Scenario 1: the F-bomb
Yesterday, two of my boys who have been best friends all year were bickering in the computer lab. Finally, one of them turned to the other and LOUDLY told him to shut the f*ck up. We were in the library, so this was really loud. He stood up and grabbed his bag and told me he was going to ISS. I followed him out and directed him into one of the study rooms and shut the door for a chat.
This boy is really one of my dearer students; he’s the one who who inspired my Men of Honor speech earlier this year, and he has come to dub me his “counselor.” He is very clever and has tons of potential, but seriously needs new friends. Anyway, since he got fired from his job about a month ago (he wrote down that he started at 2 when he started at 12 and got bumped during his first 30 days), he’s been “off” – sleeping through my class, grumpy, snippy at his friends. I’ve been concerned for awhile, but the f-bomb was the last straw. I sat him in a chair and made him tell me what was up, because I was genuinely worried. He told me that his buddy keeps making fun of his girlfriend and her past mistakes. He didn’t elaborate on the mistakes, but I could speculate. My young man continued to tell his friend that he didn’t like him bashing his girlfriend, but the teasing has been continuous and unrelenting. We brainstormed some ways to speak to his friend about this alone, and that it might be a good idea to get some distance from him after. Today, he sat on the other end of the room from the other young man, and they didn’t speak all class.
I didn’t write him up for the cussing, even though he could have gotten a full day in ISS for it. I felt like it was symptomatic of bigger issues in his life that wouldn’t get solved by the solitary confinement that is ISS. He would have accepted the punishment, but if his story is true, then it feels more like he’s the victim, and I’d be punishing him for trying to defend himself when he doesn’t really have the social skills to know how. That didn’t seem right.
Scenario 2: Behavioral Traumas and Accusations
Despite current trends to have fully differentiated classrooms that accommodate all learning levels, I seem to have all my special education students concentrated in one period. A few of my students have this delightful habit of not showing up to class and instead napping in our behavioral classroom. They never get their work, and I never know if they’re actually in school or not. They often seem to have free reign of the school, getting to wander in and out of classes at whim. But that’s a different soapbox. Anyway…
One of these young men in particular has shown up to my class about 4 times in the last month; he’s come to the beginning more times than that, asked to go to the library (which I refused…um, I have a class to teach?), and then walked out and never returned. Anyway, surprise surprise, he’s failing. We managed to get his website started last week and he walked away with the Common Application essay they were instructed to write. He came to class today (for once) and I asked him to not sit by some of his friends and instead sit at a free computer near one of my honors students who is practically done with her project, very patient, and able to answer his questions. He loudly announced he wasn’t going to sit by someone he didn’t know and stomped off to read a graphic novel in the other end of the library. One of our behavioral teachers was subbing in the library that period and tried to get him to do some work. He told her that I never gave him make-up work, that he went from a 90% to a 40% in English, that he had no idea what we were doing, and that I refused to help him.
This teacher has watched him do practically nothing all year and didn’t believe for a second that any of that was the case. She walked him into the hall to talk, and then asked me to step out. She’s pretty good with him; she told him, “Now William, I’m going to tell Mrs. H everything you told me. You stop me if I get it wrong, okay?” When she was finished, I sat down next to him and patiently explained that the reason he was failing was that I had hardly seen him in a month, and while I had promised him make-up work several weeks ago that I did not deliver on, I hadn’t counted those missing. Instead the missing work was him being behind on the website. I reminded him of the essay he had and how we had started the website already. I explained the overwhelming nature of the project, suggesting ways he could break it down to get it done. I told him that ALL the instructions were on my website and have been for three weeks, so he has access to everything he needs. If he works really hard, I will take away the missing grades with his work and he’ll pass. When he’s not tromping around the library, cussing people out, and not making eye contact, he seems to be very reasonable and polite. He nodded, assured me that that made sense, and promised he’d do the work. I never saw him again that class period. Thankfully we were in the library and my classes were working well, so I could step out to have these conversations when I couldn’t in my normal classroom.
Scenario 3: Getting Dumped
On my way back to my classroom to have lunch, I came across one of my students walking slowly and aimlessly down the hallway. I had seen him in the library earlier that period, but he had left without seeming to accomplish anything. I asked if he was going to eat; he said no. I asked what was up; he shrugged. I told him that I had fancy dark chocolate in my classroom and that I wasn’t taking no for an answer. I got him up there and gave him chocolate and he confessed – his girlfriend that he’d been dating all of high school broke up with him. She’s a senior and considering enlisting, and told him she didn’t want to continue the relationship. They had talked about her going to the local community college while he finished high school, and then maybe going to college together and eventually getting married. My darling, sweetheart 16-year-old was crying real tears as his heart was breaking.
Having been dumped by my high school boyfriend when he went to college, I understood his pain. I tried to approach comfort from both sides – from her perspective, if she’s moving onto the next stage in her life and is going to move away, long distance relationships are impossible. I told him that I wish my senior bf would’ve have broken up with me before he went to college, rather than after several months of painful, pressured long distance. I told him that now he has the chance to become the best man he can be. If she comes back and they get back together, he’ll be even better for her, but if not, he still can become the wonderful man that I know he is. He wanted to try to talk to her one more time, and apologize for saying some nasty stuff. I told him I knew his world was crashing around him, but I also knew what a caring, strong young man he was, and that that was why it hurt so badly. He looked a little more cheerful by the time I saw him for English. He had taken chocolate for her…but confessed he ate it instead.
