My principal cautioned me that Daymond wouldn’t go far; he was headed straight to jail where he belonged. This was not an unusual encounter. Many of the folks I worked with were quick to arrive at kneejerk opinions about students, dividing them into “good” and “bad” kids.

Much of my work in education has been with students who, for one reason or another, are labeled “at risk.” These are the “throw-away” kids, the students who, all too often, get the message that they are not worth much. They frequently show up in my classroom in distress: enraged, depressed, lost. Daymond was no exception. He quickly made known the pleasure he took in hurting others, the pride he derived from his frequent vicious street fights. He bragged incessantly and was adept at a subtle form of bullying. His anger was ravenous—intensely alert to any possible opening, any chance to pounce.

I struggled to maintain harmony, to keep Daymond’s anguish from engulfing the classroom, to keep class from becoming all about him. The assistant principal was no help. She instructed me to write Daymond up as often as possible so that it would be easier to kick him out when the time came.

Wholehearted learning requires spaces that are safe and inviting. For students to engage the process, and most importantly, for them to begin to direct their own education, I must have their permission to teach. Without their permission they will still come to class (sometimes), they will sit in their chairs and go through the motions—but they won’t allow me in. They won’t reveal their embarrassment at having never understood fractions; they won’t be present enough to engage in a class discussion; they won’t connect to a text. Daymond’s permission to let me teach him was not easily granted. It was a constant, violent tension, in which he was acutely attuned to any lack of presence or any minor judgments.

After one particularly grueling day I vented to a few colleagues. They were eager to demonize Daymond. They pointed out that it would be relatively easy to get him on a long-term suspension, and that what happened to him after his removal wouldn’t be my concern. Someone added that, with any luck, the cops would arrest him soon and he’d be in jail: problem solved. Instead of finding the encouragement I had hoped might help me to reenergize, I found myself shutting down and feeling like I needed to protect Daymond from the larger school community.