English teacher to F-OFF because she mispronounced my name one too many times.

I was that kid who listened to the lessons in chemistry and earth science classes on what things cause combustion naturally, without the need for any secondary ignition. I could have been the one asking for forgiveness. I could have been the kid hauled away for making threats. I could have been in the news for burning down my high school. I could have used that tire iron one night as I pushed by a frightened father who knew the look in my eyes meant his kid “had done it again.” My life could have taken a dark path. Why didn’t it? There was one thing that stopped me. Someone cared enough to hear me.

He listened. He forgave. He had the proactive tools to see beyond to the forty-five-year-old looking toward getting his doctorate. He saw through the pain of a teenager who had been told he wouldn’t amount to anything; by the ones who had the tools to change that. He saw the potential, and he forgave me.

I keep hearing the pundits and activists crying for arming teachers, placing armed staff on every campus to react to situations if they get bad. The tool we should arm every teacher with, and arm all staff, in every campus, with the tool to do what must be done – is forgiveness.

What did I tell him as he was escorted to the back seat of the waiting patrol cruiser? “No. I’m sorry. Please forgive me!”