I once had a student who drank an entire bottle of blue food coloring to prove that she could turn her pee green. I had another who, when disciplined, would growl and bark and bare his teeth. With that in mind, I'll tell you that Tanner Collins, although often unsettling, was not the strangest student I'd ever had.
He struck poses. Even the most benign request could evoke one. For “Tanner Contorted,” as I came to think of it, he would tilt his head and bring his ear toward his left shoulder until it nearly grazed his bony skeleton. Then he would close his left eye, always his left eye, and grimace, making his mouth pucker only on the left side of his face.
"Tanner, would you please stop that tapping? And the humming…could you stop that too?" I might ask. That's all it would take to elicit the look, and all the kids would giggle and stare and some would reflexively imitate it.
After several days of missed homework assignments and some friction between Tanner and his classmates, I decided to confront him as he left for home. "Tanner, how's school going for you?"
Tanner wouldn't sit when we talked. He preferred to stand, always with his back against the wall, and, like someone about to be arrested, he clasped his hands behind his neck, his elbows forming butterfly-like wings.
"I like it okay. It's good. I like the new tetherballs. And some days my mom packs a banana in my lunch. Bananas brighten my day."
"Bananas brighten your day?" I appreciated his sense of humor, but I steered him back to my agenda. "What about in the classroom? How do you think you're doing in reading, or math, or spelling? And what about homework? I'm tired of keeping you in at lunch to do your homework. Is there some reason you're not doing it at home?"
Slowly he eased into the stance that became "Tanner Contorted." I watched his arms lower to his sides and, in a few moments, he transformed.
"Tanner. You don't need to do that. Are you uncomfortable with my questions? Tanner, please answer me."
"I hate school. I'm stupid. The other kids are smart." He managed to say all that in perfect monotone while maintaining his characteristic pose, speaking only from the penny-size hole he allowed on the right side of his mouth.
"But you are smart, Tanner," I said as I pondered the truth. In fact, Tanner possessed above average intellect. Over the course of his previous four years in elementary school he had also been deemed free from any learning disabilities or any of the attention deficit disorders. Tanner was physically healthy and, according to his mother, he was also mentally healthy. "Tanner marches to his own drum," she told me with a wink at back-to-school night in the fall.
Tanner defrosted his face and opened his left eye cautiously. "I think you’re very smart," I said again, "But you're not making any effort to learn. Learning isn't something that just happens, Tanner. You have to make an effort, to make the information go into your brain and to stay there, and later, to use that information. To build on what you know. That's what learning is, but you have to want it. Don't you want that?"
Tanner looked out the window for a long while. He had pulled a pushpin from the bulletin board behind him, and rolled it around in his damp palm before looking down and using it to pierce the long, overgrown end of his left thumbnail.
"Tanner. Do you want to learn?" I repeated.
"Not really," he said with a newly-fixed glare on the tetherball pole across the lumpy macadam playground. Patches of dirty snow along the borders of the playground melted, creating a clear stream that the daycare kids used to float small paper boats. Steamy white clouds coursed the pale sky, sending swift shadows over the children. The tetherball court stood idle. "Fingernails have no nerve receptors.” Tanner held out his pierced thumbnail for me to see. “Everybody makes such a big deal about learning anyway. What's wrong with being stupid? Why can't I just stay home and do what I want? Why do I have to read? I hate stupid storybooks about stupid kids.”
Tanner continued to look outside, without blinking or moving as he spoke. Trying to sort his logic from wit, I fought hard to avoid smiling.
"Well, I have answers to your questions Tanner, but I suspect you don't really want to hear any of them, and I don't think they'll change your mind about learning. For now, I'll just tell you that you're a smart boy and that learning can make your life happier and easier and more interesting. But if you've decided to stop learning, then life… I'm afraid life might be very difficult for you."
Like a classically trained ballet dancer, Tanner gracefully assumed his second pose. This one I named "Tanner Supine." Tanner silently slithered down the wall until he reached the floor and then arranged himself so that he was lying face up, his arms at his sides with his palms pressing down onto the cold, green-speckled linoleum floor of the classroom. I could see the pushpin piercing the dead, horny nail of his thumb.
