Take a kid fishing

I remember a student back when I taught at the Jewish Child & Family Services Therapeutic Day School (let’s call him “Allen”) who was a 13-year-old, 220-lb. kid with duo BD behavior disorder) and ED (emotional disorder) diagnoses, along with the newly trendy label of ODD (oppositional/defiant disorder). On top of that baggage, by virtue of his history of assaulting teachers.  Allen was saddled with a third label, one not recognized by the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), but one casually tossed around by teachers and social workers alike: conduct disorder.

Before I  talk about one of my all-time favorite students, could you indulge my insertion of a brief aside? School districts have been under the gun to ensure that students are placed in the “least restrictive environment” (aka the mainstream general-education classroom). Some students (but only after months of observation and numerous failed interventions) are deemed too disruptive for the mainstream classroom setting, at which point they are  moved to a more restrictive tier — the self-contained classroom. The next tier for students unable to thrive in the “small, structured  environment” of the self-contained classroom is the therapeutic day school. ( It’s worth noting that what would be a perk in the eyes of some TDS students — that they will be picked up and dropped off at home every day by bus — is a curse in the eyes of other TDS students — the busses are typically the “short,”  yellow ones).

Meanwhile, the handful of students whose behavior cannot be contained even in schools staffed with 8-to-12-member “crisis teams,” may find themselves staring into the maw of the final tier–  the residential day school (aka  “hospital school”) or the residential detention school (aka “juvie school”).

Regarding Allen, I pretty quickly realized that what he had  to offer was a formidable intellect, an insatiable curiosity, an ability to respect, even defer, to adult authority figures, and an endearing desire to please. The only thing Allen asked in return was to be treated with respect.

Given the power imbalance inherent in the teacher/student dynamic, students tend to have finely honed observational skills (aka “bullshit-detection radar”).  I flew under the radar, so to speak, because the vibe I projected to students was along the lines of, “I don’t deserve the privilege of teaching you because, frankly, I don’t think I’m a very good teacher.” This seemed to project the encouraging message that I was “real,” and hence, worthy of my students’ respect.

My conduct and composure in the classroom certainly seemed to strike Allen’s fancy. By my second day as his instructor he was punctuating my lessons with commentary such as “Cool,” and “You’re awesome.”


Like many inner-city kids, Allen was a nascent “nature nut,” eager to seize any opportunity to escape the concrete and diesel fumes of his block for wide-open spaces lush with novel sights, sounds and  smells.

At some point, probably late October 2008, I asked Allen if he had ever fished.

“You mean with a fishing pole at a lake or something like that?”

The expression on his face was one I’d seen before.  An authority figure drops something tantalizing  on an already beaten-down kid that has the potential to be very good, but which could also be some sort of trap or prank.

“I’m thinking about putting in a request for a fishing field …”

“I’m in!” “I’m in!” “I’m in!” classmates Adrian, Chris, Jonathon, Amanda and Kevin volunteered before I could complete my sentence.

This was the reassurance Alex was looking for. “Me too!”

Intrigued by the novelty of a fishing field trip, the first such outing in the school’s history, my principal gave the okay. However, between the in-school and out-of-school suspensions served by one or the other of my students, it wasn’t until May that all six of them were good to go.

Our destination was 17-acre Axehead Lake. Located in Park Ridge (about a 25-minute drive from the day school, Axehead is by far the most consistently productive Forest preserve lake I’ve fished. It is stocked with rainbow trout every April and October, but it’s the lake’s healthy bass and bluegill population that keeps me coming back.

The moment I pulled into the parking lot and noticed that the lilacs fringing the southern lake shore were in full bloom, I was certain that we would catch fish.   I brought along  five spincast  and two spinning rigs. Dave, my classroom aid, contributed two more rigs. I also sprung for four- dozen wax worms, a bait that bluegills find irresistible. Bearing a vague similarity to maggots, these plump morsels are about three times the size of maggots and about 90-percent less disgusting.

Another key attribute of waxworms is that if you run a hook into the head and through the  body to the “tail,” bluegills will rarely succeed in stripping off the bait. I expected Axehead’s  bluegills to accommodate even the first timers in our crew by “self-hooking.” Thus, I would be able to bait one angler’s hook while reminding another angler that her grape-sized bobber was making figure eights out on the water.

Back at the school, my students could charitably be called “high energy.” Here at the lake  they practically stood at attention as Dave and I  briefed them on lake etiquette, that is, until Allen took a glancing hit from one of the legions of cicadas that chose this sunny spring day to heave their 17-year-old selves out of the earth, shuck their grubby bodies and  take wing for two days of seeking mates while colliding with every stationary object they encountered.

“They have evil eyes!” Allen shrieked before running around in circles, furiously swiping at both real and imagined cicadas.

“Their favorite color is red,” Jonathon deadpanned as Alex cast a desperate look my way.  That was a nugget of science lore I could neither confirm nor deny, I acknowledged sheepishly.

We were finally able to mollify Allen by forming a “human shield” around  him, batting away any cicada foolhardy enough to attempt a breach of the perimeter. The “emergence event”  did not abate, but fortunately, Allen’s fear of “alien bugs” couldn’t hold a candle to his desire to get his hands on one of the fishing rods. In short notice, Allen was at the bank, hoisting 5- and 6-inch ‘gills, while Dave or myself  unhooked them and threw them back. ( I had discouraged Allen and his classmates from keeping fish they weren’t prepared to clean, cook and eat.)

Each of the students caught at least one fish. Jonathon even caught a nice half-pound largemouth bass.  Three factors — the full sun, Allen’s re-emerging cicada-phobia, and the need to get back to school in time for the departing buses — compelled us to do the unthinkable: walk away from a lake where the “bite” was still going full throttle. The one compensation was that we had factored in enough time to spend the $40 “food allowance allocated for the trip. Hello Whopper Juniors!


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