Pexels Designecologist


There was a particularly well-done story on Night Gallery, starring Richard Thomas as the son of a recently deceased man. It was called “The Sins of the Father.” His dad’s role in the medieval community was sin eating, which entailed a priest taking the sins of a departed soul, casting them onto a meal, & dad ‘eating’ them. A community leader approached Richard as the logical one who would be responsible for eating the sins of the sin eater, since he was his son. Richard refused because he is quite aware that while he will be eating his father’s sins, he will also be eating the sins of all the others who his father ate as well.

To make a long story short, Richard finally agrees to eat the repast & as he begins to shovel the meal into his mouth with an expression of absolute terror on his face, the camera pans away while the sounds of anguished chewing & swallowing are suddenly drowned out by the most blood-curdling series of screams I can recall, each one louder & more unearthly.

Do fathers pass on their sins, mistakes literally, to their children? How correct was the poet, William Wordsworth, when he wrote, “The Child is father to the Man” in “My Heart Leaps Up”? How much responsibility does society hold for the success or failure of people since it is commonly said “that it takes a village to raise a child”? What I hope to address here is some of the most poignant experiences during my time as a sin eater.

No, I don’t mean to mislead you. I was never employed as a sin eater in the medieval sense, but I did have a job that I came to view as that. I worked for seventeen years as a Choices teacher in an alternative school in Arlington, Texas known as Turning Point High School. The Choices program was a short term placement for high school students who had repeatedly violated disciplinary rules of their school and/or run afoul of the law out in the community. Eventually, I also became the in-school suspension person for students in Turning Point who were acting out in class there.

Now, you can begin to see that I had the worse job in T.P.H.S., as one of the former principals told me. I was often cursed, insulted, ignored, disobeyed, & disrespected as part of my job. I came to understand that students were often not angry with me, but I was the handy one on which to vent their feelings. I also got quite accomplished at understanding my charges as a way of forgiving them. Forgiving them didn’t work very well, but comprehending their situations did. Then I didn’t even need to forgive. I worked as a host for an attorney who managed the trolley system that served several amusement venues for several summers. He periodically would look intently at me for some moments after we had been talking about my stressful job, then he would blandly say, “Well, somebody has to do that job.”

You may be wondering at this point why I kept my job for so long. The actual reason was that I loved to teach ESL (English as a Second Language) to adult immigrants in a night school program. Since there was little preparation necessary for my day job at T.P.H.S., this left me with adequate time to prepare for teaching English at night. So, my day job was my bread and butter, but night school was my passion.

Over the years, I had contact with a variety of troubled teens: alcoholic/drug addicts, mentally ill, sexually abused & neglected, runaways, child molesters, sociopaths/psychopaths, & the most common, pathetically immature & directionless. So many of the kids that went to T.P.H.S. loved our school because we cared about them & we gave them the structure & boundaries that they didn’t get at home. We had many who were assigned & re-assigned, but few who made any real changes to their behavior. One young man who had been through our school at least 4 times was being checked in one morning. I really liked the kid. He was quick-witted, humorous, & very rarely a problem, but this first morning back we found him hiding a sharpened steak knife in his notebook, so we turned it & him over to the principal & I never saw him again.

Some of the kids were just bombs waiting to go off. One huge black fellow was a very quiet, but a smouldering pit of tension. The principal at the time would stop him in the halls & gently ask him how things were going. He usually said nothing at all, but looked puzzled that anyone was asking. Since such attention was rare from the principal, I was curious what was the issue, but knew better than to pry. With some students, it was better not to know.

One day, though, Jake, I’ll call him, didn’t show for class. Later in the afternoon, my teaching assistant let me know he’d been arrested for a double murder. Two white teenagers had been found stabbed to death in an apartment complex. (They were both T.P.H.S. students, one current & the other a former one). The police followed bloody sneaker prints down the sidewalk to Jake’s mother’s apartment. He confessed to killing them both over a drug deal that went bad. He was sentenced to two life terms.

