Monthly Archives: June 2006

I Lost One

This is what we know: Every human being is unfinished. Every one of us is in process, in motion, in medias res…The teacher who honors this defining incompleteness senses intuitively that to label a student is wrong in both senses of the word: it is immoral, and it is hopelessly stupid, wildly inaccurate.
–William Ayers, Teaching Toward Freedom (p40)

William Ayers writes with plain, perfect humanity about the ethical obligation of teachers to see their students as distinct human beings, universes unto themselves, in flux, infinitely capable. Ayers says later that there is “an antidote to all this foolishness”—the relentless labeling and dismissing and generalizing of students as “at-risk,” “behavior-disordered,” “reluctant readers,” etc.—but he warns that “it requires vigilance, effort, and consciousness.” I’ll say.

“We begin with a vow not to repeat the clichés that seem to cling to some students like barnacles, sharp and ugly” (p49).

I had a student. I say I had him because Mr. T removed him from my classroom after a complaint surfaced (during a random chat in the office) that I was spending most of my class time putting out the fires he set instead of teaching the other 20 students in the room. When I see Raivon now, our connection all but severed, he seems mean and far away. I notice how tiny he is in his baggy jeans, how huge he makes himself with his jagged laugh and defiant mouth.

Mr. T prides himself on protecting his teachers from things that make our jobs hard: crazy students, interference from the region or the Department of Ed, crazy parents. And “protecting his teachers” is his language, not mine: he is paternal almost to a fault. We’re going to be one of the “Empowerment Schools” next year: “You’re all mine,” he said in a staff meeting. “Practice saying your name with my last name: Sylvie Tigerton. Lewis Tigerton. Ronnie Tigerton. We’re all Tigertons now.” It was supposed to be funny, but it was weird.

Raivon was one of the casualties suffered in the name of making my job easier. And I WAS relieved. I DID teach the remaining students more effectively. But as an educator, aren’t I supposed to educate? There was something shady about just cutting Raivon off like that, like an infected appendage.

“All right,” Raivon would always say to me, looking for an exit, utterly dismissive, when I addressed his flagrant failure to turn in any of the work for my class. “Raivon!” I’d call when I saw him in the stairwell, even though I didn’t want to see him. “You gonna have that essay to me by Friday?” “All right,” he’d mutter contemptuously. “I don’t want to give you a failing grade,” I’d insist, “I know you can do this.” “All right,” he’d say again. I extended deadlines, offered makeup opportunities, called conferences, gave stern lectures and pep talks.

He never delivered. Sometimes there would be a glimmer of excitement, an urgency toward improvement. But it was always brief, always filled in with the hair-trigger temper and careening performances of the Raivon Show. “Raivon, return to your seat/spit out your gum/stop talking,” I’d say, trying to wrest attention back from his audience. He’d suck his teeth and spit his angry, nonverbal replies, as though I’d asked him to please remove his toenails.

I began spending more energy on students who didn’t seem to find me so oppressive. I didn’t stop Raivon in the halls anymore to follow up on whatever was preventing me from passing him. I grew exhausted by the relationship that was always about lack and complaint; Raivon had tired of it months ago.

There came a point when it looked like I’d never reap what I knew only crudely how to sow: I wanted Raivon’s cooperation in our teacher-student pact. You respect the space in this room while we’re in it together, and I help you understand what we’re doing. You give me what I ask for, and I reward you by letting you pass through this gate.

It was a primitive, faulty, but earnest version of what I hope to forge with students, but feel heartbreakingly far from this year: we respect each other and learn from each other. I do my best to guide you to understandings that will be useful to you for the rest of your life. I’ll be humble, but you will be humble, too. I’ll lead if you’ll lead. My judgment of your understanding will be transparent; your effort will be honest.

I closed my heart to Raivon. I felt betrayed. I was disgusted by his misogyny (he was suspended for sexual harassment), his childish, bottomless need for attention, his temper. He appalled me. When he left my classroom, I no longer felt responsible for him.

“We begin with a vow not to repeat the clichés that seem to cling to some students like barnacles, sharp and ugly.” Raivon’s name was a bad word in the faculty lounge, connoting everything that made OUR jobs harder. “He’s insane,” our principal said before he took Raivon away. There was the sense from the staff that Raivon would eventually be cooled into submission; until then, you had to tighten the reins and grow calluses where you held them.

