The principal’s office was what one might expect to find in a low-income area with too many students and not enough funding for administrative amenities. The furniture was scarred and chipped, the rug threadbare. The man behind the desk was balding, and his eyes looked like he didn’t get enough sleep.
He was using them to look at the student sitting in front of him, a student sitting reluctantly in front of him if one took into account the way he was perched on the front of the chair and looking restless.
Principal Rodriguez studied the boy for a moment. He knew him as well as he did any of the students—better, in fact. They’d had several meetings—too many, really—which had mostly been of a disciplinary nature. It was always a surprise that this was why they met as the boy, Aaron Connor, was small for a 13-year-old, wore overlarge glasses which gave him a helpless, ineffectual sort of appearance, and in fact was one of the brightest kids in school.
He was also prone to getting into fights. The school had a policy of suspension and expulsion for fighting, with some latitude extended to the principal on how to enforce the discipline. The area where the school was located was one where fights were a common occurrence. Expelling everyone involved in a fight would not be a practical solution to the problem that was his main focus: educating the youth in this area. Still, a policy was a policy, and Principal Rodriguez had already extended it for Aaron past the limit. The fact was, though, he liked the boy and was sympathetic to his situation.
He had reasons for that. Aaron came from difficult circumstances. His mother was often sick, often confined to her bed, and her frequent absences made it impossible for her to hold down a job. The doctors didn’t seem sure what her problem was, but without comprehensive testing, which she couldn’t begin to afford, they weren’t able to help her. Her husband, Aaron’s father, was not in the picture, and Aaron spent considerable time looking after his mother and his younger sister. Even with that, he still hadn’t ever received a grade below an A.
Even though Dr. Rodriguez had feelings for the boy and his situation, he still had a job to do and standards to maintain. As he’d explained to Aaron several times, how could he discipline the boy’s adversary unless he did the same to Aaron? Letting Aaron off the hook meant what the other student had done also had to be overlooked.
Dr. Rodriguez shook his head and sighed. “What was it this time, Aaron?” he asked, his voice calm but showing his disappointment.
“He bumped me, then called me a name. What was I supposed to do? I had to respond.”
“No, you were supposed to ignore it. Why do you always respond with your fists? You know that never gets you anywhere but in here.”
“No, sometimes it gets me in the infirmary.” The boy grinned. He had a lot of spunk, the principal knew. And it was hard to ignore that grin. He had to force himself not to respond in kind.
Aaron liked Dr. Rodriguez. The man had been more than fair to him. He knew that. But life on the playground of a South Bronx middle school wasn’t one that allowed you to walk away from a challenge. You defended yourself or you were destined for a miserable next few years—if indeed you survived that long. His principal didn’t seem to appreciate that reality. If he did, he certainly never alluded to it.
“I didn’t use my fists. Not till he did. I just shoved him back. Didn’t even use the name he did. I don’t swear. I did shove him. But he was the one who swung first.”
“And then you swung back. And on the last day of school, too! All you had to do was back off, and in a few hours, you’d be done for the summer.”
“But I’d still live around here for the months ahead of us, and other kids would think I was a pussy. No, I had to retaliate, just as I’ve had to in the past. I guess if this is one bridge too far, then you’re going to have to do what you have to do.”
Yep, thought Dr. Rodriguez, that was Aaron.
The kid read a lot. The principal knew this because Aaron had spoken in the past about how, when he was home caring for his mother and exercising patience with his sister, reading was the only thing that kept him sane. This was a good example. The way most kids spoke at this school was with a patois of the streets, an amalgam of what they heard at home mixed in with how other kids in their orbit spoke. He knew no other student who would have said, ‘just as I’ve had to in the past.’ They’d never have used that verb form; they’d all have said ‘just like I did’. Aaron’s words were a reflection of who he was.
But, hearing what Aaron had to say, Dr. Rodriguez brightened. He’d been hoping to find a way to lead this conversation seamlessly in a different direction and had just received it. He sat back in his chair. “So I guess what you’re saying, Aaron, is that you’d be better off if you could escape the South Bronx for the summer? That way you’d not have to deal with any of these kids who’d make trouble for you. Would you like to be in a different environment if you could?”
Aaron made a sarcastic grunt. “If elephants could fly,” he muttered, looking down, then raised his eyes to the principal. “Get real,” he said. “No way.”