"Life already is difficult," Tanner said, fixing his gaze on the water cycle mobiles we had made earlier that month. Using fishing line, I had hung them from the light fixtures and the arid breeze from the playground caused them to spiral gently. He reminded me of an infant staring up out of its crib, transfixed on a tinkling, rotating crib mobile. Without shifting his eyes, Tanner asked, "Can I go now? Are we done? I wanna go now."
I'd seen this second pose before and had become accustomed to his antics, but today I had hoped to set up a schedule of rewards for completed homework. Lulled into complacency by his calm repose, instead I answered, "Sure. Don't forget your things. I'll see you tomorrow."
* * *
We heard Mrs. Bertolli's science cart rattling down the hall. As she rounded the corner into the classroom, the speed of the cart coupled with the centrifugal force of the quick left turn caused it to keel and the balance scale and solid brass weights perched on the cart's stainless steel shelf sailed off. The brass weights rolled across the slick floor and, though several students dove from their seats to retrieve them, the largest one, the one embossed with "20G," landed squarely against the sole of Tanner's canvas sneaker.
Tanner leaned over cautiously and experimented with the heft of the large brass cylinder, tossing it gently into the air. The children all squealed as they gathered the other errant weights, but, since Mrs. Bertolli seemed to have control of the situation, I decided against interfering. Spending my prep hour in the classroom would provide a good opportunity to observe Tanner with another adult. Mrs. Bertolli ignored the accident and began her lesson on matter.
"Today we're going to learn about matter. You will see that matter is anything that has mass and takes up space. Marcus, what's in that cup on your desk?" Mrs. Bertolli walked toward Marcus and turned over his empty pencil cup for all to see.
"Nothin', " he said. "I lost all my pencils."
"Ah. I see that there are no pencils in the cup, but is the cup empty?" She addressed this last question to Tanner, who sat behind Marcus, and, who, seemingly oblivious to her query, was spinning the twenty-gram brass weight like a top. But Tanner surprised her.
"Nope. It's not empty. It's got air in it. And if you could suck all the air out of it, like if you had a super-powerful vacuum or something, the sides of the cup would cave in. There's more pressure from the air in the room, and it would cave in the cup. I saw it on T.V. once."
Marcus was unconvinced and incredulous. "No it wouldn't! That cup's thick plastic. Even if I stepped on it, it wouldn't break. How could air crush that cup? Here, lemme try."
Marcus tried to take the cup from Mrs. Bertolli, but she lifted it out of his reach. Tanner, undaunted by Marcus' comment, sat captivated; his bright eyes darted after her. He pressed the cool brass weight against his cheek and Mrs. Bertolli smiled at him as she affirmed his theory. "Tanner is correct."
To conclude her lesson Mrs. Bertolli had produced and distributed a neat matrix that the children used to determine whether certain objects were actually matter. Most wrote concise conclusions such as, "Air is matter because it took up space in the balloon and it weighed .5 grams on the scale," but Tanner's lab sheet had no check marks on the matrix. Though it also didn't have his name written on it, I recognized his handwriting. His conclusion was really a question. Written in capital letters it said, "I TAKE UP SPACE. DO I MATTER?”
* * *
"Who has Tanner Collins?" I heard the next day as I slurped my instant noodle lunch.
I inhaled the steam before I lifted my eyes and said, cautiously, "I do." The other teachers in the lunchroom stopped eating long enough to turn toward me. A few even gestured toward me. Donna, the noon yard supervisor, shifted her weight and re-tied the bow on her orange plastic vest making sure not to tangle the whistle she wore around her neck.
"He’s acting nuts." She marched toward me. "He's out there just standing in the middle of the tetherball court. The kids are screaming at him to get out, but he won't move. He's just staring straight ahead.”
"Tanner Catatonia," I said as I stood up, but Donna must have missed it, because she continued.
"He's benched. I told him that, and I've threatened benching him all week, but he won't move. Someone's gotta move him before the kids hurt him. It’s crazy out there." She used her thumb to point toward the door.
I grabbed my heavy woolen coat and my noodle cup, and when I arrived at the upper grade playground I could see that my diagnosis was correct. Tanner stood tall, with his shoulders pulled back. His spine was pressed against the steel tetherball pole, oblivious to the barrage of insults being pelted at his lanky frame. I faced him, and though he focused on some distant point, I was sure he knew I was there. I held the plastic spoon inside the cup as I sipped the last of my salty broth. "Tanner, did you lose the point? Are you supposed to get off the court?" Using her whistle, Donna rounded up the small assailants and moments later the entire playground emptied when the lunch bell rang.
