I’ve recently begun the slow and arduous process of cleaning out my classroom, which includes going through files on my computer. Occasionally before or after school I will type up rough versions of blog posts that I will email to myself to return to later to edit and publish. But sometimes I will save these posts at documents with names that have nothing to do with anything, and I will forget they are there.
Below is from a document I typed after school one day in December.
Yesterday we got one of our babies back from the alternative education center to which he was sent last year for the remainder of 7th grade and part of 8th. Allow me to call this student Charles.
I knew that Charles was back before I even knew that Charles was back. When the swarms of children made their way down the hall, the usual dragging of feet had been replaced with an air of excitement and fear.
"Lord Jesus, don't let him be in my classes..."
“I heard he already cussed out a teacher.”
“I heard he already killed a teacher.”
Though our school is full of bad and sassy behavior, there is only one student who can incite that kind of reaction. When I finally saw Charles strolling down the hall, he already had a small legion of Charles Followers formed around him. Tall and scowling, he acted like he owned the place, and everyone let him. I heard him say “bro” about forty times.
I wondered who Charles would have for English.
I didn’t have to wonder long. During our planning period later that day, a colleague of mine that also teaches 8th grade English informed me that, 15 minutes into first period, Charles had swung open the door (late), raised his arms toward the heavens and proclaimed, “What’s up, my niggas?" My colleague, a first-year teacher, had written him up immediately, and now expressed his worry to me that his professional relationship with Charles was now irreparably damaged.
“I’m afraid he’s going to, you know, slash my tires or something.”
“I’ll take him,” I told my colleague.
“I’ll take him if you want.”
“Really?” My colleague had a look on his face as if I’d just said, “I’ll give you this family-sized bag of gummy bears if you want.” (My colleague loves gummy bears.)
I once saw this TV show about a girl who pulled out her hair on purpose because it felt good-- her body released dopamine when she felt pain. Unlike most people, this girl ushered pain into her life instead of avoiding it. I’m beginning to think that we’re not so different, she and I.
This morning was Charles’s first day in my class. I knew from the moment I offered to take Charles that there would be a major struggle of power, and I knew that it would have to occur before he even set foot in my room. Driving to school felt like I was walking into a rodeo ring with a wild stallion, or riding my bike into a tornado.
Predictably, when I went to get Charles from my colleague’s class and take him to mine, he rolled his eyes and asked, “What I gotta go with you for?” I simply motioned for him to follow me. He huffed and mumbled something. When I got to my door, I found a teacher there waiting to ask me a question. Charles went to go inside, but I stopped him.
“Wait over there, to the side of the door, until I’m finished with my conversation,” I said.
“Dog, why you gotta talk to me that way?” (That’s right. Unfortunately, “dog” is making its way back into the vernacular.)
“Oh,” I said calmly. “I’m not a dog. I—“
“I ain’t gonna sit here, dog, and—“
“I wasn’t finished—“
“I said, bitch, I ain’t gonna let you—“
“INTERRUPT ME AGAIN,” I shouted. “INTERRUPT ME AGAIN.”
This obviously jarred him. He still rolled his eyes and huffed out his breath, but he was silent. I hardly ever raise my voice, and there is not one teacher book that will tell you it’s a good idea, but in my experience, there have been exactly three times where it was necessary. (I could be wrong.)
I turned to the teacher who had been waiting for me. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Can you email me your question? I think I should probably take care of this first.” I turned to Charles. Then I went straight from yelling to being extremely quiet, which is almost as frightening as it is when it’s the reverse.
“There are a few things you need to understand right now,” I said in a very quiet, low, and firm voice. “You will not interrupt me. You will not roll your eyes, smack your lips, or sigh around me. And you will never, ever refer to me using words like that again. I don’t know how you’ve been taught to treat women who are older than you, but you’re about to be re-taught right now.”
“In return,” I continued, easing up about two notches. “If I see that you can respect me and my rules, I’ll have all the respect in the world for you. I will take up for you. I will have your back and vouch for you. Do you know any teachers who would do that for you AFTER being treated that way?”
Then, as if on cue, a certain adult person at our school walked by. He took one look at Charles and the fact that he was outside and scoffed loudly.
“Surprise, surprise,” he said. “Already in trouble. Ms. Teach, don’t even worry about this one. He’ll be back in alternative education faster than you can snap your fingers. He knows it, too.” He laughed dryly and brushed past me to go into my classroom to check for dress code.
I looked at Charles. He looked like he was ready to tear somebody’s head off.
“How did that feel?” I asked.
“That’s some bullshit,” Charles said.
"Why?" I asked. He told me why it felt like shit to know that the person in charge doesn't believe in you. I let him talk. Then it was my turn.
“Can you believe just a little bit that I want to respect you, and that I want you to respect me back?”
“Good. Then the first thing you can start doing is saying ‘Yes, ma’am.’”
The door opened and the adult person stepped back out.
“Do you need my assistance with this one?” he asked.
Charles opened his mouth to object.
“No,” I said firmly, and put a hand on Charles’s shoulder, much to my own surprise. “I think Charles is going to do good things. He’s a smart one. Did you know this is my top class he’s transferring into?”
Our administrator started to say something, then raised one hand as if stopping himself. “I’m not even going to respond to that,” he said, then walked off. We waited until he was gone.
“The next thing you will need to learn is when to hold your tongue. Do you think you’re ready to go inside?” I asked Charles.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
That's all I had written.
As the adult person at my school had predicted, Charles was gone a few weeks later. Despite his awesomeness in the confines of my classroom, he was written up by almost every other teacher, and several times found himself in arguments with the same adult person when I wasn’t around to shut him up. Actually, the day he was removed from our school was during my first period, and he refused to leave my classroom. Things became very scary, and that morning is still one of the most disturbing that I’ve experienced so far.
Had this happened during my first year of teaching, it would have probably completely undone me. But this year, I knew I could not afford to be undone. Even though I was sad, I had to trust that something had been planted in his heart in our time together, and that someone else (or even better, Charles himself) would water it.
I can’t tell if that means I’m burning out or growing up.