The Cowboy and the Gun

His name has long left me, but I can still see him in my mind’s eye and occasionally wonder what became of him.

He was tall and skinny, a lanky cowboy in an upscale suburban school in the heart of Silicon Valley, California. Dark reddish-brown curly hair, freckles and dressed in a Johnny Cash style of black tee-shirts and jeans, he didn’t interact with the other students, all sophomores, most of whom were very talkative and social.  I suspected he floated on the fringes of high school life.

What I did notice was that he slouched in his desk towards the back of a college prep English class and did minimal, if any, work.  I tried to engage him, I spoke with him after class to see what he needed, what we could do to move the grade out of the D-/F range.  He wasn’t going to move.

Day after day, we engaged in a predictable struggle.  I’d try to draw him out; he’d resist. Occasionally, I’d get a weak smile.  As a novice teacher, I was at a loss as to what more to do.

One day when I had a few minutes, I walked down to the Women’s Dean and asked if she had a moment.

Absolutely.  What do you need?

I described my young man and my concerns regarding his grade and attitude.  She shrugged. She had been an English teacher for many years, so this was not completely out of her realm.  There were no words of wisdom other than to continue doing what I had been doing. 

It was the Keep Hitting Your Head Against the Brick Wall Solution.

A few weeks later, on one of those overcast days, the class was in the midst of a lively discussion about an assigned chapter of a novel, when there was a movement immediately followed by a series of gasps coming from the back of the room.

All eyes were turning towards our cowboy and desks were starting to inch away from him.

He has a gun.

I steadied myself.  Teacher training had not addressed this issue.  There were 35 kids in the class, give or take, and I had two of my own at home.

Probably like a fool, or maybe just like a mother or teacher, I walked back to his desk with measured steps, a composed demeanor  — certainly not disclosing that I was frantically trying to find a possible option, any possible option, filed somewhere in my brain…

Give me the gun. Probably not the best plan, but it was all I had.

I looked at him. He looked at me. Our eyes locked.

I was still holding the open novel in my left hand so I extended my right hand, palm up.

I. Mean. It.   Hand. Me. The. Gun. Now.

I used my best stern I. Have. Had. It. Voice that mothers use when They. Have. Had. It.

He handed me the gun and we all began breathing again.

Let’s go. Let’s get you some help.

The rest of my students sat frozen at their desks, silently staring at their closed books. 

The two of us walked out of the room, my right hand on the cowboy’s arm while the other gingerly held the gun by the handle with my index finger and thumb, barrel down, out in front of me. Any idiot could have grabbed the weapon as we walked across the campus to the Men’s Dean.

I later learned the gun was loaded.  It was then that everything became far too real.

My student was depressed, like an estimated 20% of all students. And, like most teenagers, he didn’t have the life tools to seek help or to even know that he was depressed.  I had spotted the signs, and 30 years too late, knew exactly what they meant.

But even  if I had recognized the signs, services to address these issues were not found, are still not found, at most schools. I know I’m not the only teacher who has faced a loaded gun held by a depressed student.  In a recent national survey, 20% of high school students thought about committing suicide and 8% had attempted to kill themselves.

School guidance counselors are not trained mental health professionals. Counties and agencies funded by public monies typically see only Medi-Cal eligible clients, even though depression and suicide are not limited to those living below the poverty line.

There is still little if any professional help available in schools where kids can be referred or access services on their own. Despite the suicides, despite the school shootings, most schools and counties still can’t figure out how to get minimal professional mental health services to all kids in all public schools.

Instead of saying we can’t, perhaps it is way past time that we start saying we must when it comes to getting kids the mental health help they need.

The Raging Inferno

I was a second year teacher, marginally seasoned in life, but certainly not the classroom.

But I knew, just as any seasoned teacher knows, the class right after lunch can be difficult.  Sugar highs. I had 20 squirrely freshman, which made it all the more challenging, in a low-level reading class.  Somehow these kids had managed to get through eight years of school without ever having learned to read. That aside, we were a couple months into the first semester and had fallen into nice routine with the students feeling good about their progress.

Lunch had ended, the final bell sounded and my students were settling in their desks when there was an enormous roar of an engine outside the room.  The door opened and, as we all watched dumbfounded, the doorway darkened.

There was a motorcycle, a massive Harley-type cycle, entering the room, being pushed by a mountain of a young man. He had long black hair pulled back away from his face, dark eyes and probably weighed a few hundred pounds. 

He parked the cycle inside the entrance of the room, grinned broadly and sauntered towards me with a new student ticket clutched in his fist.

My freshman students dove under their desks.

The teacher next door came out of her classroom, looked in and mouthed you ok? I nodded yes, knowing she had 35 students waiting for her, but not really knowing if things were actually okay.

The mountain approached me, holding out the entry ticket.

You’re a student?

Yep, just out of juvie.

uh huh. Your bike?

Yep.

It’s very nice. Think you could park it outside?

He grinned and pushed the cycle outside of the room.

His name was Masou and, early on, he decided he liked my class because I didn’t hassle him.  Of course, he was always on time, did his work and was pleasant. There was no reason to hassle him.

He and the bike would be at the door waiting for lunch to end and the class to begin, while the freshman cowered behind.

In time, I realized I was no longer having to discipline the freshmen; if anyone acted out, as they were apt to do given their age, the class period and the sugar, Masou would simply turn and glare at the offender who would then hide under the desk.  I grew increasingly fond of Masou.

Slowly, his life story emerged in bits and pieces.  Life stories of each of the students tend to come out, especially in English classes and especially if you listen. Some of them can break your heart; Masou’s touched mine.

He was Native American, with a mom and stepdad.  Stepdad was an alcoholic and beat his stepson until Masou got large enough to return the beating, which ultimately led to more fights and Juvenile Hall. 

Despite everything, Masou had the Native American connection with the earth, her spirit and all growing things. Whenever he spoke or wrote of the environment, it was with a profound sense of awe and reverence that few people will ever experience.

Then, before we knew it, it was the Christmas holidays and we all wished each other well and left on break. Masou never returned.

A few years later, a small fire started in the mountains surrounding our valley and quickly grew into a raging inferno that forced the evacuation of 4,500 people from 2,500 homes.  The thick black smoke blanketed the valley for the better part of a week while evacuees huddled and worried over their homes and belongings. The rest of us watched in horror as the fire consumed the mountains that we loved and had mostly taken for granted.

The fire caused over $7 million in damage, destroyed 42 homes and charred some 14,000 acres. The inferno left the mountains scarred for a decade or more.

The local news announced that a suspect had been arrested in connection with the fire but released for lack of evidence.  It was Masou. I didn’t hear of anyone else ever being charged with the crime.

I had such a overwhelming sense of sadness that a young man who had such an connection with nature could have ever been filled with so much rage that he’d turn on her, if indeed it was him. I hoped it wasn’t him.

I also wondered what we could have done at the school to have averted this tragedy and the subsequent scarring of the environment, the homeowners, the greater community and even the person who set the fire. Whether police arrested the right person or not, it was obvious Masou needed help far beyond what a teacher could provide. It was also obvious we had no services to which to refer him.

Here we were, in a relatively affluent area and without readily accessible resources for kids. It wasn’t a priority. It was too expensive. That was over 40 years ago. I wish I could say things have changed.

They haven’t.