Edwin Kieffer peers over his Lennonesque glasses, grins and strokes his silver-streaked, blond ponytail.
“B+ or higher: 30,” drones a tattooed-and-pierced high-school student, holding out his hand for Kieffer to shake on the deal.
Sometime later, the student returns and hands his exam to Kieffer, who stoically proceeds to the front of the room, drops to the floor and, beet-faced and veins bursting, gives the kids gathered around him 30 push-ups.
That’s the fun part. But triumphant calisthenics are only one aspect of the challenging work Kieffer’s been doing for the last several decades: teaching some of the most at-risk students in Western North Carolina.
“According to the National Education Association, 56 percent of BED [behaviorally and emotionally disabled] students go to jail within three years of leaving school,” Kieffer reports, an Appalachian intonation smoothing his Northeastern hard vowels. “And I am not sure about all of my students, but from what I hear, that’s fairly consistent with my group — lots of my kids go to jail for lots of reasons.”
To get there, they “sell drugs, steal and assault police officers. And,” he says, pausing reflectively, “they have killed people — sometimes. Some of them have killed people. When I worked in Asheville, there were lots of instances of my students with major anger problems [who] later went on to kill friends. One boy killed his wife and himself, leaving behind two children. Another boy — another young man — [and] his brother shot through the window of a house in their neighborhood because of an ex-girlfriend problem, and a 9-year-old was killed. Neither one of them could blame the other, so they both went to jail for it. Another boy shot one of his friends in a drug deal that went wrong. Another boy got his aorta cut while playing with knives and bled to death. And another guy, I remember, got into a bar fight in town, in Asheville, and killed somebody.”
Many such students blame themselves for their learning difficulties and their behavioral and emotional disabilities, Kieffer believes. That blame, he says, helps fuel both their anger and their violence. Often, the students’ parents also feel they’re responsible for their children’s problems. In response, they may deny the difficult issues facing their child, become self-defensive and confused, or reproach the child. All this, of course, makes for delicate situations. In one instance, Kieffer recalls being threatened by a parent with a gun. “There are still areas of Asheville I won’t go in,” he says with a grin and a wink.
But despite learning disabilities, mental illnesses and behavioral disorders, many of Kieffer’s charges have gone on to make positive contributions. “The best thing I do for my students,” says Kieffer, his grin shaded by his glasses, “is getting them out of my self-contained classroom [where children with special needs spend most of the school day] and into the inclusion [i.e. regular] classroom setting.” Kieffer continues: “Many of my students do indeed end up contributing to society and living good lives. Some are business owners; most stay and work in the community. But nearly all of the successful ones are hard workers.”
Push-ups aren’t the only incentive this gifted teacher uses to encourage his students to stay in school and graduate. If they invite him to their graduation party, he arrives with a gift: a crisp Andrew Jackson.
And while Kieffer regrets that he can’t succeed with every student, he humbly acknowledges the lives he’s touched. Witness this e-mail from one former student: “hows it goin mr. kieffer, its [name of student]. i figured i would email you cause i wanted to say thank you for all of your help. i probably would not have changed into the person that i am right now if it wasn’t for you. im actually doing really well. ill probably stop by sometime to see all of yall. Well i better go. see ya.”
In North Carolina, as in other states, a significant number of BED students have documented learning disabilities and specific psychiatric disorders. Most come from impoverished and undereducated families, and many have been physically and psychologically abused. “Sometimes they are also labeled as ‘educatable mentally disabled’ — in other words, learning very slowly,” Kieffer explains, adding, “Sometimes they can be very gifted.”
But it’s their antisocial behavior that tends to get these students noticed, says Kieffer, who has a master’s in teaching BED kids. “Often anger issues are what get the attention of the schools, because they become disruptive and cannot be allowed to stay in their classrooms. But since their disability is something that’s ongoing, long-term, very deep, society has decided they still have a right to an education. So in order to educate them, we have developed the ‘emotionally disabled’ subgroup of special education to help them with their issues, to give them smaller classrooms, and to deal specifically with behavioral and emotional problems.”
In the beginning …
A long, long Ashevillean time ago, in an alternate Blue Ridge universe, the downtown sidewalks were rolled up at 6:30 on Fridays, and for live music, you had to make the trek to the Cosmic Ballroom on the outskirts of town. That’s the milieu in which Edwin Kieffer began gritting his educational teeth for his students’ sake.
In the fall of 1977, he helped launch the preschool/kindergarten program at the Children’s Grammar School, a parent/teacher cooperative. “The parents,” says Kieffer, “were really intelligent folks, like a lot of doctors’ kids, and [were] also very liberal people who were turned off by traditional education. … [They] wanted more experiential education.”