“Was this one of yours?”
I stare at the text on my phone from a former teaching colleague, the URL underneath it glaring up at me. I hesitate, not sure if I want to click on it. Finally, my curiosity compels me. My finger shakily taps the link.
“Sean Michael Bishop, 17, has been charged with first-degree murder,” the article’s headline blares at me. I read on, my pulse quickening. “On May 11, Bishop was arrested and charged in the shooting of 34-year-old Michael Franken. Bishop was also arrested on weapons charges. Lake Vista police said Bishop was involved in an argument with a woman in the parking lot of Tailgaters Bar & Grill in the Main Street District before Franken tried to stop the fight. Police said Monday that Franken has since died, and Bishop is now charged with first-degree murder.”
The mugshot that accompanies the article seals the deal. Sean. My student four years ago, an 8th grader at Lakeside Middle School, looking decidedly older, his skin drawn and his brow furrowed. But still the same smug smile I remembered. I stood there in shock, remembering it all. My worst day of teaching. The reason I left Lakeside.
The bell rang and students shuffled out of the classroom, ready for lunch. A few students lingered behind, including Ryan Cage, who had been assigned to alternate passing periods. This was an accommodation often made at Lakeside Middle School when a student was not able to conduct him or herself in an appropriate manner in the hallways. They would stay back in their classroom until all of the students had passed during the normal 5-minute passing time and then be allowed to pass to their next class when the hallways were empty. Unfortunately, Ryan was not the only student I had on alternate passing. He sat patiently in the corner of the room by the door, waiting, while I stood in the opposite corner, switching up my Power Point in preparation for the next class coming in.
I hear Ryan ask someone, “What the hell do you want?” and I looked up in time to see Sean Bishop and Joey Chamberlain coming through the door, heading straight for Ryan. Sean began to punch Ryan in the face while Joey watched, laughing. Ryan fell to the ground, making no attempt to fight back.
I grabbed the phone with trembling hands, dialing the number for the front office. As it rang and rang, I yelled, “Sean, get out of here – RIGHT NOW!”
“You shut the fuck up,” he screamed, turning towards me, glaring. His fist paused momentarily, but it was long enough for Ryan to duck underneath him and sneak past Joey towards the hallway. “Shut the fuck up or you’re next,” Sean yelled, rage flashing in his eyes.
At that moment, someone answers on the other end of the phone line. “I need help,” I screamed hysterically into the phone. “This is Mrs. Aldean, room 704. There’s a fight in my room. I need Officer Eggers right now!”
“Ok, ok,” Donna, the school administrative assistant screeched on the other end. “I’m paging him right now. He should be on his way.”
At this point Sean and Joey were tailing Ryan, chanting, “Come back here and fight, pussy. You chicken-shit. Get back here.” I hung back but followed along behind them, quickly asking Mr. Hollis, who was on his planning period, if he could pop in and check on my class while I took care of something. I continued down the hall behind the boys, but Sean did not make another move on Ryan. Then Officer Eggers came rushing by me from behind, approaching the boys, and grabbed Sean by the arm.
“Get the fuck off me, man,” Sean responded and took off around the corner and down the stairs. Mr. Russian, the assistant principal in charge of behavior, fell into step beside me.
“Are you OK?” he asked me as the officer took off down the stairs after Sean. I burst into tears, not realizing how much fear and tension had built up inside of me.
“Not really, no,” I responded through short, panicked breaths.
“Let’s go outside,” he suggested. “I don’t know if you want all the kids to see you crying right now.”
He led me down the stairs and out the back door by the cafeteria dumpsters. I was sobbing uncontrollably at this point, tears blurring my vision.
“Can you walk me through what happened?” Mr. Russian inquired softly.
I drew in a deep breath and began explaining everything that had just transpired. In my 22 years of teaching, I had never felt so afraid, so threatened, in my life. Even though Sean didn’t come over and hit me or really even get that close to me, I could see the rage flashing in his eyes and hear the hatred in his voice and it petrified me.
I was eventually calm enough to go back to class and the other students sat in shock. Many of them asked if I was OK and said they felt so bad for me. A day and a half passed without Sean. Then, before school two days later, Mr. Russian appeared at my door, Sean at his side. He asked me to come out in the hall for a minute.
“Mr. Bishop has something he would like to say to you,” Mr. Russian said.
Looking down at his feet, shoulders slumped, Sean shrugged and mumbled, “Sorry?”
“Is that an acceptable apology for him to come back to class?” Mr. Russian asked.
My mind raced. An acceptable apology? For what he did? Coming into my classroom to beat up another student, threatening me, running away from the police officer? I had no idea what to say. No, this was not an acceptable apology, but I didn’t quite know how to put into words what I was thinking.
“Sean,” I said tentatively, “I can’t ever have a situation like what happened two days ago happen again. Do you understand me?”
“Sure,” he shrugged again.
Mr. Russian looked at me with a smile and said, “We good here then?”
Wordlessly, I turned and went back into the room, Sean following behind me and returning to his assigned seat. I kept my distance from him for a few minutes but as the lesson progressed, he sat on his phone, laughing, not even attempting to do the coursework. I approached him, my heart thumping in my chest and my body full of tension.
“Sean, I need you to take out your iPad and log on to today’s short story,” I said in a gentle, calm voice despite my trembling hands.
“Well I need you to leave me the fuck alone,” Sean responded, not looking up from his phone. “Just walk the fuck away.”
So I did. I walked away from this young man who I had absolutely no idea how to reach or teach. Over the next few weeks, he sat on his phone and I asked him to engage in the class once or twice each class period, to which he always responded the same way. Then one day, he stopped coming to class. Kids would show me pictures of his Snapchat where he was posing with drugs or a gun and one day, a young man said to me, “I hope you are watching your back when you leave this place at night, Mrs. A.”
I resigned my teaching position at the end of the school year, opting to leave public education to teach in a private school. I had been at this public school for fifteen years and was a K-12 graduate of the district. My heart lived at this school. But I just couldn’t do it anymore. I said a teary farewell to the teachers who had become my family over the years and walked away from the school that had been my life for 28 years.
I texted my friend back. “Yeah, he’s mine. You remember him. He’s the reason I left Lakeside.”
“Right,” she responded. “I thought it was him, but I was hoping it wasn’t.”
We texted back and forth for the reminder of the day, musing about what could have been done for this young man. We knew, watching his behavior as an 8th grader, that he was going to grow up to make bad decisions, but what could we do? We hoped he would change, hoped something in his life would change that would get him back on track, but obviously this was not the case and now a man, a father of three, was dead because of him. Some days in education are hard. There’s a feeling of hopelessness that can be hard to shake. But I greet a classroom full of young people the next day, just like I have every day for 27 years now, and hope I can steer them in the right direction to make a positive impact on our world.
Kate Leo has worn many hats in her lifetime: daughter, sister, friend, student, teacher, wife, parent, adult caregiver, and most recently, writer. An Iowa native, Kate has her bachelor's and master's degrees in English Secondary Education and is a certified reading specialist. Kate knows the power of reading and writing and wants to encourage her students to write for an audience beyond the teacher. Kate hopes to share short stories that mirror the experiences from many hats she's worn. Kate is the author of the blog "Write When Life Happens" on Substack.