Saturday, December 12, 2009

Who Cares?

Almost two years ago, Matthew Higa threw a twenty-three month-old baby off the Miller overpass onto to the H-1 freeway in Honolulu. Twelve years before that, Matthew was a seventh-grader in my homeroom and English class. I have taught over 1,500 students, and Matthew is one that has made a lasting impression on me from the first day I met him.

His mom had died before he started seventh grade, and over the course of that one school year, I observed his thick black hair become streaked with gray. It was obvious that he was distressed, but no one really knew what to do for him. He struggled academically and was a bit on the shy side around teachers, but his peers liked him, especially for his random sense of humor. Because of his large frame, we all referred to him as a big teddy bear of a guy.

Now, after almost two years in prison, Matthew’s case is on trial. I saw him on the news Thursday night and felt the same surge in my gut as I did two years ago when he first appeared on the news, high on crystal meth, shouting at cops and reporters "Thank you for everything!"

The details are complicated, but the bottom line is that the baby died as a result of crystal meth abuse. Little Cyrus had no one sober enough to care for him, and perhaps in Matthew’s crazed mind, he thought there was no hope for a baby surrounded by addicts. It continuously haunts me that maybe I could have done something back in Matthew’s seventh grade year to prevent him from diving into a life that spiraled him out of control.

When I read Peter Høeg’s book Borderliners, I couldn’t help but connect it to my experience with Matthew. Høeg defines a borderliner as “someone who could not finish the tests in time.” His tragic story takes place in a private academy for orphans in Denmark, a place of strict rules and abuse, where a child is not granted the right to speak out against its leaders. While Matthew was not an orphan, and our academy was not abusive, he was still a borderliner, a struggler who had to fend for himself and seemed to lack the emotional support he needed at home.

Høeg claims that when children cry, you talk to them about “tomorrow.” I never saw Matthew cry, but several times I remember seeing an expression on his face that would prompt me to chat with him about whatever was on his mind. He wouldn’t say much, and I wouldn’t prod any deeper than I knew he was comfortable with. Many times I wanted to talk to Matthew about his future to try to divert him from his sadness, but it never felt right to single him out that way. Instead, I tried to help him by simply treating him like I treated everyone else, hoping he might enjoy the feeling of being part of the norm.

I want to believe that Matthew knew I cared—that I worried about his PE clothes getting washed so he wouldn’t get a bad grade in an easy class—that I pinned reminders on his backpack to get forms signed and to do his English homework. It rarely ever paid off. He was always late with everything, and whatever he did turn in was never quite right. I’m sure Matthew has no idea that I cried in my empty classroom several times when the students all went home after school to their families, while I imagined Matthew going home to an unbearable emptiness. Høeg believes that if you have once sensed that someone cares for you, then you will never sink again. Perhaps I could have shown Matthew that I cared more. I could have brought him to my house once in a while so he could hang out with my family and learn how to play Scrabble or chess. It just didn’t seem right to interfere, but now I can only wonder.

“What does it mean to fail a child?” Høeg asks. I have seen over the years that it begins with underestimating and ends with indifference. Our school made it too difficult for Matthew to hang on past the eighth grade, so off he went to a gritty public school, where he got lost in the shuffle and eventually wound up on drugs. The second blow came when he was sixteen, racing on the freeway, which resulted in a crash that killed one of his friends. From that point, I have to believe that Matthew gave up.

I am hoping to visit Matthew when his court hearing is over. He will be detained somewhere for the rest of his life, which is what he deserves, but he should not be left alone, without a support system. Høeg adds, “If a man becomes totally, totally alone, then he is lost,” so I want to make sure that Matthew knows he is not alone, that I have been an absent presence in his life all these years.


  1. Deb, over the years I have experienced far too many kids like Matthew. Kids who give up because they fall prey to what is called BINGE thinking. Believing I'm Not Good Enough. It starts in several ways; parents who expect more from a child than they are able to do. Usually parents like this were over achievers and they can't seem to reconcile why their child can't do as well as they. Also, some churches invoke a rigid kind of Christianity; one given to many don'ts and "shall nots", instead of offering new hope and many reasons for God's grace and forgiveness.
    Other kids have poor examples as parents. Actually they have moms and dads who have no idea how to parent. Parenting is helping the child succeed by offering encouragement and positive words of re-inforcement.
    Kids like Matthew never seem to to appeal to "regular kids" so they migrate to kids like themselves. Kids who have given up on themselves, their circumstances, and life in general.
    When kids are robbed of hope they are robbed of the will to go on. I've seen it most often in ghettos, reservations, single parent families and other places where people are gathered together and expected to fail.
    It is not your fault. All any of us can do is to do everything we can to encourage everyone we meet to succeed. To use words which build others up. Jesus took 12 men the world would never have selected for leadership... and turned the world up-side down.
    I hope this helps. God bless you, and every teacher who makes positive impact on today's kids. Gerry Clark

  2. Seventh grade. Seventh grade is hard enough without having lost your mother. And that's making assumptions about the mother we can't make.

    It's not our job as teachers to fix everything in their life. We'd like to do it—and I immediately recalled the regrets of my own career teaching in a small public high school—but it's not my job to parent them. Sometimes I try—often I try. But I disagree about the "one person" Høeg sees as the answer. Children need more than one caring adult for one year in school. Sometimes that one teacher makes a difference, but I think that's because there was something inside waiting to be called. Some children are already too far away to hear us. —jan

  3. I suppose I have a dual perspective on this as a double decade teacher in some pretty ferocious schools, and a double decade 12 stepper, hearing --and sharing--some fairly harrowing experiences. The irony is that both viewpoints converge on one point. In the human growth experience (or perhaps anywhere in God's world), nothing is wasted.

    Whatever self-negating impressions someone(s) may give us in our early lives, others may plant a seed of love or appreciation--simply value us--that can't be entirely destroyed.In "the rooms" I've so often heard "I had low/no self esteem," yet I feel that is not the whole truth. I am convinced that the difference between those who are able to awaken (or allow themselves to be awakened)from addiction of any sort have at some time had someone assure them of their worth. And as fallow as that belief may lie for years, it may always grow, despite any horrors of the lost years.

    We may never see the impact we have on our students, especially those who need our cherishing so badly. (No doubt it would be bad for our characters if we could, pride being deadly as it is:-). But trust is a wondrous gift, and one we can pass on as well.

    Live with hope. Jan M.