The tetherball chain clanged gently as the wind blew it against the galvanized pole. I noticed a faint ring of rust-colored powder clinging to the rim of his lips and I smelled the characteristic odor of Doritos on his breath, and, for a moment, I thought I saw my own tired reflection in his eyes. I wondered what had triggered this episode—was it the kids, or the pressure of performing on the playground?
"Tanner, what happened? Are you here? Where are you Tanner?" I joked lightly, hoping to jar him. “C’mon. Let’s go back to class…I’ll share my cookies with you…we can talk.” But nothing I said or did changed his stance. I finally had the custodian summon the principal, who relieved me from my vigil. I returned to my classroom where the children were clamoring for window space to watch Tanner. When I entered the room, Myron was taking bets to see how long it would take Tanner to move. I imagined him being carted off to a mental hospital in an ambulance; his eyes fixed on the ceiling of the roaring van.
A half-hour later, I saw Tanner's mother Kathy jogging across the playground toward him, her blond ponytail bobbing behind her. Tanner held his catatonic pose even as she prodded and pulled him. Eventually, she pulled him down and he crumpled on his side on the blacktop in a pose I hadn't seen before and had yet to name. Even from my classroom, I could see the agony on his face. His cheeks and nose were red with humiliation and his tears cascaded across his freckled skin. Soggy snowflakes fell from the late winter sky like stars falling from heaven, darkening the painted circle of the tetherball court. I fought back my own tears. I wanted to run to him, to leave my classroom full of perfect children and gather Tanner in my arms and cradle the hope back into him.
* * *
Tanner’s father found a school in Indiana that specialized in emotionally-disturbed children, and my only communication with his parents after the playground incident was an email from his father. He said that Tanner was doing well in Indiana; he'd made friends who were "like" him and that he was on medication. He said that Tanner seemed less depressed, more hopeful, and that he no longer "zoned out." He added that Tanner was doing his homework every night and followed this announcement with a smiley face.
I tried to imagine Tanner in Indiana, at an institution for emotionally-disturbed children. I felt strangely sad after reading his father's message, and I wasn't impressed by the fact that he was now able to do his homework. While I was glad to hear that he was getting the attention he needed, I was also worried that perhaps Tanner was being drugged into complacency, that his philosophical musings, his unique perspective of life—the very essence of him—would be chemically exorcised.
What could I have done to avoid this? For four years I had heard Tanner's previous teachers tell his tales, so before I had even met him I knew that he would present a unique challenge. This was a child with a reputation; one who had been tested, evaluated and observed. He was labeled nearly as fast as he was unlabeled. Slow, low, delayed, too smart, too lazy, too crazy, strange parents, sarcastic, jaded, odd. Overwhelming, underachieving, unrealistic. Tanner's file was ripe with adjectives describing his abilities, his attitude, and his odds for academic success. Categorizing helped to make sense of him, the way animals are more easily understood by their kingdom or phylum. But still, I could not make sense of him; there was no phylum for Tanner. He was brilliant and sweet and witty and poetic and very possibly mentally ill, but I could not fix him. Not even if I cried and screamed and risked my job. The futility of any action I might take was glaring, and nothing I could do would undo the truth: Tanner did not fit into the neat little world of public school.
* * *
Tanner’s parents didn’t clean out his desk or pick up his things. His jacket and backpack remained on hook #3 for the remainder of the year as a sort of memorial. I moved his desk full of books and messy papers into table group six, the one closest to the window, and I positioned his chair toward the view of his beloved tetherball court. Though I knew no one would look at them, in the spring I hung his projects and artwork for Open House as if he were still a member of our class. I placed one particular tempera painting prominently, at eye level, as it was the subject of his painting I wanted to see everyday until the school year ended. Early in the year I had taught a unit on the Spanish artist Joan Miró. Tanner had especially liked Miró's collection titled the "Constellations" and had painted his own constellation. White stars on a blue-black field formed the unmistakable tetherball pole and court of Tanner's obsession. But, in this court, in Tanner's imagined constellation, the ball was detached from the pole and soared comet-like through the dark sky. Tanner had titled it simply, "UNTETHERED."
Joanne Levy-Prewitt is a teacher, writer and college admissions advisor. She lives in Northern California.
Photo courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.