Could it be? A friend request on FB from a Kevin Johnson*, boat captain offering private cruises out of Virginia Beach.
Only one Kevin Johnson crossed my life path, in Drama class thirty years ago, in the beat up trailer called a classroom behind a rural high school.
My entry into public education as an English teacher had required my acceptance as a drama teacher and coach. “We need an English teacher who will also take the drama classes and direct the plays. Will you do it?” Asked the assistant principal at my interview.
I needed a job quickly. I didn’t hesitate. “Sure!” Little did I know how dramatic this acceptance would unfold with characters like Kevin whom I would remember forever.
Kevin, handsome with dark curly hair and twinkling brown eyes, had a perpetual mischievous smile above a strong cleft chin. His glib style followed him right over the threshold into the classroom where he continued wooing his classmates with his endless charm. On the first day of class, I waited quietly for him to settle down.
Eventually everyone turned toward me, everyone but Kevin who continued with an outrageous story about a weekend keg party in the woods and sheriff’s deputies and getaways. Everyday would begin the same, unless I could challenge Kevin immediately. He obviously had leadership potential, and he certainly understood dramatic story lines.
Within a few days the students formed three drama casts, each with a student director. Obviously Kevin had to be one of the directors. He could memorize lines and deliver them in character. He was a natural with body language and understood blocking.
And then one day, he arrived looking disheveled and depressed. His ebullience faded. He refused to participate. He became like a disruptive three year old, hell bent on earning negative attention. Usually, mildly disruptive behavior can be ignored until the student self-corrects. But Kevin’s behavior worsened. He deliberately interfered with presentations by his classmates. Once he threw a book across the room.
I removed him from class for two days. Maybe a cooling off would work. When he returned, he was sullen. “That makes sense,” I thought. “He is going to pout. But for how long?” Passive resistance can be just as disturbing as manic disruptions.
Was he using? Pot? Uppers? Downers? Alcohol? His behavior was erratic and unpredictable. He began to hang around, sometimes apologizing, sometimes scapegoating.
His behavioral record on file showed disciplinary actions from alternative in school and out of school suspensions, truancy violations, and substance abuse suspicions. Yet, he was utterly charming and appealing.
He had little respect for authority and a weak moral compass; that was obvious. He craved attention. He was narcissistic to the core, lying for personal advantage, inventing stories, contradicting facts, deliberately flaunting school rules.
Our class occurred during lunch. That is, half the hour was scheduled prior to a thirty-five minute lunch break, the other half afterwards. I decided Kevin needed more attention from me. With the Principal’s approval, I kept Kevin with me during lunch. On sunny days, Kevin and I walked around the football field’s perimeter.
At first, he was quiet. Then curious. In time he stopped telling me outrageous stories about a dysfunctional broken home, where he and his brother were victims, locked out, or forced to drink with his mom. I figured a small percentage of his tales were true, the rest meant to shock and gain sympathy. I said very little during his era of tall tales, my goal being the reduction of misbehavior in his classes.
Because Kevin could act and had a strong baritone voice, I cast him as the lead in Grease. A wanna be mix of James Dean and John Travolta, he fit the part.
“Now, Kevin, understand this. You have a lead role. You have responsibilities, parts to memorize, practice schedules, etcetera….We are entrusting you with an important role. I’m backing you over the objections of my colleagues because I believe in you.”
“I get it. I won’t disappoint you.”
And he didn’t, although I watched him like a hawk, keeping him busy as a director’s aide.
He didn’t come apart until after the performance, when he went on a bad behavior binge for a few days, as if he couldn’t stand the self-discipline one more day.
For his Senior year, Kevin was allowed to take a second year of drama after I requested him, to the relief of his counselor. I no longer had to keep him in at lunchtime, though he would hang around sometimes. As a senior, he began to express concern about his younger brother, a sophomore who had a worst disciplinary record than he. I learned about how the boys helped their dad with a business mowing the right-aways along state highways. Their dad took them to ball games, had them over for barbecues, fixed their cars, was active in their lives. The mother drank; she would be fine then not. The boys adored her and helped her. She frustrated them. She was lonely then happy then lonely. The family break up had been difficult on her. Kevin’s moods were tied to her well being. He felt responsible; too often he wanted more than his share of relief and attention, more than any of us actually receive on any given day, as if accumulated deprivation entitled him.
His situation invited trouble for teenagers in broken homes, with unsteady parenting, especially when alcohol abuse is involved and weak permissions blur decision lines. While attending the local university, he was picked up for possession of drugs.
I wrote him a letter while he was in jail. I was sad. I believed in him. He could, if he willed it, overcome his situation but it would be more than difficult. I wasn’t exactly sure I believed my own words. If he was using and selling cocaine, he was headed for deep trouble.
Afterwards he came to see me at home. Sitting across from me on a sofa, he sorted through the lead up to consequences he hadn’t imagined. He wanted to do better. He wasn’t sure he was capable. What should he do?
He was receiving addiction treatment as part of his sentence, parole with community service. He had withdrawn from the university, was working, and living with his mother.
Within the year I saw he had been indicted for theft. He came to see me again. He had stolen from a relative in order to buy drugs. He was ashamed. We repeated the previous conversation, except this time, I asked, “What do you want from me, Kevin?”
“I want a normal family like yours.”
“Kevin, what you think is so wonderful here hasn’t been gained easily. Let me tell you a story or two…”. When I finished, he had learned how my mother had died when I was one week from turning thirteen, my children’s father and I had divorced, I held two jobs to pay the mortgage and cover college expenses, and so on. What came easily was love. That was the glue in our life. Love and faith.
“Kevin, you can do that too when you are ready. I don’t know when that will be. Some people have to lose everything, to find love, to experience faith. I want it to be easier for you, but I can’t promise you it will be.”
“I guess this means I can’t date your daughters.” He half-joked.
Kevin was sentenced and served his time. He came to see me after his parole release, after the birth of his little girl. This time, he talked about his baby girl, how he wanted to be a good father.
A year later I saw he had been charged with theft and fraud. Third time. Persistent felon. Oh, oh, this was going to be serious.
He showed up at the backdoor. “I’m in serious trouble. I stole my girlfriend’s credit cards, emptied her bank account, and wrote bad checks.”
“What about your child?”
“I’m not allowed to see her.”
He cried. “I think I have finally lost everything.”
When I asked him why he had stolen from the child’s mother, he said, “I was so angry with her. She wouldn’t let me see our baby girl. So stupid.”
I listened while my husband hovered around the deck, making up yard chores just so Kevin could see him nearby.
Finally, Kevin rose to leave. He hugged me. “Thank you for all the love you have shown me. I want you to know I would never steal from you.”
Kevin was sentenced to federal prison as a persistent felon. I never saw him again until he showed up on FB last year. A yacht captain. Still handsome with some middle aged heft. His photos are of gorgeous seascapes; pictures of him, his brother, and dad; a blurry I love you, Mom photo; a photo of his mother with a newborn, presumably Kevin; “loving and blessed” photos of Kevin with a pretty, smiling woman; a house in the woods; yachts; sailboats; artwork; barbecues; even a high school photo —everything positive, creative, kind, blessed.
His profile lists university studies, a nearby county residence, his profession as sea boat captain. I think he righted himself, don’t you? It took awhile but he got there. In 2014 he sold his boat Whiskey Jack so he could buy a sailing yacht and take his dad on a last cruise. I like the sound of that.
* I use pseudonyms for names in my 2018 blog posts and disguise places. In the case of this particular story, I created conversations and timelines true to the situation. It was impossible to remember every detail exactly. The frame, however, is truthful.