The sidelong glance is often our best approach to historical happenings.
—ANTHONY LANE in The New Yorker
“I’m here to seek knowledge and to party.”
—DEBBIE JENKINS in 4th Period *
One of my students, Huckleberry, doesn’t like to say anything. Even when I go ahead and tell him the answer to a question, and then ask everybody else not to say the answer when I ask Huckleberry the question, and then ask him to say the answer so he can hear what it’s like to say something out loud in class from his own larynx, Huckleberry will smile, but he still won’t say the answer from his own larynx even when he knows the answer.
But during the morning and afternoon break and while he’s waiting for the bus, Huckleberry’s out there with his buddies and he’s yakking away like Rush Limbaugh, with arm gestures and everything. He really does have a great smile, too, and a fuzzy wad of red hair with a life of its own. Huckleberry and another student named Flavio are best friends. In class and on breaks, Flavio is just like Huckleberry. The great smile included.
When I have to leave the classroom to take what I call a “teacher’s break,” with obnoxious finger quotes, I usually tell everybody to please stay in their desks and work quietly. I drink a whole lot of coffee and then follow that up with a bottle of ATOMIC JAMAICAN STYLE GINSENG ROOTS DRINK WITH TIGER BONE TONIC OPEN WITH CARE I obtain in mass quantities from my local Publix. A vile, gag-inducing beverage, sure, but it makes me a better teacher.
Anyhow, Spike always gets up the moment I walk out and roams around the room and gives his horrified classmates a quirky commentary of some of the items I’ve used to decorate the classroom. If Spike isn’t creeping around the classroom he’s paying attention and answering questions and offering up some mighty good discussion questions. When he participates like that you wonder why he comes to this school about the time Spike starts creeping around all over again. Spike is inquisitive—in an other-worldly sort of way.
Most of the time Tempest is funny and generous and kind-hearted. Then there are days when she’s just evil. Then they are days when she’s back to being angelic and if golden wings made of switchblades popped out of her back I wouldn’t be surprised.
Levon will cut enormous farts in class and isn’t embarrassed about it. Not one bit. Levon’s not even embarrassed when he’s asked to go outside the classroom to fart after he warns us he’s got a big one coming on. Even when he steps outside the door we can still hear Levon fart. Not embarrassed. About anything. I guess that’s all part of Levon’s quaint charm. Of course, that’s a whole lot of quaint charm to enjoy and I admit—we do.
Petal will shut down completely and will turn around in her desk for the rest of class and won’t look at you or acknowledge anything you say to her from then on. Not just for a class period—for weeks. But when she’s on she’s the very best at class participation of every one of my students. Probably in the whole school. But then there are those days when I wouldn’t be shocked at all if Petal, with her green cat eyes blazing, jumped out of her desk and whipped out a machete and attempted to separate my head from the rest of my body. Not shocked. I would not be shocked one bit.
Johnny can hardly read. Watching him try to read out loud is so agonizing you finally have to look away. But the effort he gives in trying to spit the words out is profoundly inspiring. I know Johnny knows how much we all admire him because we tell him so every day.
When Hoover forgets to take his medicine everybody else gets real nervous, too, because the possibility of Hoover flying out of his desk and crawling across the ceiling like a bug instantly increases. Funny, Hoover always apologizes for forgetting, so that sort of calms us down, too.
In homeroom, Spike also enjoys dropping onto the floor and rocking back and forth on his knobby spine with his ankles locked behind his head. While we watch. In mild horror.
Then there are all my other favorites, too. A whole bunch of them with a wide and wild range of learning, behavior, and emotional disorders they bring to school with them. During the day, they’re all trying hard not to do what their mind and body are furiously telling them to do, usually when it’s not quite the right moment in the noble process of knowledge seeking to do it.
But all that’s okay with me. Every bit of it. That’s why they come to this school and that’s why teachers teach here. You stay hopeful no matter what.
So is it patience a teacher of kids with learning, behavior, and emotional disorders possesses?
Patience means you’re waiting for some big payoff. Just getting them through the day with some knowledge in their heads is a payoff, and most days that’s satisfying enough.
So what’s the secret to getting them through the school years?
It’s durability and understanding is what it is. The durability of a battle tank and the kindness of human understanding. I learned that when you’re in the same classroom teaching the same subject every day and every year, instead of butterflying around campus, you get into a real knowledge groove. Familiarity breeds experience.
Kids and teachers—sometimes it’s a cantankerous combination, but when we understand each other and the reasons why we’re in school together, there’s a pretty good chance we can all learn something. Even when kids don’t talk ... even when some kids crawl across the ceiling like bugs ... and even when some talk too much.
Next Entry ... August 12: Symbolic Learning
*Debbie really did say that. With great enthusiasm, too.