The classroom pulsed with the energy of 11-year-olds, smelling of a thick blend of wet sneakers, pencil shavings, hormones, and angst. To my first-trimester sensitivities it was a daily assault, but aside from that the students who entered my classroom that year were a pleasant and agreeable group of fifth-graders. Except one.
John (his name has been changed to protect his privacy) stood a head shorter than most of his classmates, his thick, dark hair expertly groomed and his clothes just the right amount of casual. He was wildly smart, regularly finding solutions to questions I had yet to pose. He uttered witty one-liners that led his classmates to erupt in laughter. He also stole, picked fights, argued with adults, and distracted everyone with spontaneous outbursts. He fell out of his chair with striking predictability. He had been suspended and threatened with expulsion for property damage. And he didn't seem to care.
I liked him a lot.
As a teacher, I always gravitate toward the challenging students. John's case was painful because I recognized his behavior as a reaction to his home life. I believe he felt that he had already been written off, that the worst was being assumed of him and therefore he might as well sink to meet everyone's expectations. I tried to be gentle with him.
But everyone has a limit to their patience. Especially when one is pregnant.
By February, my husband and I knew we were having a boy. "John," my husband said as we looked at the image on the ultrasound monitor. "Yes," I said weakly. "John."
From early on we knew that if we had a son, his name would be John, an abbreviation of my maiden name. It resonated inside my heart, a maternal instinct manifested long before I committed to starting a family. It showed that I had risen above the hurt of my father's abandonment and honored the grandparents who rested in wing-back chairs of perfection in my memory. It connected the dots.
As my belly expanded and sleep became an elusive memory, my patience with John's antics grew thin. Every day my son heard me through the walls of my uterus, speaking his name out of frustration rather than love. I became convinced he would think I was talking to him instead of the boy standing in front of me.
"John, knock it off."
"John, this is your last warning."
And it was not only my voice my baby could hear.
"John stole my pencil sharpener."
"John called me stupid."
"Do I have to be John's partner?"
Seven months pregnant, I sank to the kitchen floor and wept as I told my husband that we could not use this name. Our second choice was not right, of course. But that evening in the kitchen, it was decided.
The next day I ushered the students outside after school. They filed past me, some giving me a high-five, one or two hugging my swollen belly, others ignoring me entirely. John brought up the rear of the line. As he approached, I forced a smile to my face and began to form a genuine compliment for him, something I had built into my exit routine. He cut me off by sticking out his hand. A piece of notebook paper had been folded into a one-inch square, thick and awkward. He thrust it at me.
"Don't look at it until you get home, OK?" he said quietly. His brown eyes pleaded with mine briefly before he sauntered off, knocking a classmate's hat off his head on his way to the bus.
Back in the darkened classroom, I unfolded the paper.
Dear Mrs. D.,
I'm really sorry for being bad in class. I don't mean to. I am going to try to be better. Thank you for being nice to me. You're a really good teacher.
Our son was born four days after the school year ended. From first breath, he has owned his name as if it had never been uttered before he arrived.
I don't know what prompted John to write that letter. The day had not been unusual. And unfortunately, his good intentions did not necessarily change the way he moved through his fifth-grade year. We had some good days; on others his behavior made me bone-tired. But I brought his letter home that day and tacked it to our kitchen wall with tears in my eyes. I reread it every time I had doubts about our son's name or my own instincts. And after John was born, I folded the letter into a tiny square and put it in his baby box.