Mike was the nicest kid you’d ever want to meet. Helpful, bright, polite, cheerful. He was generally kind to others and did above average work in all of his classes for one marking period. Short, curly brown hair, with a round cherub face, his pants were always longer than his legs. He had a good sense of humor and wit, but somewhere in the second marking period of seventh grade he quit doing homework and anything outside of class. He also seemed to intentionally fail quizzes and tests in class. Otherwise he continued being a cheerful helper to his classmates and likely the smartest student in my fourth period English class.
Naturally I and my team of fellow teachers scheduled a conference with his rather distracted and ditzy mother. She seemed to listen and not be present at the same time, in addition to being late and generally lost in the school building. It was not clear to us that Mike even lived with her. His was a fluid family that did not include a dad, but did include an aunt with cousins in another house or two. In any event there was not a lot of structure wherever home actually was.
When I approached Mike about the inconsistency between his in-class knowledge and performance versus his failing grades and nonexistent homework, he nonchalantly replied, “Well, I’m dumb.”
I was surprised at this answer from a clearly above average student. I responded, “No, I know dumb, and you are not it. Plus truly dumb people don’t tell others that they are dumb. They change the subject and hide their deficiencies. What’s the real deal, Mike?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Uhh, you’re just wrong.”
“What’s going on is wrong. I’ll spot you that much. But I am not wrong about you, Mike. You are the brightest kid in this class. You might as well be my teacher’s aide. You help others learn. Dumb people can’t do that. You have to know what you are teaching, and you expect me to believe that you can teach the material but simultaneously not know anything?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Okay. I hope you change your mind. I hate putting F’s next to your name. Actually I’m not the one putting them there. You are.”
Mike did not bail out on chorus or the school play. He shone brightly in both. He was a good actor and had a nice voice. You can’t hide talent. Despite further attempts to dissuade Mike from his academic suicide mission, he persisted in sandbagging himself to failure. My team of teachers all liked and enjoyed him, but we could not break through the mystery of the boy who failed himself. He had to repeat seventh grade with a new team of teachers.
Not surprisingly he was on the Honor Roll all the next year long. The snarky teachers on the other team took credit for some sort of academic breakthrough. The evidence (at least some of it, but far from the entirety) pointed out that this boy had failed the second half of seventh grade on our team and was an academic star on theirs. Yep, partial truths are all you need for a good conspiracy theory. The truth was a bit more slippery.
Mike continued to shine in eighth grade and through his high school years. He’d occasionally drop by the middle school to visit with his former teachers before the days of school lock downs began. One day in his late senior year he dropped in to share with one of his eighth grade teachers that he was gay. Stunned and befuddled, she sent him down to talk to me.
When he shared his “news” with me, I told him I’d known he was gay in seventh grade. It was not a secret.
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Not my story to tell. You figured it out eventually anyway. Now you are tutoring kids in elementary school, and Mrs. Kim tells me you’re going to college to be a teacher.”
“Yeah. Ironic, huh?”
“More mysterious, I’d say. Are you ready to tell me why you flunked yourself six years ago?”
“Well, I guess…you remember the kids in seventh grade that year?”
“Yeah, a lot of them were mean and rude.”
“Right. See I’d been moving along through school with them for years. They mocked me and bullied me for being girly and short and a goody goody.”
“I didn’t know that. I only saw that you were well liked in general.”
“It took a lot of work to manage that balance. Anyway, I knew the kids in the grade below me were way nicer and more accepting. So I decided to repeat seventh grade and let them catch up to me.”
“So that was your secret mission? You played miserably dumb in order to happily flourish a year later?”
“Yeah. I’m glad I did too. I’m way happier than I would have been with those thugs. Plus, with the gay thing I was already a double agent.”
“Mike, I’m so sorry that was the only way out or through your struggle. I hope we didn’t make it any worse for you.”
“No. I mean I knew all of you cared for me. You were nice and encouraging. All of you told me you believed in me. It was not your failure.”
“Still, I have to believe there was another way through that crap.”
“It’s okay. I’m fine. I’m going to Penn State in the fall.”
“I’m glad for you, Mike.”
Four or five years later I was attending graduation for another late bloomer friend of mine at Penn State. I heard names called that were familiar– former students or friends of my children. However, the biggest heart thump I had that day was to hear Mike’s name as he graduated with a Bachelor’s in Education. Fortunately for me I ran into him in the lobby as I was leaving. He was still short with curly brown hair and a cherub face. Only now the face had some stray hairs on the chin and upper lip. His pants were still too long for his legs.