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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Near tragedy can’t deter teacher’s dream

Jamie Tobias Neely The Spokesman-Review

Michelle Klein-Coles emptied her desk at Ferris High School just over a week ago and took down from the wall her favorite Shakespeare quote: “To thine own self be true.”

Her contract as a year-long substitute teacher has ended, but her memories of this difficult year remain.

That same week Klein-Coles attended the sentencing of one of her former students, Jacob D. Carr, for attempting to kill her. Carr faces 2 1/2 to 3 years in a state juvenile center. Klein-Coles walked away with her inner landscape altered and her job prospects an open question.

This was only the second year of teaching for Klein-Coles. She approached her work with a warm, easy smile, a commitment to connecting with each one of her students and a bright sense of idealism.

Now she’s left with a summer to recover and to file applications for a new teaching job.

She met me for coffee recently. An English teacher, she finds solace in words. The pendant of the silver necklace she wore said: “There is no fear in love.”

She bought the piece back before this all began, but she still thinks the words are true.

She looks back with clear green eyes. Last fall she assigned her class to write a short story. Carr turned in a draft filled with graphically violent imagery. “He wrote about more than average teen-boy violence,” she says.

She handed back the paper, told him it was inappropriate and asked him to rewrite it. She wishes now that she’d copied the paper and turned it into the school counseling office.

She knew she wasn’t Carr’s favorite teacher, but she wound up shocked by the depth of his anger. Over winter break he sent her an e-mail threatening to burn down her house. She attended his sentencing for that threat in February.

Then in March, just after the school shooting in Red Lake, Minn., she spoke with a local radio station and mentioned her experience with Carr. Two days later he took his stepfather’s loaded .32-caliber semiautomatic pistol to Ferris High School, planning to shoot her and then himself.

He lurked outside the office she shared, but hesitated because other teachers were in the room. When he left to get a drink of water, she happened to walk out of the building.

The 35-year-old single mom didn’t find out her life was in danger until the next day.

“It is chilling, startling and still at times surreal,” she says. “I have spent a good deal of time thinking of how easily it could have gone the other way.”

Now that school’s out for the summer, she has more time to contemplate all that has happened. And so do we. More time to think of the clash between the idealism of a young teacher and the rare, but increasingly violent students who appear in our classrooms.

We live in a world where deeply troubled kids find greater access to violent video games and loaded guns than they do to school counselors and mental health treatment.

We live in a world that values profits for gun manufacturers and video game makers and taxes for police and prisons over funds for shoring up families and children who live in pain.

Teachers see so much anger in students now, Klein-Coles says. They work hard to meet high expectations, but they can’t single-handedly solve this, too.

Klein-Coles thinks kids aren’t getting the attention they need. There’s been a gradual change in our culture, and sometimes it seems insurmountable.

“People don’t want to talk about it because there’s not an easy solution,” she says.

Klein-Coles feels sad not to be returning to Ferris next year. She doesn’t think she’s likely to be hired back. She attended that school as a freshman and moved back to Spokane as an adult, specifically so that her 8-year-old son could attend Spokane public schools.

“I love Ferris,” she says. “It’s a great school. The teachers who work there are so caring and committed. The majority of the student body is fabulous.”

Another woman might decide to leave teaching after a year like this. Not Klein-Coles. She views teaching as the job for which she was born. After the incident this spring, she heard advice not to return to her students, but she did.

“I had to come back to show them that when challenging things happen, you pick up and you move on and you move through them,” she says.

Her students and their parents responded warmly with flowers, candy and letters of encouragement. When the school year ended, students and staff stopped by her desk to tell her goodbye.

“So many people came in and said, ‘I can’t imagine you not being here,’ ” she says. ” ‘Your smile lights up the place, and we love you.’ “

She’ll never know what makes one student pour out his heart in a letter of gratitude and another want to kill her.

People ask her why this happened, why her story was only one of a series of episodes of crime and violence this year at Ferris, a school surrounded by some of Spokane’s most affluent neighborhoods.

“It angers me when people say, ‘Why is this happening at Ferris?’ ” she says. “My question would be, ‘Why is it happening at all?’ “

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