Jesse Cravens

Building Modern Web Applications and Teams that Deliver

From: The Story of Billy Whitbeck

I’m a teacher. I don’t teach one subject. I’m expected to teach many subjects because my students have been removed from the general education environment. They are said to be incapable of learning in this environment, and few teachers enjoy working with them. I’m more than willing to tackle this challenge, because I have never encountered a field of study that doesn’t spark my curiosity. I have learned that it is the teacher’s choice to perceive a student’s individual idiosyncrasies as a convenient excuse for giving up or as a launching pad into an innovative personal teaching style. I teach emotional intelligence as a beginning point for all other learning. To me a good teacher is like a clear and truthful magic mirror. The student can ask to be shown how he or she appears in their fullest spiritual dimension and the teacher will find a skillful way to show this. Throughout the learning process the student peers into a world of words, actions, examples, and advice given by the teacher. Once the student sees clearly, change is possible.

I’m also a student. My students are my greatest teachers. This is the story of how I fell into my passion. Since I discovered my passion for teaching, I rarely tire or complain. I hardly ever think of myself first unless it is in relationship to my students. As I teach, I am constantly learning, and I’m constantly reminded that my students and I are a reflection of the change in which I hope to see in the world. This is the story of Billy Whitbeck. On the Road, Each Turn Is Another Lesson Learned:

The end men looked for cometh not, and a path there is where no man thought – Euripides, Medea

The roadside fog impaired my vision as my car glided down the winding county road and past the barns and farmhouses nestled in the marshy meadowlands of the rural Appalachian hillside. After stopping for coffee and a frozen sausage biscuit, I turned the corner and entered the parking lot of a tiny elementary school in Trimble, OH. “What the heck am I doing?” I asked myself over and over again, “This is definitely a twisted part of the movie I call my life.”

I greeted the principal and entered the school wondering what festivities awaited the long day ahead. Operating on a couple hours of sleep and a fuzzy head from last night’s gig at O’Hooley’s pub, I’m not sure I will be able to make it past lunch. I can’t wait to get this over with so I can return to my true passions: art and music. Finding my way through the labyrinth towards the back of the school building, I found a former storage room, which would serve as my classroom for the next couple of months. Fumbling for the key, I unlocked the creaking door of room 125, and took a step back as my nostrils flared to the pungent odor of mildew. The long dark green chalkboards on each side of the room were flaked and badly in need of repair. The little stubs of chalk sat in the trough: glaring symbols of illiteracy and poverty right smack dab in the heart of Middle America. Hesitantly, my eyes scanned to the darkened brown spot on the ceiling and followed the raindrops as they slowly collected in the yellow bucket strategically placed on the corner of my desk. A mental note struck aloud and I recalled a documentary of the rural Ohio public school system I watched in an American Education class I took during my undergraduate days at Rice University. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by the deja vu–like feeling of being in the right place at the right time.

I had been touring for a year with my band, living the American dream – or at least that’s what I thought at the time. Our bus broke down, and we were stuck outside of Athens OH. Reluctantly, we rented a farmhouse and picked up odd jobs for a couple of months until we could get back on our feet financially. While the others worked construction and waited tables I reasoned: “I have always been a good student, a good student makes a good teacher, right?” So, I filled in for an absent teacher who was resting after a bout of chronic fatigue. I was told by the administration, “This field takes strong people, I hope they don’t run you off.” The bell rung and twelve children labeled by the education system as developmentally handicapped filled the quiet room with chaotic energy. The yelling and excessive chatter tested my nerves and patience, so I began the impossible daily ritual of attempting to maintain order by correcting one student at a time. It was a long year and by the end, I told myself, “Never, Never Again!”

Ironically, it wasn’t but a year and a half later, I found myself in another difficult situation in my frustrating pursuit of attempting to combine individual artistic expression and business. Finally, I made a decision to appreciate the artistic successes I experienced and move on to something else. I moved back to my hometown of San Antonio, Texas and began to figure out my next career move. My own misfortunes, a terrible job market, and financial desperation inspired me to go searching once again for a substitute teaching job. Except this time around, timing and fate would be in my favor. This was when I met one of my greatest teachers, Billy Whitbeck. Multiple Intelligences:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The trouble-makers. The round heads in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status-quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do. - Apple

I was escorted to the self contained room hidden in the back of the school by a jolly, older fellow named Mr. Bob. I thought to myself, “Wow, not another storage room.” Bob walked with a relaxed gait, and filled me in on the recent misadventures of the district’s most behaviorally challenged student, Billy. “You know this little guy has been beat up, he has no friends, multiple medical issues, he picks his nose, lies, steals, cheats, and has a violent temper when he doesn’t get his way. What he really needs is a friend.” As he spoke, I absorbed as much as I could, but I was feeling a little overwhelmed already. I didn’t realize at the time that Bob would later become a role model, a pillar of emotional strength and an invaluable source of knowledge in dealing with children diagnosed with EBD. We entered the classroom where Billy was arguing with the behavior specialist. Interrupted by our entrance, Billy turned to us for feedback on his hopeless debate:

“Can a kid go to juvenile for conquering the world?”

