Billy was 7 years old when he walked through the door of my second-grade classroom.
The cowlick in his hair wouldn’t stay down. His shirt and shorts didn’t match. He wore dark socks with his sneakers.
He was clumsy, stumbling over table legs and chairs. Each time he spoke, his voice started softly and gradually got louder and louder until it ended in a yell.
On that first day of school, before I assigned seats at the lunch table, his peers smacked down their hands on empty seats and mouthed, “This one’s taken,” when he tried to sit down beside them.
“Excuse me,” I said to them. “In this class we’re kind to each other.”
I invited Billy to sit with me. From across the table, he started to tell me about his favorite X-Man, Nightcrawler. I leaned closer to him because I could barely hear him.
“I like him because he can teleport,” he continued, his voice getting louder. “That means he can disappear in one place and reappear in another.” By this time he was shouting.
For the next 20 minutes he shared his encyclopedic knowledge of the X-Men.
In class, we worked on a poster project. While I could barely read Billy’s handwriting on his poster, his pictures were amazing in their detail and color.
“Billy, you’re a great artist,” I said.
“Thank you,” he whispered. “I love to draw!” he yelled.
I try to teach in the present. With Billy, though, I found myself thinking about the future. Will middle school be a challenge for him? Will he be an outcast in high school? Or a target for bullies?
I wondered what contributions he might make to society as an adult. Would he start a revolution in the art world?
If his peers constantly slap their hands down and say there’s no room for him, how will he react?
Will he become a part of what author Alexandra Robbins calls the “cafeteria fringe,” those people who are not a part of the school’s or society’s in-crowd? Because he seems different, will he be labeled “geek,” “nerd” or “weirdo”?
As a teacher, I want to help him overcome. But what can I do?
Robbins has some of the answers in her book, “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive after High School.”
She follows seven high school students through a year. Each one in a different clique or label – the loner, gamer, popular cheerleader, weird girl, band geek, nerd and new girl.
Robbins focuses on “quirk theory,” which says many of the differences that cause students to be excluded in school are the same traits or real-world skills that will be valued in adulthood.
This is the theory I hope Billy hears over and over again in his young life. I want him to see that the things that make him different are the things that make him unique.
Those traits can help him build a more humane world for all of us. But it’s hard for a 7-year-old, a 17-year-old or even a 27-year-old to understand this.
So in the meantime, I’ll follow Robbins’ suggestions and encourage teachers to offer safe havens.
I’ll also encourage students to strike up conversations and friendships with those outside their usual circle, especially at the lunchroom table.
I’ll do that so Billy can inherit the earth – so that we all will inherit the earth. And what a better earth it will be.
Trevor Barton teaches second grade and is a member of First Baptist Church in Greenville, S.C. This story first appeared on the Teaching Tolerance website.
A fourth grade public school teacher and member of First Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina.