I know I've been dragging my heels getting this to you. Truth be told, I was a few pints in when I agreed to do this and am now reluctant to retell this story. I've changed a few details because I don't need to get into trouble at work (I'll refer to myself as Mr. C), but the story itself is accurate. I've included the back story for your readers, so feel free to edit that as you see fit. I just ask that you leave in the bits about the conditions at the schools because sharing that with your readers was my sole motivation for writing all of this down for you.
This all occurred during the 2008 – 2009 school year. I teach third grade in North Portland at one of the worst performing schools in the state. I know a lot of people blame bad schools on bad teachers and, while I've met my fair share of bad teachers, that's not the case here. The teachers I work with are some of the best and most dedicated you'll ever meet. You have to be if you want to last in this environment.
To give you an idea of the challenges we face, most of my kids come from broken homes. Their parents are poor to the point that kids come to school hungry, their clothes are often filthy, and basic hygiene is a constant problem. I used to ask my students about this, but you can only hear, "I don't have any food," or, "My water was shut off," so many times before you have to start insulating yourself from the true reality of it all.
The school provides a free breakfast and lunch for all the students, so that helps out tremendously, but I still keep a supply of peanut butter and jelly in my desk for the really neglected ones. The result of the free meal programs means that the school doesn't have any money for art, music, PE, or teacher assistants. Basically, the whole operation is on life support.
My class that year was pretty typical. I had thirty-three or so students and almost all of them were performing below grade level.
Almost immediately, I was taken by this one student, Floyd. Floyd was pale white, awkward, and wore a Grateful Dead shirt on the first day of school. He talked about the jam bands he'd see with his mom, camping, and his various adventures with his dog, Rufus.
Floyd wasn't just the seven year old reincarnation of Jerry Garcia, he was also a great student. He was above grade level in reading, he was well behaved, and he got along with everyone. I think he was so far off the social scale in terms of what's cool or not that the other kids had no choice but to like him.
The year was off to a pretty good start. I didn't have any really challenging kids which afforded us some time to focus on the arts. I'm not artistic in the least, but I know that being exposed to these things is integral to a good education, so I'd bring my guitar in for sing-alongs and purchase my own art supplies to try to teach some of the fundamentals of drawing and composition.
The kids and I enjoyed the drawing so much that we made it an ongoing project. Each week, we would look at famous paintings and try to dissect them to find out where the perspective was, how it was shaded, and the various shapes the artist used to construct the images. Then the next day, we'd set to work on creating drawings trying to utilize what we had learned the day before.
Here's an example of one of Floyd's first drawings to the right.
Like I said, Floyd was a model student. But as the semester wore on, he started to change. At first, he just became withdrawn. Then one day, he flat out fell asleep in class and started screaming, “Rufus, he's here,” repeatedly. I woke him, but he didn't have any recollection of what had happened and became embarrassed when he saw the other kids laughing at him.
When I asked him about it later that day, he said that he didn't get any sleep the night before because his mom had a friend over and they were up all night performing a cleansing ceremony. That was a euphemism I hadn't heard before.
It wasn't long before I met Floyd's mom at the parent-teacher conferences. She was an attractive woman with long hair and a natural hippie look. She spent the entire conference telling me about herself, the concerts she had been to, and her life on the road. Any time I would mention Floyd, she would simply say that he was a good kid and that, “her little man knew how to take care of himself.” Then she had the audacity to take a phone call during the our conference and even walked out with one of my pens. Needless to say, she didn't rank very high on my charts.
I knew something more serious was going on when Floyd forgot to bring his lunch two days in a row. Floyd always brought his lunch because he said the school food was full of hormones and he preferred to eat natural food. I asked him what happened to his lunch and he told me that his mom was away visiting a friend and that he had run out of grocery money. When I pushed, he said his mom left a lot, but that it was alright because Rufus kept him safe.
The whole thing was just sad. I gave him my stash of PB&J along with all the money in my wallet for groceries and alerted the principal to the situation.
A couple days later he returned the money along with a nasty note from his mom telling me to mind my own business. I'm pretty sure it was written with the pen she'd stolen from me during our conference.
