Remembering Russell

By Jehanne Helene Beaton

The last time Russell was in my classroom, he hid the cut on his hand from me. A deep, brown-red gouge, nickel-size in diameter. I pointed at it with concern and his palm disappeared into a fist, then slid back into his sleeve. Russell refused to explain.

Nearly four years later, Russell’s angular 16-year-old face appeared in a Saturday edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. A police mug shot accompanied an article reporting his arrest for killing a 40-year-old man during an attempted robbery. The article said Russell stripped the man of his shoes and wallet before shooting him in the head. It further suggested that the crime was committed while Russell was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

I was heartbroken. I kept saying to myself, “Russell was a nice kid. He was a nice kid.”

Maybe there will always be students for whom teachers hold regret, especially when we know we short-changed them, when we didn’t do enough.

Russell is one of mine.

When I knew Russell, he was an excitable seventh-grader with a thick mane of chestnut hair, a love of Lakota culture and fancy dancing, and significant difficulties in reading and writing. I sat close to his desk and tapped his hand to get him to write his assignments and stay focused. I confiscated his yellow bandanas regularly, though even when I kept them, he found others to drag behind him as he bounded through the halls.

I learned of Russell’s arrest through a colleague. I entered the building that morning, brushing the snow off my shoes at the front doors, and she met me with the news, clucking like a gossipy hen. “Did you see the news about Russell Mintwater?”*

I placed his name immediately, jangled my keys on the beaded leather key chain he’d made for me years prior.

My colleague wanted me to know the details of Russell’s crime, and she gripped my coat sleeve as she spoke to me of the shooting’s lurid details. “We knew he was trouble,” she continued. “I knew it would happen. I just knew it.” She released my arm to gesture with a well-groomed fingernail. “I just didn’t think he’d do it so soon, so young.”

I couldn’t get away from her fast enough.

I can’t remember exactly why Russell gave me the key chain, whether it was a gift or for some fundraising activity. I remember Russell’s pride as he handed it to me, one of those moments when a teenager forgets to be cool and reverts back to his child self, giving a teacher something special.

Russell held it out to me, leather strips hanging from a solid trunk beaded in blues and grays. He smiled, admitting that he’d only helped his mother minimally in its construction but that he knew something about doing beadwork. More than any of the guys at school, of that he was sure.

But I didn’t always succeed with Russell that year. One day he lit a match in my classroom. I smelled the sulfur immediately, but not before he could extinguish the match. I’d been helping another student and when I questioned Russell about the smell, he confessed bashfully, holding up the charred end of a paper match. When I joked with a colleague about the incident that afternoon, I was instructed to report it to our administration. I did, and Russell was subsequently suspended for three days.

“What Russell and [our other American Indian student] need to realize,” a well-respected middle school teacher told me that year, “is that their lives will be full of drunk Indians and wife-beaters.” The teacher straightened the papers on his desk at the end of the day after detailing an incident with Russell and justifying his disciplinary actions. “I know,” he said, “I’ve seen it myself.” The teacher insisted that the sooner Russell understood and accepted what the world had in store for him, the sooner he’d stop bucking the adults around him and behave.

The majority of adults in our building viewed Russell from a deficit model and he grew to internalize it. They had low expectations for his academic work as well as how he’d behave in the classroom and school building. Over the course of the year, Russell seemed to accept those expectations.

Russell’s suspensions increased as the year progressed. Confronting a hall monitor. Swearing at the Title I teacher. Shimmying up a water pipe in the classroom. Fighting on the playground. With each suspension, Russell extended his time away from school. If the administration gave him three days out, Russell took five.

And with each suspension, Russell returned to school exhibiting greater evidence of time spent on the streets. He returned with purpled cheeks and blackened eyes, gang insignia etched into a forearm or hand, the flash of a gang sign sent across the room, or a crisp bandana trailing from his back pocket.

A colleague and I recommended that Russell receive only in-school suspension for his rule violations. Lower-grade teachers in our kindergarten through eighth-grade school refused him in their classrooms. “He’s too big,” they argued.

“Too disrespectful.”

“What kind of example is he going to provide for my second-graders?”

By spring, Russell must have realized how much our school simply didn’t want him there.

Certainly, I could rattle off all the reasons why our school didn’t connect with Russell. We were a new middle-level program, housed in a school that was relatively unreceptive to having adolescents in its midst. Problems flooded our tiny student population of 75 seventh-graders – and we encountered everything from eating disorders to rape to domestic abuse to chemical use to severe learning disabilities. It could be argued that Russell didn’t help himself. He walked headfirst into every confrontation, defied any adult with whom he didn’t have a positive relationship, didn’t do his homework, and impetuously jumped at any opportunity for excitement or danger.

Obviously, I don’t condone murder. Russell made his own decision, the wrong decision. No one pulled the trigger for him. No one forced him to be where he was or to do the things he did.

But I do believe that our school was complicit in the criminalization of his life.

Russell was far from the most difficult student we had that year. He needed attention, guidance, and the positive direction of loving and reliable adults. I don’t believe it would have required super-human interventions to support and connect with him better than we did. Maybe time spent after school, encouraging Russell to channel his energy into positive activities. Convincing him that he had somewhere to go, something important and productive to do with his future. Greater academic expectations and superior academic support. Instead, we pushed him down the road of violence by neglecting to be assets in his life. We resigned him to the streets by repeatedly proving to him that our school wasn’t for him.

We were the adults. He was 12 years old. We should have done better.

Russell is not the only student to leave our middle school program and succumb to violence, crime, drugs, or death. But Russell has become emblematic for me and my teaching.

Every time I lobby for a suspension or welcome a student’s hurried exit from my classroom so that the student is out of my hair and my work is supposedly easier, I question my actions, their long term effects, and wonder at the deeper message I might send the student with my decisions.

Every time I consider lowering my expectations for a student, behaviorally or academically, I think of Russell, and catch myself before allowing my negligence to contribute to the disposal of a young person.

Jehanne Helena Beaton teaches middle school social studies and writing at the Interdistrict Downtown School in Minneapolis. *The student’s name has been changed to protect his identity.