Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Tales from School: Hope and Things That Matter

Just when I'm running short on hope in teaching, along come reminders as to why I teach. Yesterday, it was a call from a friend and reminder about the National Writing Project (which saves teachers). Today it was Frank during my last class of the day. (Every student I write about is in Tales from School gets renamed Frank).

I was at my desk entering grades from the previous class. I greeted kids coming in. As I was finishing up, Frank came in. He asked, "you got that stuff to make up for the days I missed?" I smiled because I had gathered that work several times over the past few weeks only to have Frank or me miss school the next day. I laughed a little and said that I felt bad we had missed each other so often, and Frank exploded.

This is how it goes in school sometimes. For unknown reasons, a kid goes off. Frank said, "It ain't funny so you can quit laughing at me, motherfucker. Yeah, it's real fucking funny that you won't give me my work and I'm going to fail. Fuck you. Go fuck yourself," he said, flipping a chair and walking out the door. I watched the empty door frame for a moment. The students looked at me. One of them said, "whoa, dude."

I nodded. "Don't worry about it," I said. "I'm sorry I set him off. I didn't mean to but sometimes that's how it goes."

The kid asked, "why aren't you pissed?"

"It's not about me," I told him and started class. We were finishing the movie The Shawshank Redemption, tying it in with the Stephen King novella. I hit play and we settled in to watch.

I went to my desk and wrote a referral for Frank. It was just a note about what had happened, not a disciplinary device. It's a good idea to write these things down. I printed it and went to the office next door (our school is small). Frank was there.

I said to him, "I'm sorry that I set you off like that."

"Don't talk to me. You think it's funny to--" and off he went. He wasn't ready to hear from me yet. I apologized again on my way out.

Back in class, I watched how things were going, then gathered Frank's work together. I wrote a note to him that included my explanation of what had happened, how I had been laughing at myself and the situation and that I would never think of laughing at him. I delivered the work and letter to the office.

At the end of the period Frank stopped by, handed in some work, and apologized. I thanked him and said again that I would never laugh at him or look down at him. He deserves better than that. He thanked me and apologized again. I told him to hit the road before we got all maudlin and started crying on each other's shoulders or something. He smiled. And I had just taught him the word maudlin. Score.

I get tangled up in the nonsense of this job. The Common Core Standards, testing, job insecurity, and so on.  Here's what really matters: talking with kids and helping them learn important things. Kids in that class saw compassion today and Frank learned that he is honored by me. I learned again that life is about kindness and that good things happen when I send good out into the world. There are things about teaching that bug the living shit out of me, but the fact that Frank went from "go fuck yourself" to feeling honored is larger than any curriculum and makes it worth coming to work tomorrow. For that I'm grateful to Frank, to this job, and to myself.

Write on.