Scenario 4: Raging Bull
On my way to eat lunch with my mentor teacher, I came across one of my more belligerent students (same one I had to push the button on earlier this spring) in a verbal confrontation with his younger sister and an onlooker in the hallway outside of his science class. He was doing his angry bull routine in my class – nostrils flaring, heavy breathing, staring intensely at one of my other students and assuring me he was going to hurt someone if he moved. I told him to get a drink, go for a walk, and come back, where he continued to stew in something. Anyway, since it seemed ridiculous for them to have this reality-TV-worthy fight in the hallway, so I ushered them to my classroom recently vacated by my dumpee. This is easier with names, so let’s call my student Cory, his sister Isabel, and the antagonist Sam.
So freshman sister Isabel is the youngest girl in a family with four older brothers, so she’s pretty much not allowed to have any non-relative male contact. Her brothers have fought a lot of battles for her. Yesterday, Sam, one of brother Cory’s friends, kissed Isabel at school. She didn’t like it and backed away, but apparently Sam told someone who told someone who told someone who told Cory in my class that set off the raging bull. Cory was mad that he heard it from someone other than Isabel. Isabel was upset that she got kissed and that now her brother is mad, her father is mad, and (inexplicably) her grandma will find out and tell her “I told you you’d be pregnant by 16.”
I have never met the sister before, so I have no frame of reference for what kind of person she is. I tried to help them clarify what they were actually upset about, which was surprisingly difficult (and c’mon, it was just a kiss). Anyway, after about 20 minutes of brainstorming different solutions (trying to move away from Cory “having a private chat with Sam” and closer to “my parents will talk to his parents”), they had calmed down enough to walk back to class, where I know both teachers wrote them up and they will probably spend an entire day in ISS for cutting class. I didn’t write them up, but they’ll have consequences nonetheless. When I returned the young lady to her English class, her teacher informed me that this is not the first time she’s caused drama like this with her older brothers. She also has Sam in class and told me that didn’t sound remotely like something he would do. Her story leads me to question what I was told by the kids. Thus…
Scenario 5: Questioning all my Decisions
At the beginning of the year, one of my students told me her life story: her mom was crazy, she had been adopted late in life, and her new mom was incredibly controlling and vindictive and didn’t want her to succeed. I spent a lot of time trying to reach out to her past teachers and her counselor, and got some interesting information. Basically, this lovely, smart young lady used tall tales as a coping mechanism to gain attention. While her adoptive mother may have some controlling tendencies, after getting to know this young lady over the past few months, I can see where those might come from – she has a tendency to make rash, unfortunate decisions. Anyway, that was the first time I gave a student the benefit of the doubt when it turned out her story wasn’t exactly accurate.
With my little small town family drama that went down in my classroom today, I wondered how real any of that was – did she really not invite the kiss? Did the kiss actually happen? Is it possible she told way more people about it than Sam ever did? Did I get totally duped by listening to a story that could have been all BS? The sister’s tears were real – her mascara was a mess. I believed her implicitly. Whereas my behavioral issue tells people all his teachers are against him and that they caused his failing, and no one believes him. However, it’s possible we are against him, a little bit – he does next to nothing and typically causes disruptions and never seems to make much of an effort, so it is a recipe for burnout for us to try to track him down to give him assignments he’ll never turn in. I pretty much always give me kids the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re telling the truth. Am I too naive?
I am reminded of a question that was asked on one of my recent state tests to get my teaching license. It listed four scenarios and asked which one described a “self-fulfilling prophesy.” The answer is the boy whom I, the new teacher, heard was a behavioral problem last year, so I put him right next to my desk in a seating chart to watch closely over him and he continued to be an issue. He never got a chance to be better.
Kids often are labeled from year to year, either with formal labels like ADD or “emotional trauma” or informal like “that family is NUTS” or “his mom will make a stink to the school board” or “he’s a pothead.” I’ve heard plenty of times someone say, “Oh, his brothers were exactly the same,” or “Have you met mom?” It is very easy to color students’ stories based on these labels.
It’s very possible that not everything that I was told in the last 48 hours is true. However, after reflecting on it with some of my mentor teachers (and totally running out of time to eat lunch – lame), I listened to the encouragement that sometimes I may be the only adult a student feels comfortable talking to. No, I can’t be counselor and mom and older sister and adviser to everyone, but I’m beginning to learn that one of the most important things to a teenager is validation. While I might think it’s just a kiss, no reason to cut class, or that breaking up with a high school sweetheart sounds like a great idea, to these kids, these issues are the most important thing in their world, far more than an algebra formula or grammar worksheets. When we are as crunched in school to get test prep done and cram in curriculum, we don’t have time to ask, “What’s bothering you? Why are you acting like this in my class?” Instead we hand them a blue card and ship them to ISS when, once in a while, listening may be more effective. Even if my students aren’t always telling the full truth, perhaps it is their truth, and they seek someone who will listen to it and tell them that’s it’s okay to feel what they’re feeling. I guess that’s why I valued my parents so much growing up; they always listened to me, no matter how inane my problems. While I may occasionally be duped into not punishing bad behavior because of an excellent sob story, I guess I’d rather let the occasional duping occur than have students think that no one cares.