There were also allusions to his steep, myriad psychological problems–but only allusions. I didn’t wonder if they were valid–obviously, the kid is troubled–but I wondered why they sounded so speculative. Why Mr. T didn’t seem able to substantiate his armchair diagnoses, why he rambled poetic riffs on why Raivon was so crazy. Why wasn’t there a principled, measured conversation about the sources of his behavior? Why was it easier to let the discussion end with, “The kid is nuts”? I didn’t feel like I was in a position to do anything but listen and take my cue from the administrators. Striver High is the sort of place where I don’t ever feel in a position to anything but listen and take my cue. My anti-intellectual, don’t-rock-the-boat cue.

I gave up. I let him calcify into RAIVON, the name echoed outside the main office, the name on the suspension list, the list of Students In Danger of Not Progressing to the Next Grade, the shortlist of crazies. Erased the Raivon with careful handwriting and terrible spelling and an easy laugh, who must be holding onto a monstrous insecurity to swagger like he does, who is very angry with something or someone, but I don’t know who or what.

Girl Fight

There had only been one fight at my school this year. We may be a public school in the hood made famous by Spike Lee and Chris Rock, but Striver High (to start using euphemisms) is so strict it’s parochial: students are suspended if they curse, and everyone is afraid of Mr. Tigerton (the principal), a force of nature in suspenders and a tie.

So color me shocked when, from across the room, I hear Monica and Yvonne hissing at each other like angry cats. They’ve sat peacefully at different tables since my class began in January; Monica, for one, usually doesn’t speak above a whisper. Yvonne has actually stopped me on the street to ask me about homework she’s missing. But they were so angry I couldn’t understand what they were saying: fountains of hate showering sparks over the classroom.

Appalled, I ran between them (they were still in their seats). “THERE. IS. NO. FIGHTING. IN. MY. CLASSROOM!!” I bellowed, crouching, my face red, like a crazy person. I figured if I could become enough of a distraction, I might diffuse the drama. “OUT. Get out. Go to the office,” I snarled to both of them.

Duh: Rule Number One of sending warring students to the office: Don’t send them AT THE SAME TIME. They will only resume their spat outside in the hallway. Which Monica and Yvonne did immediately.

But there really isn’t a lot of fighting at my school. And I adore these girls. I couldn’t take the possibility of them physically harming each other, so, against the advice of my union (and common sense), I stood between them, repeating my command to go to the office. I may as well have been a sheet of tissue paper.

Luckily, when Monica tried to punch Yvonne, she only grazed my chin, and Yvonne’s friends restrained her, so no one was hurt. I barely felt it. I continued my rant until both girls were in the office.

Girls are magnificent when they’re angry: all hand gestures and rotating necks and tonal fluctuation, like birds in a war dance. In the office, with Mr. T, they quickly devolved into burbling, crying messes. Puffy-eyed and shaky, Monica tried explaining her side, but escalated into a tirade: “You are NASTY, Yvonne, you are a NASTY, MEAN GIRL,” she said, with palpable hurt in her voice. Something about the culture of the school allowed them to let down their guard in that office: they were both so WOUNDED. Their pride puddled on the floor; their tears and honesty ran the show.

Later, I hugged them separately, saying, “I love each of you unconditionally.” I gave them the lecture about turning the other cheek: “There will always, always be people who don’t understand you. Do not engage them, because they aren’t rational. You won’t win. Don’t even go there. This is not your best self; this is the worst part of you. Show the world the you we know and love. You are brilliant and kind: own it.”

As a teacher, I say this kind of thing all the time. I stop kids I’m worried about in the hallway, or bend the ears of loiterers after school, giving impromptu lectures about honesty, kindness, responsibility, ambition, tolerance, all the stuff you imagine teachers breathe in and out instead of oxygen. I have no idea if it ever permeates the messy membrane between kids and adults; their identities, their moral compasses, are notoriously unstable. Sometimes they argue, but it is usually half-hearted and sloppy: “What if I don’t think it’s wrong to cheat, Ms. M?” “But I don’t care about getting a 100.” “When I say somehting’s gay, I just mean it’s stupid, I’m not saying anything about gay people.” I say it and say it, like an insistent, broken record.

For some reason, Monica and Yvonne seemed to take it in, nodding sincerely, looking me in the eye. Maybe they were just worn out. Maybe they were listening. I hope I was reminding them about something they already knew.