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Parkland Florida: Revisiting Michael Fields

Where is Michael Fields today? What has he done? Has he killed someone?

Michael Fields was my student in a Harlem elementary school years ago. He was placed in my 4th grade class with a file folder bulging with anecdotal records of his violence in and out of school. Numerous warnings about his dangerous behavior were properly recorded from the school’s guidance counsellor to social workers to local police to church authorities.

“He’s all yours now,” the principal smiled as he introduced me to Michael in the middle of term. Apparently, his previous teacher had run out of patience, or whatever else was needed to control him. Now it was my turn.

In the beginning he was relatively calm, much like any other student. He was only ten, but with a highly developed street sense of testing the waters. Slowly, he upped the ante. First there was taking goldfish out of the class fishbowl watching them struggling, then dying in his hand. Soon complaints came from parents that he was “bothering” girls on their way home from school. I learned that he was also attacking strangers in the street with a baseball bat, including a pregnant woman. I properly reprimanded him, as any conscientious teacher would have done.

As he upped the ante, I upped the ante. When he started becoming violent in class towards other students, I would call the principal and ask for a fire drill. In New York City, fire drills were the only time adults could physically touch or restrain a student. He and I would have our private “conversations” at the back of the line while the class obediently marched down the stairs. I could even tease Michael, asking, “Does anyone smell smoke?” and he would calm down.

Each time I found another way to control him, but only for a short period of time. Eventually I made an appointment to see his mother. She listened attentively as I explained the situation. When I had finished my litany of his transgressions, she took me over to the window of her 5th floor apartment. “See here,” she said. “This is where I pushed Michael’s father out the window in self-defense. Just got tired of him beating me. Michael was sitting right next to the window when his father went out.”

She explained that Michael had been thrown out of her church for violent behavior, seen guidance counsellors and psychiatrists, and had been suspended from school several times. She plaintively looked at me, staring into my eyes as if to ask if I had any solution.

Why am I thinking of Michael now? The horrible shooting in Parkland, Florida, has produced renewed calls for gun control with greater severity towards people with mental illness. The more we learn about shooter Nikolas Cruz, the more we wonder how he was able to purchase an Ar-15 semi-automatic rifle. Although Cruz had no criminal record before the shootings, stories are coming out of a childhood full of violence. Sheriff deputies had come to his house several times; neighbors complained about his violent outbursts. Classmates tell of being frightened in his presence; he was finally expelled from school. The FBI investigated a menacing threat posted on YouTube by a certain nikolas cruz.

Cruz’s story reminds me of Michael Fields. After meeting his mother, I went to the experienced principal asking for his advice. He just smiled, nodded his head and said it was my responsibility to keep Michael under control during the school day. There was nothing more he could do.

Soon after, unexpectedly, the principal came knocking at my door and entered the classroom with a huge smile. “I’ve got it,” he announced. “I’ve solved the Michael Fields problem. I discovered he no longer lives in our school district so I had him officially transferred to another school. He’s no longer your or our problem.”

Where is Michael Fields today? What has he done? Has he killed someone? He was a time bomb, just like Nikolas Cruz. I wonder what I should have done, what could have been done, just as the people in Parkland, Florida, are wondering what they could have done to prevent the shooting. We should all campaign for gun control, but how can we campaign to help people with mental illness? What ever happened to Michael Fields? Could I have done more to help him? How should others have helped? How many Nikolas Cruz are out there? How many Michael Fields?

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