“Where were you on Monday night? You missed ensemble rehearsal,” I asked Joseph* as he walked in for his lesson on Thursday night. “Oh…” he looked flustered. “Um… I had homework. Lots of homework.”
I sat down to tune the guitar he handed me, puzzling over his response. I’ve known Joseph since he was seven years old, so at fourteen, I usually know when he’s not quite telling the truth. He had informed me last month that he completed the majority of his homework assignments in study hall, or during class, which meant that he rarely had homework to do after school. But I could see that he was embarrassed about something; I dropped the issue and turned to his music.
As the lesson was ending, I said, “Now do be sure to come to rehearsal this next Monday. We really need the entire group there all the time to have an effective practice.” Joseph nodded, and I handed him his music book, expecting him to pack his guitar up and leave.
He hesitated. “Hey…. I didn’t really have homework on Monday.” He was looking at the ground, red-faced behind his glasses. I stopped mentally preparing for the next student and focused on him. Something was wrong. “What happened?” I asked.
Joseph sighed. “I was in trouble. I left school early that day without telling anyone. I had an awful day. School has always seemed pointless, but Monday was the worst it’s ever been. Three different teachers yelled at me, the work they made us do was dumb, and I couldn’t stand being there any longer. So rather than go to my last class where I knew the teacher I hate the most would yell at me too, I just left the school and walked home. My friend saw me leave and he came with me.”
“Then what happened?”
“The school caught us leaving on security cameras, so they called my dad at work. He came home and found us playing video games. And everything kind of exploded from there.” Joseph looked up at me for the first time, defensively. “You would have left school too! I couldn’t take it. I hate it.”
I didn’t know what to say. Finally, I managed, “I’m guessing you were in trouble at home on Monday evening, which is why you couldn’t come to rehearsal.”
“Yeah.” Joseph lowered his gaze again. “And I was suspended for a long time.” “How long?” “A week.”
“A WEEK?” I gasped. “For leaving school one hour early?”
“Well, the principal told me that I probably would have been suspended for just a day. But when my dad brought me back to the school to apologize that afternoon when I’d left, I told the principal exactly what I thought about his school, and my teachers who don’t teach me anything useful, and the stupid homework, and the stupid classes. I just got it all off my chest. The principal was super mad at what I said and my attitude. That’s why he kicked me out for a week.”
I stared at Joseph. Surely this couldn’t be the same Joseph the principal had suspended. I saw a competent, attentive, intelligent student every week who absolutely loved music. He brought a sharp wit and humorous outlook on life to his lessons, yet I was often struck with his deep, sensitive way of thinking. He was always calm, but I knew he had strong views about education, creative writing, good music, and movies. He seemed well-balanced with spending time indoors playing video games with friends and skate-boarding outdoors. He was very dedicated to guitar, even recently growing out his right-hand nails, despite digs from his buddies, in order to get a better sound with his guitar tone. He and his dad were always playing guitar and drums together. I looked forward to his lessons every week.
“Anyway… I wanted to tell you what actually happened,” Joseph mumbled.
“Thank you.” I watched him put his guitar in its case, pondering what to say. “Joseph, while I do sympathize with your feelings about being treated like just another dumb kid at school, of course I can’t condone your actions or behavior with the authority you’re supposed to answer to there.”
“That’s okay,” Joseph grinned a little, but I could see that his eyes were sad. “I won’t run away again. They can keep me there. They just can’t make me like it.”
*Joseph’s real name has been changed.