Then tragedy struck. Floyd burst into tears one day during our art lesson. When I saw his drawing, it was obvious what had transpired.
Floyd said that Rufus had spotted a squirrel during one of their adventures and broke free from his leash to run after it. He said that he held Rufus while he died. I'm a dog person, so I know how hard it is to lose a companion, but Floyd was inconsolable. I've had students who've gone through everything from divorce to seeing a parent go to jail, but I've never seen a kid shut down like this.
I tried talking to him on several occasions and referred him to the school counselor, but he just seemed to get worse.
The other kids avoided Floyd after this. He became the weird kid that nobody wanted to be seen with.
He'd fall asleep in class daily. I'd wake him up at first, but when he told me that he couldn't sleep without Rufus to protect him, I just let him sleep.
Then one Friday things came undone. Floyd slept most of the morning as was usual at this point. He woke up during the math lesson and that's when I noticed scratches near the bottom of his neck. I pulled Floyd outside and took a look. He had a series of scratch marks around the base of his neck and shoulders that ran all the way down his arms. Floyd said that he had done it while playing in the park, but I knew that scratches like that weren't the result of playing.
I gave the class an art lesson and went to see the principal. She was out for the day, so I left her several voice mails. I called the school counselor and wrote a report of what had happened. I returned to class where the kids were busy drawing, but by this point the bell rang and the kids scurried out for the weekend.
I was locking my door about an hour later when I saw Floyd duck into the bathroom. I followed and found him standing against the wall sobbing. He was terrified. He said his mom was gone for the weekend. “But you're her little man,” I said, “your mom said you can handle yourself.”
“You don't understand,” he said, “he's waiting for me, he knows how to get in.” He started to cry again, but he was shaking so hard his legs gave out and he crumpled onto the dirty linoleum.
That was enough. I sat with Floyd and waited for him to calm down. When he finally came to, I gathered his things and drove him to my place for the weekend. I pretty much assumed this would get me fired, but I knew that nobody else would help him.
The weekend was actually pretty enjoyable. Floyd was his old self again. We went grocery shopping, cooked, explored the parks and practiced chords on the guitar. By Saturday evening the events that transpired the day before seemed but a distant memory.
That night I woke to find Floyd standing next to my bed with his sullen brown eyes worriedly watching me.
“Floyd?” I asked, “What's wrong?”
“He's outside,” he answered, his voice cracking.
“He followed me.”
I was finally awake enough to focus on Floyd. He was shaking and his hands were busy twisting the front of his t-shirt in knots.
“Nobody knows you're here, not even him,” I said. “Nobody would have known unless they followed us, and I was watching to make sure nobody did.”
Floyd nodded. He seemed to be buying what I was saying. Though I have to admit that I wasn't completely sure either. After meeting his mom and seeing Floyd's scratches, I assumed that there was abuse taking place at his home. If it wasn't his mom, it could very well be one of her jilted ex-boyfriends or even Floyd's father for all I knew.
I told Floyd to sleep in my bed and I slept in front of the bedroom door on a blanket. I didn't get any sleep that night. The thought that someone might be waiting outside to hurt Floyd was too much for me. It's easy to insulate yourself when the abuse is taking place at home, but being thrown in the middle of it is an entirely different matter.
I got up early that morning and drank some coffee while Floyd slept. The kitchen and living room of my small apartment looked undisturbed, so I chalked the events from the night before up to Floyd's imagination. It's funny how the morning light reveals everything as much less sinister.
We spent that Sunday running errands and enjoying the fresh air. We went to the weekend market and lingered over a vegan dinner at his favorite food cart. By the time evening came, I knew that I could no longer postpone the inevitable.
“So what do you say, little man?” I asked. “Do you want to see if your mom's returned?”
Floyd pulled up his hood and shook his head. “She's not there,” he mumbled.
“Do you want to come back to my place for one more night?”
I saw his head nod from beneath his hoodie. “Ok, but you can't tell anyone,” I said. “I could get into serious trouble for this. Do you understand?”
