A Truancy Officer’s Tale
Robert Milner is the most popular guy at Charles Hart Middle School. All the kids know him, and most love him. He wears the sharpest threads in school, tailored suits and yellow ties knotted like blossoms with loving precision. The staff women call him “GQ”; his “young ladies” often scream and giggle when he rolls down the hall. And he’s not just a walking fashion spread — if one of his “young mens” steps up to him, Milner fixes him with a stare from his sleepy, steady, dark eyes, and the boy falls silent. Milner is Hart’s “attendance counselor,” which is just a nice way of saying he’s the man who makes sure you’re in school and tracks you down if you aren’t. Milner is a truancy officer.
Milner’s short — not much taller than some of the girls and smaller than many of the boys — but he’s also broad. Not just in his shoulders but in his face, in his eyes, in his grin, which sneaks up out of the right corner of his mouth when he hears an excuse he thinks is funny. He hears lots of lame lines: “allergies” in December, school buses that got lost. One kid claimed a “secret” holiday that Milner wasn’t allowed to know about.
But Milner knows there aren’t many holidays, secret or otherwise, for the kids over whom he keeps watch. The entire school, a well-kept but aging building on Mississippi Avenue in Southeast Washington, D.C., qualifies for a free-lunch program. And although Hart has won championships — in sports and in a citywide poetry slam — it’s a place where kids struggle to stay on grade. For most students, the fancy colleges that demand advanced courses as early as sixth grade aren’t going to be an issue. Staying clear of both drugs and the war on drugs is of greater concern in a neighborhood where middle school students could easily graduate to fast-money jobs dealing — careers with short trajectories that often lead to the prison system, where Milner used to be employed.
The fact that Milner once worked for the D.C. Jail probably wouldn’t surprise some of Milner’s students. Milner works the reputation when he needs to, sometimes just pointing at a child and nudging him back into line with the lift of a single eyebrow.
Milner is the father of two sons, aged 13 and 18, but he also calls the kids at Hart his own and treats them accordingly. They can count on his ample smile — when they’re on time — or glare of reproach — when they aren’t. He may even be the first sight some of his charges see in the morning: “Parents call me up, tell me this one or that one isn’t getting out of bed,” he says. “I swing by, and I’ll be their alarm clock. ‘C’mon and get dressed,’ I tell them. ‘We going to school!'”
But at age 41, after more than a decade of working in the school system, Milner knows better than most why some kids might not see it his way. Sitting in his office one day before his daily rounds began, he ticks off the reasons kids miss school: “Could be violence. Could be gangs. Could be they’re embarrassed [that] they’re not doing well. Could be they’re getting violence in the home. Could be their mothers are drugging. Could be health problems. Maybe they gotta take care of a younger sibling.” His face is grim as he recites the list, but then he shrugs and cracks wise: “Could be they just lazy.”
Milner believes there’s only one path out of poverty, and it goes from first grade to 12th. His job is to keep his kids on it. He’ll find tutors for kids who need them, give rides to kids who refuse to walk, find places on sports teams and in choirs for children who need something more than classes to make them attend. He’ll flirt with the shy ones, tease the proud ones, and get in the faces of the violent ones. “If they don’t have a father, I will be the father for them as long as they are in school,” he says.
“For the kid who just says, ‘I don’t want none of it,’ that’s where I come in as the force of the law. I’ll say, ‘OK, I understand. I like you as a kid, but I will have to put you through the courts. I will see that your parents are locked up. I will see that they pay fines. Now, are you ready to do that to your people?’ My bottom line is: ‘You’re a minor; you don’t call no shots. The only privilege you really have is going to school.'”
“School is a fluid society,” says Ray Poles, the head of D.C.’s truancy nerve center and Milner’s boss. He raises his hands up as if cradling a model of the school; then he lets it spill onto the floor. “It can be no more than what we want it to be,” he says, his voice half honey, half bass rumble. D.C. Law 8-247, making guardians legally responsible for their children’s absences, has been on the books since 1990, but Poles thinks parents and politicians have been taking truancy more seriously in the last few years, and attendance counselors like Milner are using tough tactics to enforce them. “We as educators calibrate, if you will, our different schools to the desires of society at large,” Poles says. Milner’s motto — “By any means necessary” — and his mien suit Poles, because Poles believes they suit Hart.
Milner is a Christian, which for him is as pragmatic a faith as it is spiritual. His faith is like speed, the only thing than keeps going in a job that starts at $28,000 for 12 hours of work and requires him to put in a night shift as a security guard at a downtown hotel just so he can afford to keep keeping kids in school by day. Sleep, he says, doesn’t make the cut as one of this top three priorities: his God, his family, his school. He loves his job; he also thinks it is a calling, that he is doing the Lord’s work as surely as any reverend or rabbi. And he’s not adverse to using the fear of God — and the law — to get it done.