Of course, there were brights spots. I had one kid who was unfailingly happy & pleasant to be around. He was a blue-streak talker, so he’d blaze through his work from his home school & then bend my ear. After a few days of this, he started asking for a little Vaseline shortly after getting in class. We kept a number of things like that handy because the children often got little care or attention at home, so it was not unusual for the need of little things. This kid would rub it through his hair & it made it glow a bit. After a while, I came to realize he was imitating me; I was in the habit of combing some brilliantine into my hair in the morning, so I was quite flattered.

Other kids of course were holy terrors. One young man who looked like he came off a plane from Ireland was a spit ball wizard. I would take everything away from him since he wouldn’t do his assignments any way & shake him down, but he always seemed to find some bit of paper to chew & fling at the walls, ceiling, other students, & me. He never lasted for long with such a fixation & his father never took a bit of responsibility since it was our fault in some way, always.

One boy I came to dread. I’ll call him Jerry. He was very dark skinned, always had deep, dark circles around his eyes which were set close together, & a pronounced over bite with lots of gaps between his teeth. All these things gave him the distinct appearance of a raccoon & rodent hybrid. No matter what I did, he was argumentative, unsatisfied, & angry. Unfailingly, if not on the first day, by the second day in Choices he’d threaten to kill me. This would earn him a day suspension at home, so usually that was the last time I saw him until his next visit.

Over the years, the population varied, changed, but almost always got larger & the recidivism problem grew as well. For a while, my class appeared to be for students needing drug rehab services. There was a series of kids that had been caught dealing Ecstasy at school & brought their hallucinations with them. Not too long after that, there were meth heads & coke freaks.

The one type that never seemed to lessen were the gang members, primarily want-to-bes or gangsters-in-waiting. The jumped-in types were too smart to be caught & usually passed that on to the young ones. I had one student that I wished I could have kept for his impact on other kids. He told a story in no uncertain terms how he had been used by his gang. He said it was plain that he was expendable as soon as he was locked up: not one of his ‘homies’ visited him in jail or brought anything to him there. His talk in group discussion was the most quietly respected & listened to I ever beheld.

What about the sins of the father passed on to the sons? Unfortunately, the parents of my charges were often over-burdened single parents, moms & dads that had substance abuse problems themselves & murky links to questionable associates. There were two general categories that parents tended to fall into: one were parents that had given up struggling with their difficult, hard-headed children & became their ‘lawyers.’ By siding with their offspring & becoming our opponents, they earned some measure of better treatment from their delinquents. The second one were the ‘blame-throwers.’ Their kids had really done nothing wrong. If it wasn’t for the over-bearing police, the arrogant school system, or those ruffians they hung out with, their babies would be just fine.

I was treated to one father who I came to call the King of Denial. His son was not really noteworthy as Choices kids go, but his dad had decided to pop in one afternoon & see how his boy was doing. In no time at all, he launched into one of the most elaborate depictions of how the world had it out for him, that he had to keep a close watch because of all the sources of trouble that surrounded him. If it wasn’t his relatives, then it was the IRS or the NAACP or some other group or person that was at the heart of his suffering. What was sad to watch was his son hang his head lower & lower because someone at T.P.H.S. had gotten through to him about blame-throwing & I’m sure it was embarrassing to listen to his dad carry on like that.

Besides the already noted trend to larger numbers of students & recidivists at TPHS was the change in racial percentages. African-Americans gradually came to be over-represented if you looked at their numbers in Arlington schools; there should have been more white & Latinos than blacks. You can find all kinds of explanations for this trend, but I would support the one that says being black in school where the majority of teachers are white tends to lead to more attention to the misdeeds of the minority students. Also, the black community in Arlington was like so many other places in the USA. It had a bigger problem w/ poverty, joblessness, alcohol/drug-addiction, gang involvement, & any other of a number of social problems than did other racial groups.

