The Kid In The Back

We live in communities.

Neighborhoods, towns, churches, families all can be places where people come together toward some common purpose. They can also be places of oppression, isolation, and inequality.

I’ve thought a lot lately about community. Because it’s difficult, because we do these bike tours, because I spent 35 years in classrooms. Today I’m reflecting on headlines and horrific crimes and how a kid comes to feel like he just doesn’t belong.

I remember a former student named Tim, who at age 15, on his way to school, passed the partially-concealed body of a murder victim in a field. Being a kid and not realizing what he’d seen, he continued to the bus stop.

It’s an infamous case. Police and prosecutors immediately targeted Tim as the murderer, hounded him into adulthood, and more than 10 years later framed and unjustly convicted him. He was freed from prison when DNA proved he was innocent.

My point isn’t to rehash on old case of injustice. I recall, in 1987, shaking my head when I learned this kid was hauled out of class and interrogated. “No way,” I thought. No way this skinny, quiet kid did this.

You know what I don’t recall? I don’t recall speaking up, going to law enforcement and telling them my thoughts. I don’t recall contacting Tim, not then or in the years that followed, to offer encouragement and support.

You see, I didn’t really know him. I knew his name and face, but Tim was that kid in junior high school who sat in the back and drew weird stuff in his notebook. Didn’t cause any trouble. He was content, it seemed, to just not get called on. Most other kids didn’t seem to like him or dislike him. He was just sort of there.

And, sadly, at that stage of my career, that was okay with me. Plenty of students raised their hands, and Tim had learned the game. Be quiet, follow the rules, and they’ll leave me alone. And they move along, eventually deciding they don’t fit in.

I’m not proud of that, not proud that I gravitated toward students who stroked my ego by at least pretending to like math. I’m not proud that for a long time I was okay (and maybe even quietly a little happy) when kids like Tim stayed out of the way so I could “just teach.”

I learned, and I hope I did better, but I can’t avoid thinking about all the “Tim’s” we shuffle to the side because they’re not quite as much fun. Maybe we don’t actively exclude them, but we don’t go out of our way to invite them in, either. Easier to let them hang at the edges, and when they just stop showing up we either don’t notice or we’re quietly a little more comfortable.

Happens in neighborhoods, in churches, maybe even on bike tours. And that’s how we end up, in the middle of crowds, with people who feel alienated, who feel like they don’t belong.

It’s not enough to open the door and make it their fault if they don’t show up. The kid who sits in the back who draws weird stuff and doesn’t raise his hand – he might be the most interesting person in the class, and it’s not that difficult to find out. But you gotta roll away from your comfort zone at the front of the room. You gotta stop “just teaching.”

And I’m still not all that good at it.

Note: Normally, I wouldn’t use a former student’s name and details. Tim’s case of unjust prosecution is well-documented on the Internet and national news. And the case and the details aren’t really the point, right?

Another Note: Most of these alienated, I-don’t-fit-in folks don’t go on to commit horrible crimes. But that’s not really the point, either.

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