It was sixth period. The noise level in my classroom slowly ratcheted up and stayed up. The leader of this particular, subtle coup sat with a smug little grin on his face and chatted with his friends while he tried (perhaps pretended to try) to do his work. I should have spoken to him sooner, but I was preoccupied by helping students who really needed help at the other end of the classroom. Have you ever noticed that they group kids with behavior issues and kids who need a lot of support together, to the effect that nobody in that period learns anything at all? by the time I reached the now loud and totally off-task child, I was frustrated and I jumped a rung on the consequence ladder. After an initial outburst before I reminded him of protocol, he kept his feelings to himself and stayed after class to talk about it, which is exactly what I want kids to do when they think I’m being unfair.
“Did you want to talk to me?”
“Yes I did. You treated me unfairly.”
“You were not following directions.”
“Neither was anyone else.”
“That’s because you’re a leader! You’re smart and respected! When you’re off-task, people think it’s okay to be off-task. Help me lead this class in a way that allows people to learn”
“Just because I’m a leader doesn’t mean you can treat me differently. I didn’t even get a warning!”
“I spoke to you several times, though.”
“What about [he named several students who had been talking]? They didn’t get detention.”
“I couldn’t hear them talking from the other end of the room. They didn’t start a shockwave of off-topic chatter”
“It’s not my fault I have a loud voice!” (he was yelling)
“Please don’t yell at me.”
“I’m not yelling!”
“You will be here for your detention on Monday” (I was yelling)
“Okay” (he stalked out with a look of total disgust)
By this time, my 7th period had come in. They were seated, silent and bug-eyed. My eyes welled up. “Get to work on the do-now, guys. I’ll be right back.” I stepped into the hallway and slumped against a bank of lockers with a clang, trying to keep myself from howling. Two kids stopped in the hall to ask what was wrong and to tell me they loved me. When I went back to my class, face all blotchy and puffy, a girl got up and hugged me tightly. I took some deep breaths and taught, but I felt sick with self-loathing, and every once in a while my eyes would spill over. That class was dismissed early for a pep rally, and I sat with the kids in the bleachers, trying to be inconspicuously devastated while the cheerleaders got fired up.
“We’ve got spirit, yes we do, we’ve got spirit how ’bout you?”
I spotted my young insurrectionist a few rows behind me, and when I felt I had some dry-eyed minutes, I nudged another ninth grader aside and sat down next to him.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you. I shouldn’t have done that.”
“Y’know, don’t worry about it Ms. O’Connell. I’m used to it.”
“That doesn’t make it okay. Besides, you were right; I should have given you a warning.”
“It’s okay. Just don’t worry about it.”
“I am worried about it. It’s important to me that I treat people fairly, and it’s important to me that you feel respected. I’ll do better on Monday, so be ready for those warnings. They’ll be coming down like rain. Forget about that detention.”
“Have a good weekend”
I went back to my seat and, mercifully, the pep rally ended. The kids trickled out of the bleachers to their cars and buses and I sat alone at the top of the stands, letting the scorching sun dry me up. When it got too hot, I walked across the grass and unrolled a yoga mat on the floor of Vanessa’s classroom trailer, and she and the color guard said sweet things and soothed me. A student of mine found me there. He got down under the table next to me and asked if he could have his confiscated phone back. I told him where it was, and his casual manner and good humor made me laugh. Soon I was vertical, and after a while I went back to my classroom, fed Buggy (the baby mourning dove that I’ve been looking after), visited with A (my second little brother from last year) and hopped in the car to go home.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t muddy up the dusty dashboard with some tears on the road.
I can think of a hundred ways that I could have prevented or defused the situation with the loud young man, but I was exhausted, both physically and emotionally, and I didn’t have the presence of mind to stop digging myself a deeper hole. I think I did right by apologizing. I don’t feel sick when I think about it, and I’m not dreading seeing the kid tomorrow. I know he’s clever and I know he has a strong sense of right and wrong. If I treat him with dignity and respect, I think I’ll have a great ally, and I think he’ll learn more from me than he would if I just smashed him flat with my consequences every day until he behaved out of fear. I hope he won’t take my apology as a show of weakness. I think humility takes considerable strength, and I try to recognize that in people, but that’s a realization I came to well after ninth grade. We’ll see.
I love teaching, even on days when I don’t get to eat my lunch because I’m tutoring, or I’m on duty, or someone has challenged me to a Stratego show-down. I love it even on days when I can’t find time to pee so I have to hold it for half the day, and on days when I can’t be alone to bawl for a five minutes, so I spend two hours pushing down sobs. I love it on days when it feels like no one else is doing their job, and I love it on days when it feels impossible to do mine. I have the chance, every single day, even (especially?) on the worst ones, to humanize and to empower and to be humanized and empowered in return.