Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Fighting words

All righty. Teaching is one of those professions where you're never bored. Where just about every day you can say, huh, that's never happened before. Where you end up saying things like "all righty."

In eight (or nine) years with the Chicago schools, I've broken up my share of fights. I've taught a few thugs, a few gangbangers, a few kids that probably didn't like me all that much. Despite that, I've never felt threatened. I've never felt like anything could happen in my own little secure classroom.

A few years back, I had this little joke that I successfully pulled off a couple of times. When a student was really upset with me, really starting to show his anger, I'd challenge him to a fight. "Come on, tough guy," I'd say. "You want to fight? Just you and me?" If he acted like he did, I'd say, "OK, let's take it outside." He'd get up, and I'd walk with him to the door. I'd open it for him and stand aside to let him out first. Then, I'd slam the door and he'd be locked outside. The whole class would laugh, even the hapless guy out in the hallway. I'm not sure if any of them really would have fought me or if they were just playing along, but a joke like that could really ease the tension.

Anyway. Whatever. Today my peace was shattered. There was a fight in my classroom. Between two girls. At the start of fifth, after the tardy bell rang, one of the girls walked in. The other came in behind her, shouting something about "now that I'm not pregnant anymore, I'll beat your ass." I raced over and split them up before any punches were thrown or hair was grabbed. The loud, not-pregnant-anymore one sort of tried pushing me out of the way. Some friends ran into my room and pulled the other one out to the safety of the halls.

My class sat in stunned silence.

I stood in silence. Stunned. Pissed off.

I eventually wrote up the one that stayed behind, asked a security guard to get her to the discipline office. But ... in the confusion of going to the bookroom to get books, she took off, too.

So I gave the class my little anti-violence speech that always ends with: "And if you're ever in a fight, and I try to break it up, and you touch me, I'll have you arrested. THAT ... is assault." Very dramatic stuff.

After class, it was my lunch. I took a peek on the computer to see where the two girls would be. Both of them at lunch also. That could mean only one thing. I jogged down to the cafeteria. Too late. They had already fought at their lockers, and both were scratched up and breathing hard when I caught up to them--one in the discipline office and the other in the health center.

At a time like that, I don't yell at the kids. I don't criticize or lay blame or threaten. I calmly talk to them. And I do my best to make them cry. To make them feel as lousy as I feel.

I got 'em both.

The not-pregnant-anymore girl was easy. I asked her why whatever the other supposedly said to her was such a big deal. And when she said she had better things to care about, I said, "Like your baby."

"Yeah," she said. "I could've dropped out of school. But I didn't. I'm here because I want to make something of myself. I want my daughter to one day be proud of me."

I stared into her eyes. "And do you think she'd be proud of you right now?"

As the tears started flowing, I went on the attack: "Like you said, you've got more important things to worry about. For you, the number one priority should be your baby. And what if you got hurt? Then what? Then who'd take care of her?"

Yeah, I'm brutally mean in my own sweet way.

The other one was tougher to break. She was acting tough. I asked her why she was in my honors class, and she said she didn't know, she never wanted to be there. That she wasn't even any good at English. I asked if she planned to go to college, and she said, no, that she doesn't "have papers."

"So what are you going to do when you get out of here?"

"I don't know, get a job."

"And what kind of job are you going to get if you can't read or write well?"

"I don't know."

"So, you're hoping to meet a guy and just start a family, right?"

She smiled.

"Let me ask you this: When did you come over to the U.S.?"

"When I was 4."

"And, OK, correct me if I'm wrong, because I really don't know anything about you or your family, but your mom and dad probably came here so that you'd have a better life, right?"


"Have you ever even been to Mexico since you've been here?"


"Well, guess what, people are poor. And they don't have much. And your parents are here so that you don't have to live like that. And is this what you're doing?"

She started pretending to cover her face with the ice-pack.

"What kind of life are you going to have? The same as your parents? I bet they don't make all that much money, I bet they struggle. Is that what you want to do? And then you want children, and how do you expect them to live? Do you expect them to have a better life? Why not go for that better life yourself?"

I went on for a while. This is how I spent my lunch. But once I get on a roll, once I see the tears, I can't stop myself. I'm such a jerk. But I told her how, if you think about the world and how many poor people there are, those of us living in this country have hit the jackpot. Because we have possibilities. I acknowledged that many people in many poor countries are happy, but now that she's here and knows what's possible, that kind of happiness is impossible. And I told her that I wanted her to succeed, that I wanted every student in my class to succeed, and that I couldn't and wouldn't put up with people fighting because someone said something to someone else.

Both girls cried. In the end both apologized.

"All righty," I told each of them. "But I want you to know that I am mad. You broke my streak. I used to think my room was a safe place."


The Mom said...

Don't you just hate when that happens? A safe haven becomes something else..

Mrs. P said...

I love reading your blog. It's my first year teaching in CPS and I can already relate to a lot of what you write about (the fights, wanting to run kids over with my car, etc.). Thanks for doing this and sharing how funny, sad, exciting and disappointing being a teacher can be.

appopt said...

Wow, it's your first year, and you already can see how funny, sad, exciting, and disappointing being a teacher can be? It took me a while to see the funny. During my first year I mostly learned about the frustration. Anyway, I really love reading comments like these. Makes me want to keep writing ... even when I get home late from a softball game with a bag full of papers to grade.

Mrs. P said...

I'm at a school in Humboldt Park. Need I say more? Frustration-definitely! I take it all in stride and thank my lucky stars I go home to a house that is semi-sane.