Dr. Rodriguez grinned. The boy could adapt his language to fit the situation, that was for sure. But he’d had his opening now, and he was going to plow ahead, regardless of the boy’s certainty that what he had suggested was a nonstarter.
He regarded the boy. The kid was a contradiction in terms. He was small, skinny, anything but a fighter, yet he got into fights. He was soft yet would strike out at the drop of an insult. He was smart but didn’t use his head to figure out how to avoid scuffles. He had a great mind but let his emotions run wild. He was thin-skinned and turned the slightest pinpricks to his self-esteem into major skirmishes. Yet if there was a single word to describe such a boy, perhaps it would be ‘survivor.’
What the boy needed, it seemed, was a different environment. He could use some words of wisdom, too, but it was doubtful he’d listen to them. But escaping from his pattern of facing every annoyance, every problem, with angry confrontational challenges was something he desperately needed to do, and it was doubtful he’d learn how to do that here in the South Bronx.
Dr. Rodriguez knew something Aaron didn’t, and now he had the challenge of convincing the boy to accept what he’d been involved with arranging for him. He knew it wouldn’t be easy. Aaron was stubborn and proud—and sometimes too sure of himself and what he needed to do to pay attention to anything that differed from his own intentions. It was very unlikely he would react well to what the principal wanted for him.
Luckily, the principal had some leverage. Aaron himself had provided it.
“Aaron, I should expel you. You know that. I think you’re even prepared for it. It would mean a far rougher, less academically rigorous school for you next year—a complete waste of your time and something that would compromise your future. You can’t want that. And I have a way you can avoid it if you’ll go along with me here. You know I have to do something about this fight. Even if nothing came of it, if no blows actually connected, they were thrown. It’s happened too often. I must act.”
Aaron looked at him with an unreadable face, awaiting the verdict. Dr. Rodriguez continued.
“I talked to some people before calling you in. I understand why you might have reacted the way you did today when the motivation was so slim. You’d just found out that your mother has been approved for a set of tests at Bronx Memorial, that the costs were going to be covered by a medical research foundation. You’ve been told that she’ll be an inpatient for an unknown length of time, but that one single test will take at least several weeks; it may extend past that depending on what the test results are. If they extend to treatment, well, no one knows at this point.”
He paused. Aaron was showing nothing. He rarely did. So Dr. Rodriguez continued. “Your mother said she was planning to send you to stay with her sister. She also said her sister had five kids, and that they and you don’t get along at all, and that you’d be sleeping on the floor or in the living room on the sofa. I don’t imagine you are relishing the prospect. Maybe that had something to do with how you reacted today. You could have been letting some frustration see daylight.”
Aaron didn’t know where this was going, but so far, he hadn’t been expelled, so he continued to listen without saying anything.
Dr. Rodriguez continued. “I made a couple of other phone calls. I know a lot of people, Aaron, and some of them are really good people. One of them is the on-site director of a summer camp for boys. I spoke to him. He’s willing to take you. You’ll be in a new environment. It’s one where using your fists won’t be necessary. There’s no one else from the South Bronx there. There’s a wide variety of kids; the camp has an excellent reputation and gets kids from all over. Most of the campers will be younger than you. They take kids from 8- to 13-years old. I think you’d be very happy there.”
Dr. Rodriguez sat back, awaiting the onslaught of arguments he expected to be forthcoming. About how Aaron felt he could stay in his house by himself and not have to go to his strongly disliked aunt. How he needed to be there so he could visit his mother in the hospital and give her what support she needed. About how he’d never once been out of the South Bronx in his entire life and wasn’t about to leave it for some snooty camp for rich kids where he’d have nothing in common with any of them.
The words didn’t come. Instead, after a pause for consideration, Aaron asked, “And if I agree, you’re going to forget about what happened today?”
Dr. Rodriguez laughed, a full-throated, hearty laugh. “I like you, Aaron. You know that. I want what’s best for you, too. This will be my last year with you regardless. You’ll be in high school next year. I don’t want to be the one who will prevent you from moving on to South Bronx High School and sends you to a continuation school set up principally for dropouts and malcontents. An expulsion, which is what should be done, would result in exactly that.”
Dr. Rodriguez stopped a moment to let that sink in. Then he continued. “But I don’t want what we decide here to be a leveraged deal where we both give a little. Let’s make this an agreement that’s good for both parties, with you knowing I bent over backwards to get something good for you because I feel you should have it, and because I’m hoping it’ll be a great experience for you, and you agreeing because you trust me on this. What do you say?”