“Oh forget it! Who are you?!”

Before I could answer, he rifled another question expecting no answer,” “Did you know that I’m related to John Booth?-the man who killed Abraham Lincoln! ….Down with all the German scums!”

It was immediately apparent to me that Billy grossly lacked social skills, having no idea how to appropriately interact with others. I was later told by the “general education” teachers that Billy created his own problems, and the only way he could interact with his peers is to insult them. They insisted that he not speak to any other children until he learned how. So, Billy and I spent the entire day together, which became weeks, and then months. In the beginning of my employment I was given very little guidance, support, or instruction. I was given a stack of textbooks, lesson plans, and a new pile of worksheets each week. We rarely made it through the first worksheet. Most of the time it ended up crumbled and thrown to the corner in a rage, which was usually followed by throwing textbooks at me and flipping either my desk or his and sometimes both.

As I began to do my own research on where to begin trying to reach children with emotional/behavioral disorders, I was introduced to the Billy’s many different diagnoses. While I was working with Billy his current diagnoses were: ADHD, Bi Polar, and ODD. His mother also indicated that he has a malformed hippocampus which causes a cognitive delay, but this wasn’t replicated in his records. I also noticed that Billy had a slight tremor in his hands. It was especially apparent when he would hand me a paper or when he was writing. I eventually was made aware that it could be a result of the pharmacist cabinet he digests daily: Lithium three times a day, Carbotrol four times a day, Nexium once, Adderall three times a day, and Zyprexa twice a day.

The Art of Listening:

“When we listen to people there is an alternating current, and this recharges us so that we never get tired of each other.” - Brenda Ueland

Through a painstaking process, I began to realize that a major reason for my unsuccessful teaching in Ohio was largely due to my unwillingness to get to know my students and to allow them to get to know me. Stuck in a secluded room by ourselves, Billy and I had no choice. We were destined to understand each other and to learn from one another. When I had to restrain him from self mutilating himself, I told him I was his friend over and over, and that I understood his frustrations. He blamed me for not letting him go to lunch or recess with other students, but I couldn’t stand to tell him that I had been given orders to not take Billy outside while other students were at recess. It brought tears to my eyes as I watched him converse with himself at lunch because he wasn’t allowed to talk to other students, and most of the time he was plain sick of talking to me. During his rages he stabbed me with scissors, spat in my face, and threw everything in the room at me that he could possibly find. There were many, many days I didn’t want to come back. Yet everyday, I could see the surprise on his face when I was sitting at my desk when he entered the classroom and shut the door behind him. With Billy, something in my mind clicked. I began to see the exceptionalities, gifts, and brilliance that everyone he had ever come in contact with had overlooked, including his mother and father. And I also began to see an exaggerated reflection of myself.

3-12-03 I feel as if I’m looking through a magnifying glass… All of my little daily problems (medically, emotionally, socially) are all magnified right in front of my face…except I have been given more tools and dealt a luckier hand to deal with them… here is a fifth grader who has been beaten up by life and underneath this rough exterior lies a kindness, a sharp wit, a brilliant mind, an individual who could someday contribute to the good of our society – if only there was someone who believed in him.

Not only was I interested in Billy’s social struggle and emotional challenges, but I was fascinated with his creativity and lack of inhibition. His stream-of-consciousness conversational style reminded me of some of my favorite eccentric artists and writers. I decided to take a holistic, wellness-based approach that focused on Billy’s strengths and suggested his negative behavior was a conditioned response to a negatively perceived environment. I was immediately reminded of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Mark Twain’s famous quote: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” I knew if I was going to reach him, I would have to remove him mentally and emotionally from the nightmare, and that I would have to remind myself over and over of the theory of multiple intelligences: everyone has their own way of learning. The odds were stacked against us: we were placed in a self-contained room, given strict orders to not interact with any other students, and to begin working towards the goal of earning the privilege of returning back to the other rooms.

Modifications: Tossing Traditional Education out the Window

Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven - Jesus Christ

After a relatively short period of time, I decided that for Billy worksheets were completely counter productive. I discovered that Billy and I had common interests: he had a passion for history, loved technology, and considered himself a blossoming painter that would someday be appreciated. I decided it was my job to provide a pathway for Billy to self actualize these dreams.

During my interactions with Billy I also experienced a transformation of sorts. I began to open up to him and others, a tremendously liberating feeling. I rediscovered the value of play, and together we created our own world: what we considered a positive learning environment. At recess we were pirates in the Caribbean looking for Aztec gold, Navajo Indians in search of the White Buffalo, and British archaeologists searching the tombs of ancient Egypt for the Holy Grail.

