Seventh period Tuesday, I saw one of my students at her locker. "Hey, why aren't you in class?" I asked.
She looked upset. "Because Ms. Suchandsuch kicked me out!"
"Because she hates me!" she said. "Because she thinks everyone laughs at her, especially me."
"Well, do you laugh at her?"
"I ignore her! But she's so insecure, she thinks all we do is talk about her. I hate her! She makes me want to drop out!"
I looked at her. I knew she wasn't serious--she wouldn't really drop out, her mom wouldn't let her. But I knew she was seriously upset. And I also knew that no one was necessarily going to help her. I've heard about Ms. Suchandsuch from many students this year; even normally great, straight-A students have problems with her. Transferring out of her class is out of the question, because she's the only one that teaches this one course they need. And anyway, I've heard similar complaints about other teachers in that department.
So I launched into another standard lecture: "You have to learn to deal with people you don't like," I said. "For the rest of your life, you're going to run into unreasonable people. Could be a college professor. Or your boss. Or even your spouse. What are you going to do? Run away every time you have a problem?"
And when I was talking, I realized that I used to run from every roadblock that ever crossed my path. As a kid, I'd storm off the ball field when things weren't going my way. Even as a college student, when I was student teaching, I came so close to quitting mid-semester. I was student teaching in the suburbs with a cooperating teacher that tried but wasn't able to help me. Mostly because she herself was incompetent. And I was unprepared, having slept through many of my education courses. So when my university supervisor asked me what the heck I was doing, I had no answers. She suggested I quit. Said, "You will never be a very good teacher."
And I believed her. So I announced that I was quitting. Eventually, I was convinced to tough it out, by my parents, my "colleagues" at the school, some friends. And I learned a valuable lesson, something I now try to pass on to students having trouble with the Ms. Suchandsuches of the world: "This too shall pass."
When you're young, every problem seems insurmountable, every semester is a lifetime. With experience comes the realization that nothing really matters. And I don't mean that in a fatalistic, existential kind of way. I just try to tell the kids that Ms. Suchandsuch will eventually fade in importance, as soon as they're in college, if not sooner.
"The thing is," I said, "you can't let her stop you from achieving your dreams."
We chatted the rest of the period and she left in a better mood.
Then yesterday, seventh period again, the girl was back. "Mr. P, she did it again!"
"What did you do?"
"Nothing, I swear," she said. "I just walked in the room. I didn't even look at her, and she said, 'You can't be in here. Get out.' So I left."
She can't do that, I thought, she can't just kick out students. But I also realized that I was just getting one side of the story. And if there's one thing I've learned, it's that you can't really believe teenagers, even when they're talking about you. But still.
"Did she write you up?" I asked. "Or call your mom?"
"No, she just said that I can't be in her class."
"OK, let's take care of this."
I escorted her straight to the office. Took her to the assistant principal, but asked her to remain outside while I talked to him. "Can you do me a favor?" I asked. "Can you escort this girl back to her class? She's been kicked out two days in a row and hasn't been written up or anything. That's illegal. I mean, I'd take her back myself, but who the hell am I?"
He was very zen about it, asked for the girl's side of the story and then asked, "What do you think Ms. Suchandsuch will say you did?"
Later, I found out that the teacher still refused to let the girl in, but said that maybe they could start over on Monday. "That's it," the girl said as she was heading out the door. "I told [the assistant principal] that either I get a new teacher or I'm dropping out or transferring to another school. I can't handle this."
She looked at me, teary eyed. "Happy Thanksgiving," she said.