He nodded and we headed back to my apartment. We practiced some more chords and he stayed up drawing while I watched TV. I must have fallen asleep because the next thing I remember is waking up in the couch. It was late and the lights were all turned off. It was pitch black save for the clock on the cable box- it was after three in the morning.
I sat up in the couch waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness when I became aware of a slow but persistent breathing. I figured it was Floyd, he must have fallen asleep on the floor somewhere. I searched the room, but couldn't make out anything in the darkness. The breathing grew louder—raspy—I called to Floyd, the breathing stopped.
“He came back,” I heard him say, his voice scratchy and monotone.
“There's no one else here, we already went over that” I said. “Do you want a glass of water, you don't sound so good.”
“You lied,” Floyd said. “I thought I could trust you but you lied to us.”
“Floyd, there's no one else here, everything is going to be Ok. Where are you?”
I heard a rustling in the darkness then a crash of what sounded like books hitting the floor from my bedroom. I got up from the couch and headed to the bedroom, but it was still so dark. I put my hands out in front of me, reaching for Floyd in the darkness.
“Floyd, where are you? It's me, Mr. C,” I said.
“You lied,” he responded hoarsely. “You lied.”
My eyes finally adjusted to the dark and I looked up to see Floyd perched atop my bookcase looking down on me.
“Floyd, get down from there, you'll tip it over,” I said.
“You lied!” he screamed until his voice broke. With that he flew down on top of me. He screamed and I tried to calm him, but before I could get a word in, I felt his nails dig into my arms and pull down towards my hands.
“Fuck, Floyd!” I screamed. My forearms burned and I could already feel the blood running down to my palms. I looked up just in time as my bookcase came crashing down on top of me. Thank god for cheap furniture as it didn't do any serious damage. I pushed the bookcase aside and flung myself to my feet, still confused as to what was going on.
“You lied, you're a liar!” Floyd screamed. He jumped onto my back, his nails digging deep into my chest. “You lied to us!” he said and, before I could react, I felt his teeth sink deep into the side of my neck. He bit and I could hear the skin tear as he pulled his teeth away.
I yelled for him to stop. Floyd laughed wickedly in my ear, jumped from my back and ran to the living room. I put my hand to my neck, it was wet with saliva and blood. Then I heard the front door open and slam shut.
I ran after him and just caught sight of him running down the back alley of the apartment complex. I called his name and ran after. “Floyd, it's Ok, I'm not mad, it's Ok,” I kept repeating. I finally made it to the alley, but he wasn't there. I called after him repeatedly, but it was no use.
I ran back to my apartment to get my car keys and shoes, when I turned on the lights I was shocked to find the word "Liar" scribbled hundreds of times all over my walls and furniture.
I drove all over the neighborhood looking for him, but there was no trace. By the time I got back to my apartment it was already light. I went to open my front door when I looked down to see that the entire lower half of the door was scratched up. The scratches were deep and vertical.
Needless to say, I called in sick that day and several days after that. The principal and counselor both called me at home inquiring about the messages I left regarding Floyd. He hadn't shown up to school since that Friday. They said that neither he nor his mother were anywhere to be found. I spent the next couple of days packing and tidying up the apartment. I was expecting the police to be coming for me at any moment. That's when I noticed the drawing Floyd was working on that night.
I was at home that Thursday morning when I heard a loud knocking at my door. It was the knock I was expecting. I got up from bed and threw some clothes on, but when I opened the door, there wasn't anyone there. I started to close the door when something caught my eye- there on the doormat was the pen Floyd's mother had taken during our conference.
I returned to school the following Monday and everything was business as usual. The principal told me that Floyd and his mom must have moved sometime during the previous weekend, an occurrence that wasn't particularly unusual given the neighborhood we were in. As far as anyone was concerned that's all there was to the story.
I thought about going to the police, but I knew there was no way anyone would believe my story. I'm not sure if I really know what to make of it myself. It's been a few years now and the scratches on my arm still haven't entirely healed. The blood still seeps from time to time, usually when I hear the scratching at the door. It used to keep me up at night, but I've learned to ignore it. I just hope he'll realize that I'm not going to answer and leave me alone.