One day over the Christmas break, Milner decides to work on one of his “repeaters,” Wanda. Most truants manage to spend their days in front of their TVs because their parents or guardians aren’t home during the day. But Wanda’s mother stays home with her all day. At 7 a.m., she wakes up and hollers at Wanda to get her butt out of bed; then she takes medications for an array of unnamed ailments — “My heart” is all she’ll say — and slips into a sound sleep that carries her into midmorning, when she awakens to discover Wanda still in the apartment.
Wanda is a big girl. She’s taller than Milner and twice as wide. Her features are small and seem to fold into her broad face, and her hair shoots straight up from her forehead in an uncontrollable, reach-for-the-sky natural tiara. Used to her advantage, Wanda’s size and her wild hair could make her a force for other kids to reckon with. But although she sings well and belongs to the school’s choir, her speaking voice is as tiny as her body is large, and most of the time she’s too afraid to say anything in her own defense when the other kids set upon her.
She’s a doubly delectable target: Not only is she fat, she’s also a year behind, 14 years old and stuck in the seventh grade. And the second time around isn’t proving any easier than the first. She failed last year not because she was slow but because she skipped school to avoid her sharp-tongued peers. Now, when she walks the halls, she must run a gantlet of her former classmates and a whole new crop of seventh-graders, as well. Wanda prefers not to, so more than a dozen times this year she’s taken advantage of her mother’s heart and the medications it demands to simply stay home.
Both Milner and Mintz have warned Wanda many times over that she’s close to consigning herself to another round of seventh-grade hell, but Wanda’s terror of her classmates is greater than her fear of Milner and her fondness for Mintz. So Milner decides to strike the fear of God and Hart Middle School into Wanda’s mother, Mrs. Tyson.
The minute Wanda’s mother opens her door, Milner steps up to the threshold and in a voice loud and deep enough to knock the peeling paint off the walls of the hallway says, “I’m here to talk to you, but my problem is with Wanda, ’cause she’s not coming to school, and…”
“You’re kidding!” Mrs. Tyson interrupts.
“I’m not kidding,” Milner continues, “and that’s why I’m here to tell you straight up: If Wanda don’t make it to school, I’m gonna hold you responsible. I will file papers. You will go to court.”
The mother, a heavyset woman in a blue house dress, steps back and falls like a tree into her easy chair. “I’m not going to jail for her!” she cries.
“Yes you are, if the court decides you’re not making Wanda go to school.”
“It ain’t fair,” says Mrs. Tyson.
“It is fair,” Milner says. “Your daughter is still a child, and you have a responsibility to her. Is she here now?”
The mother shouts for Wanda, then slaps a hand to her head and moans, mumbling what sounds like a prayer. Her apartment is small and stuffed with the colorful clutter of Christmas, but on the walls hang numerous portraits of a Jesus who looks less than forgiving. Mrs. Tyson falls silent, then fixes her eyes — small, dark, and close together — on Milner. “Excuse this mess,” she says.
“That’s all right,” he answers. “Looks like you had a good Christmas.”
“Let me tell you,” Wanda’s mother says, seizing the opening: “All I did was give blessings for Jesus Christ’s birthday.”
“Well then, you had a good Christmas,” says Milner.
“Christmas comes,” continues Mrs. Tyson, “I reveal things to God I normally can’t. Things about my troubles. Maybe that’s why you here. God working on my behalf. Mmm-hmm.” Milner says nothing; she takes his silence as consent. “Yeah, that’s how I’m gonna put it,” she says, then looks to the ceiling: “Thank you, Jesus!”
“Bless Him,” Milner concurs.
“Thank you, Jesus!” hollers Mrs. Tyson. “You from Him!”
“I’m from Hart Middle School,” Milner says.
“Thank you, Jesus! I knew you was coming!”
Just then, Wanda emerges, dressed in a dirty white ankle-length skirt and a dirtier white long-sleeved T-shirt. She glances at Milner, then fixes her eyes on her mother and clutches a crumpled Kleenex to her nose.
Milner takes a breath before launching into the facts: If Wanda isn’t in school Monday, he is going to file papers on her mom. She could be fined a hundred dollars a day for every day Wanda has missed, and he knows she knows that means more than a thousand dollars. Which would only be the beginning, because he is talking jail time, too, five days for every two days Wanda has skipped, a lotta time for a woman he understands is not well at all. And for Wanda he has a nasty surprise: Oak Hill, a home for troubled teens. Troubled? That’s putting it nice, he tells her, because trouble’s too kind a word for the thieves and drug dealers and murderers and prostitutes Wanda will soon be eating, sleeping, and going to school with at Oak Hill if she can’t make it to Hart.
