Mark's handwriting was completely illegible. Now, I don't mean it was difficult to tell his E's from his A's or he forgot to cross his T's, I mean it looked as if he had taken off his shoes and socks in class, stuck a pencil in between his big and second toe, and attempted to scratch out his work.
At first, I just tried to encourage him to write more neatly. His handwriting would improve for a little bit, but within a few days be right back to the illegible scrawl. As a next step, I brought him a couple brand-new pencils, and then sat with him and worked on his penmanship. As long as I was sitting right there, he actually had pretty good handwriting for a fourth grade boy. Boys always have a harder time with handwriting in the younger grades because it takes longer for their fine motor skills to develop. I had developed some pretty incredible ninja abilities to decipher poor handwriting, but Mark had me beat. Although this was my first year of teaching, I knew better than to ding a kid for penmanship on a spelling test. No, I wasn't expecting perfection, but I couldn't give credit for spelling the word "truck" if it looks like you have written the word "glurp." I was even considering giving him oral spelling tests instead of written ones.
It was a Thursday morning before school when his mom called me. "Has Mark talked to you about the boy who sits next to the pencil sharpener?" No, in fact, Mark had not. It turned out every time he went over to sharpen a pencil, the kid would poke him with his pencil, or say something threatening to him under his breath, usually following up with his threats during recess. Rather than undergo the trial by fire that was sharpening pencils, Mark would use his pencils until they became just nubs, mostly wood with mere traces of graphite, scratching against the paper — he had a whole collection of them in his desk. Sigh… thank goodness for parents.
The bully's seat was immediately moved to the front right of the room close to my desk, he received a lecture that I believe included threats of dismemberment, and like magic, Mark's penmanship became legible. Now after thirty years of teaching under my belt, I would like to think I would've picked up on this on my own quickly.
Still, it's an important rule in teaching and in life: What you see and think is going on, is not necessarily what is really going on.