Interestingly enough, Billy was always searching for the truth, for the answer. I tried to teach him to always set his teepee up each morning facing the East, each day a new day, and a chance to learn from our mistakes. There were many, many mistakes. Back in the classroom, we researched different cultures, to add realistic content to our role playing. For math we created imaginary businesses and used Monopoly money to purchase high tech computer equipment, fishing supplies, and parts for our Mars roaming vehicles. We used a bartering system to establish a democratic way of sharing legos and with them re-created the great civilizations of Mesopotamia, Teknochtitlan ad Chaco Canyon. We also used a toned down version of Lego Design to learn computer aided design. To foster critical thinking skills, we played chess twice a day and discussed current events. Since Billy despised his textbooks, all of our reading was done on the Internet. In our creative studio, we developed an alias for our collaborated art and writings: Shadow Bates. I can still hear him shouting, “Another masterpiece by the great modern artist: Shadow Bates,” as he smeared acrylic paint all over his arms and face. This was my discovery of the true genius that others had overlooked.

One day I had an idea. I reviewed it in my head over and over again, and made a decision that since I was being given very little support and total freedom in my methods of teaching, why not push the limits and see what happens? I noticed that while we had a few setbacks, but I felt we were making great progress. We had gone from shutting completely down to actually learning. Billy was very interested in the fantasy world he had created. It was clearly a defense mechanism from being shut out for being so glaringly different. So I decided that Shadow Bates would do a series of writings. Billy would say whatever came off the top of his head and then I would process it and put it on the board. I hoped to accomplish two goals: foster critical thinking and get to know each other better. We had recently been discussing the War in Iraq, a topic in which Billy was fanatically interested. I spent hours discussing various world wars and their historical significance, again pushing the limits of my own knowledge to keep up with Billy’s erratic curiosity. I reminded Billy of an example of alliteration, I had given him a couple days before and in response, he spouted: When Wicked Winds Weather, which resulted in a bizarre collaboration of our individual expressions:

When Wicked Winds Weather The fortress built around the persona, Eroded Freedoms, Intuitions thought twice, Hesitated streams of consciousness, Interrupted to begin, Until the withering walls can be reconstructed again and again, The eventual blueprint reveals the multi-faced gem. But, Oh, what a struggle! A many-round battle! Repairing of the Ladder, Climbing the ridge with backward feet. But doesn’t the view justify lost breaths? One could only wonder how there’s any strength left. Time is compressing, Will you stare straight into a mirror of regret?

When Wicked Winds are funneled into man-made contraptions, If systems are mimicked to capture the essence – A once destructive erosion of virtues and freedoms Could be redirected to define the Age.

Is it not ironic that we have squandered all notions of a matriarchal existence at a time when our Mother’s milks are running low? And true to the fervors of young, red-blooded patriarchs, we kill over spilled milk. A feasible feast when a Giant amongst a miniscule Pharisee. Making mincemeat of evil and spoon-feeding it as ice cream through glowing TV’s. Please! As so many before us, few stand out to ponder, the robust behavior of those petite thinkers, Who pass off documentation from a guilty bystander as a meaningless waste of long fought for freedoms. But little forgotten, their hateful maneuvers ensure their future impotence….just when it’s needed in post-Millennial chaos. Erasing all misuses that have crept into the natural language, systems will survive with or without compromise, but still pose the question:

When Wicked Winds Weather the minds of great thinkers who have traded in cool grass blades for slabs of cold concrete between their toes, Will you be willing to face the critics alone?

Repairing Self Concept:

“We are all apt to believe what the world believes about us.” – Mary Ann Evans

Towards the end of the year, I began to advocate for Billy. I found myself sitting in the principal’s office, asking for permission to take Billy to lunch with a few other students (some of the other children diagnosed with EBD.) We were given a few opportunities, but each episode ended in another setback and I began to wonder if I was truly helping Billy or setting him up for failure.

4-11-03 Today in the cafeteria, I decided to let Billy without permission sit with a few fourth graders. I watched from afar, and for a moment I thought he was engaging in appropriate conversation. He was talking and the others were laughing. I tried to ignore the glances from the other teachers, confident I would prove them wrong. I was called into the administrations offices to discuss a number of emails sent by other teachers concerned that their students were exposed to the sexually explicit jokes Billy was telling to the fourth graders…I’m deeply concerned for Billy, I feel that this isn’t the right placement for Billy. We are either part of the problem or part of the solution. By locking him away in this room, we are starving him of what he needs most: social interaction. In order for Billy to learn appropriate social skills we have to provide an environment where he can slowly make progress.

I now work with four other children diagnosed as EBD, and with a number of other students with various learning diasabilities as a teacher at a middle school. The children I currently work with are equally as brilliant as Billy, and the similarities in their motivations, learning styles, and behaviors are strikingly unmistakable. I definitely feel there is a pattern of neglect and social ostracization that results in the inappropriate behaviors. My experiences have led me to begin implementing music therapies, self evaluation of both student’s and teacher’s video-taped behavior, and to actively become a part of these students’ extracurricular lives. I am torn to leave but I also look forward to the new encounters and experiences. The fascinating world of the EBD classroom can be extremely challenging but if you open your mind, dig deep down inside, you can find treasures far more special than Aztec gold, the Holy Grail, or the White Buffalo, you can find the unchartered territory of a unique and misunderstood mind. I owe my introduction to this world to one of my greatest teachers, Billy Whitbeck.