“Thank you, Jesus,” calls Wanda’s mother.
“If you don’t want to save yourself, I’m gonna save yourself,” Milner warns.
“Thank you, Lord,” says the mother.
“I’m gonna do my job,” Milner continues. “You’ll have to come out here into the living room and tell Mom, ‘We ain’t kickin’ it no more, so I’m gonna let Mr. Milner file those papers on you.'”
“I don’t want to go to jail!” wails Mrs. Tyson.
“I don’t want you to,” says Milner. “Wanda, you don’t want her to either, I know you don’t. Mrs. Mintz, she loves you to death. She tells me you got a good heart.”
Wanda begins to cry.
“Your mom says God’s working in her life to make it more positive. I’m gonna be straight up and tell you: You come to school, we gonna work in your life to make yours positive.”
Wanda looks at Milner.
“Wanda?” he says. “Wanda, everybody at Hart got a reason for not coming to school. You got yours. But Wanda, those reasons ain’t nothing but a meatball.”
Wanda’s sister comes into the room and stands watching her with her arms folded across her chest. Though almost a decade older, she looks like a twin: just as big as Wanda, her face built on the same bones. But she’s finished high school and college, and she’s long since stopped caring about the kids who called her chubby. She wants Wanda to do the same, and she’s mad as hell that instead her little sister just cries.
“You tell him the truth,” Wanda’s sister rumbles. “You tell him I’ll let you ride in with me if you just roll out of bed, but you won’t do it.”
“I’m hearing you don’t got no excuse,” Milner says.
“Thank you, Jesus,” says Wanda’s mother.
“Uh huh,” says the older daughter, but her tone has more scold for Wanda than agreement with her mother.
“You can do the work,” says Milner.
“She can,” says Wanda’s sister.
“You should be in eighth grade,” says Milner.
“She should,” agrees Wanda’s sister.
“You come in, I’m gonna get you into some eighth-grade classes,” says Milner.
“Thank you, Jesus,” chimes the mother.
“We’ll set it up so next year you’ll roll out to Ballou, get away from those little kids in seventh grade. You get her to go,” Milner addresses the mother, “we’ll give her all the help she needs.”
“You mean that’s all I gotta do to save me from jail?” asks the mother. But Milner is focused on Wanda again.
“I don’t want to see you up at Oak Hill,” he says. “You know what they got up there, don’t you?”
Wanda nods and squeaks out a yes, the first word she’s spoken.
“Drug offenders,” Milner says. “Prostitutes. Murderers.”
Wanda shakes her head. “I understand,” she says, just audibly.
“You don’t need to be around that,” says Milner. “You got people who love you. Apparently, you had a good Christmas. You got a roof, and you got food, and you got heat, and you got love. Now all you need is some schooling.”
“Thank you, Jesus!”
“You ready, Wanda?” Milner asks.
“You ready?” he says again, quieter.
Wanda begins crying again.
“Oh, girl!” says her sister. “You not even grown yet!”
“That’s OK,” Milner says. “There is a place for those who want to be grown. I’m gonna see you Monday?”
“Yes,” whispers Wanda.
“You from the Lord!” cries the mother, and Milner turns to leave. When he is out the door and halfway down the hall, she shouts, “Don’t forget, come New Year’s you be on your knees.”
“I’m on my knees every day,” Milner calls back.
“Thank you, Jesus!”
Although Milner hasn’t put any parents behind bars yet, for a while he was using the threat of jail so often that Ray Poles had to warn him to “gentle up” his message. “Milner doesn’t hold any punches,” Poles says. “It’s: ‘Here is the gospel from Milner.’ Everything he was saying was valid, but he had to clean it up a little.”
Sometimes Milner’s gospel is literal. Although he claims he keeps it nondenominational, he often counsels kids on how Christ can help them in school. When I ask him about separation of church and state, he swears that he does his best, but he insists that with his school in the condition it’s in, he needs all the help he can get: “I can’t afford not to call on Christ.”
Riding a lurching elevator down from Wanda’s apartment, Milner decides that he won’t file papers on Wanda’s mother. He makes his home visits to diagnose as much as to prescribe, and although he has just issued stern warnings, he’s left Wanda’s home with the impression that her problems and her solutions lie with her, not her mother. The mother can thank Jesus until the last days and that is all well and good, but he hopes Wanda will make it to school the following Monday on her own power.
Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).