This leads me to a recount of one of the saddest episodes in my years in T.P.H.S. I had many teaching assistants over the years, all of them female & they were white, black, & Latina. The one that was most gifted in calming & re-directing my students was a tiny lady I’ll call Brenda. She was a no non-sense grandmotherly type; I think she did an especially wonderful job because she was so short & could look them in the eye while I towered over most of my kids being six feet, one inch tall. She was also an African-American & this undoubtedly was also a primary factor.

She was so good at first that other t.a.’s would come into my room & ask her to “come work her magic, please.” There was a mighty amount of this necessary in the morning which seemed to be one of the hardest times of the day for many students, second only to leaving. I’m sure quite a few found it hard to leave since we gave them what they needed: love & firm boundaries.

Unfortunately, Brenda began to show some signs of over-stepping her authority & being too physical. One of the t.a.’s escorted her back to Choices one morning & pointedly told her, ‘We’ll call you if you’re needed; otherwise, stay in Choices!!” This was one of the t.a.’s who had been in to get her help in the past.

She also began slapping the black students on the head if they were seated, which happened only in my Choices classroom. However, her use of her hands really left normal limits one afternoon. I was in the hallway facing the door to my Choices room, helping watch the traffic at class change. Brenda came hustling up to the door, leaned in & called a tall, black female to come talk to her. The large young lady filled the doorway & Brenda began some heated conversation w/ her. The next thing I know, Brenda hauled her arm back & smacked that girl between the eyes with her fist with the her middle knuckle extended! The young lady staggered back with her eyes rolling up in her head momentarily & I leaped in the door way & led her back to her seat. Brenda, in the meantime, had stomped off, so I called our assistant principal on my walkie-talkie to please come see me.

After I told her what I had seen, she immediately asked if anyone else had seen it! I almost asked, “What the hell does that have to do with it?” but I said, no, & she said not one more thing but stalked off herself. After that incident, the punching stuff stopped in front of me, so the a.p. must have said something to her about what I had witnessed. Brenda never said a thing about it, either. A number of weeks later, the assistant principal told me I’d be getting a new t.a. soon. Brenda had been slapping a black boy in another classroom, & he & another black student who had seen it turned her in. So, it took two black students making a report to end her career at T.P.H.S.

Why didn’t I resign in protest of Brenda abusive behavior? For one thing, what good would it have done? If one witness (a student’s account couldn’t be trusted) wasn’t enough, then I would have been out of a job for no good reason. Her assaults stopped as far as I knew, which is what I was interested in, so case closed.

The day came for Jerry to show up again; this was his fifth assignment. I knew this for a fact because I kept a file of all four of his office referrals, the common theme being “I’m gonna kill YOU!” Well, I just couldn’t see the utility of suffering another run-through with him, so I had a conference with the principal & showed him the record of his repetitive need to threaten me. I pleaded and got him, to my understandable joy, a seat with another teacher instead of with me. On the day Jerry showed up, his mother for the first time accompanied him & I was curious what she was like. He got his pathetic visage from her & she tearfully explained that Jerry ‘just never had liked school!’ To make matters worse for such a homely kid, he was in special education classes, so I’m sure that was another thing he was taunted about.

With a such a badly stacked deck against him, Jerry was another kid with bad future prospects. So I wasn’t too shocked to learn that about a year later, he shot a fellow classmate to death at a party. There wasn’t any word about where he got the gun, but as you may know, Texas is Gun Country, so if it wasn’t his mom’s, then finding one somewhere wasn’t that hard.

I like to hear from anyone who’d like to chime in on my thesis: how we fail our children is a matter of poorly raising them, that our sins become theirs; can bad parents really be the whole issue? Have you heard the relatively new research that says a youngster’s peer group has more to do with how he/she turns out than his/her parents? Your insights are needed. Please tell me what you know!



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