“Shanika” I say for the fifteenth time, staring down a girl with an attitude almost as big as the two huge mismatched plastic hoop earring dangling from her apparently deaf ears. “Shanika.” Now I try another tactic, placing my entire body between her and the girl she is talking to on the other side of the room. She is talking loudly, about nothing to do with the class, though that’s not surprising since she sits in the middle of total chaos in a room in which I am sure not a soul knows what class they are in, let alone what the lesson is. This is my “challenge class” that makes me want to bang my head against the wall every day. Finally, she stares up at me, lips pursed, eyebrows raised, and says:
“Miss, you are being so rude interrupting my conversation,” obviously there is no right way to answer this other than a stream of profanity which echoes inside my head at this blatant defiance and disrespect, setting an example for my already disrespectful and defiant class. In the background her friend, the follower of all followers, giggles and watches for my reaction.
“Excuse me?” I say, keeping my voice quiet and menacing, just needing her to flinch a little bit so that I can have my authority back.
“Miss, this is an A and B conversation, so please C your way out of it,” she says snottily. Inside my head I drop-kick her across the room. I should thank my lucky stars that no one else in the class is paying attention, save for ‘miss follower’ snickering behind her.
“I’ll see you after class I say,” feeling incredibly mature for not letting the confrontation escalate in front of everyone.
“No you won’t, I’m not staying after class”
“Oh yes you are,” Nuh uh! Uh huh! Nuh uh! Yes huh! I can hear the pathetic way that this interaction is going…
“Nooooo Miss – I got to pick up my little brother,” she says, and I at least feel good that she feels she owes me a reason.
“I don’t really care what you have to do,” I say, as I brush by her seat, trying to get other people to pay attention to me and to end this discussion with Shanika.
“You want to know how much I care about anything you have to say?” she asks a question which despite my obvious efforts to ignore her she insists on answering herself. “This much!” she shows me her fingers, pinched together to show ‘very little’. This time my mental drop kick lands her halfway across the room, and I keep her after school and yell at her until I feel sure she is about to cry.
I’ve gotten incredibly skilled at giving long ranting speeches about respect and self control and personal responsibility. This is not something which I ever thought so much could be said about – let alone so much said at a decibel level that leaves my throat hoarse and aching in class the next day. And yet with the seventh graders in my class, I scream as though it means something, and I find intricacies within intricacies in the big ideas of respect and maturity. Really, they are teaching me self-control every time they push me to the edge and I manage not to go over, to slap them around only inside of my head, and to keep most of the profanity from flying off my tongues. They teach me responsibility when I sit after class and try to figure out what I am doing to cause this behavior, and how I can change it. They teach me maturity every time that I resist giving them the smart-ass responses that they all deserve, and remind myself that somehow, I am the adult in the room.
The worst is when I hold them after and they start the chant “I didn’t do nothing!” which seems to be the mantra of so many. Then we have to go into a mini-lesson on Ms. Klein’s fairness, and how Ms. Klein doesn’t hold people after class for no reason or yell at people for things that they didn’t do, and therefore, there must be some reason why you are here after class – isn’t that right? Miraculously they all seem to agree, which is lucky because in fact, due to still not having memorized all 185 names of the kids in my classes, I often yell at the wrong person.
“Carlos!” I yell, turning left to face the child who is out of his seat or talking to someone across the room or doing gymnastics or chewing gum and humming, whistling, drumming or beat boxing.
“What?!” comes an indignant response from Carlos, who is in fact sitting quietly to my right, hands folded on his desk, carefully copying vocabulary from the board. Shit – wrong person.
“What’s his name?” I ask Carlos, pointing to the oblivious rule-breaker, so deeply involved in his rule breaking activity that he doesn’t know I’m about to scream at him.
The other night I called the wrong Juan’s parents. I told them I was very concerned about their son’s behavior. I should have known from the answering machine, pleasant and family-ish – each member of the family saying their own name into the microphone on the recording – “Hi, you have reached Carlos, and Linda….and Mercedes!...and Rosa!...and Juan.” When she called back, Juan’s mother’s voice was frantic, telling me how in shock she was to hear this about her son, how no one had ever called her ever before about his behavior. I knew then that this was the wrong Juan – the one I was trying to reach likely got more than 3 phone calls a night from various teachers. “Um…is this Juan Rodriguez’s mother?” “No! This is Juan Garcia’s mother,” “Oh! I’m sorry, your son is wonderful – I have the wrong Juan!” … I really need to learn these kids names.
What is most shocking is how sorry they can be. How they can look me in the eye with “fuck off” in their expression, and then after class tremble with how sorry they are and how they won’t do it again and how they promise, promise, promise if only, please, please, please will I not call their mother. It’s as though there is truly some severe disconnect in their minds between behavior and consequence.
I am starting a newspaper at the school. Another sugar coated topic in the teacher’s lounge is out socioeconomic bracket. We don’t like to callt he kids in our school poor, though that is what they are. Instead isn’t disadvantage, or from a lower socioeconomic bracket. “What do we wish that our students had that other schools in higher socioeconomic brackets have?” A newspaper. So I’m starting that, though I haven’t a clue what they will write, if they can write, how we will afford to publish, or where I’m planning to find the time in my day to edit it and teach them about newspaper. It’s become glaringly obvious just how little contact they have had with newspapers, so this will be a good chance to teach them about the news, and newspapers, as well as for them to actually write something and see it published (after being heavily edited, no doubt.) Writing news summaries, they plagiarize unabashedly, which tells me that at some point this week we will have to have a lesson on how to write a news summary. It can go with other skills I take for granted but that they must be taught, such as how to read a newspaper, how to use a glossary, a table of contents, an index, and atlas – all individual, 45 minute lessons.
I asked them to write a news summary about any presidential or vice presidential candidate in this election (after I wrote in HUGE letters on the board the names of John McCain, Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden, accompanied by underlines and stars and my saying that “you MUST know who these people are, you MUST understand that there is an election going on. It’s the most important thing that’s happening in the world right now!)
“How is it important?” Oh where to begin talking about that….
How do I explain how important the election is, the government is. I point out that the legislative branch has a lot of people in it, and in the executive branch there are only two “big important people”. First I have to teach them branches of government, and the reason that we have them – which leads to checks and balances. And then comes the election process, of which they are utterly clueless. Please note that not one of them knows who the current vice president (and VP for most of their lives) is, and giggled when I wrote “Dick” Cheney on the board. Again – let me give you my lecture on ‘maturity’…