I must confess to a mental wrong doing: I am guilty of a hurtful and possibly harmful judgement made on a boy in my class. I am not telling this story to try to explain away my crime, or excuse myself. I am telling this story so that others might recognize their own symptoms of stereotyping others.
This young boy appeared on my classroom roster before school started, but he did not come to class the first day. His cousin did, though–a cleanly dress, tall girl with glasses and colorful school supplies. I asked her where her cousin was and she simply rolled her eyes and said, “he wants to pretend we aren’t related.”
He did come to school the second day. As soon as I saw him in the hallway, I took a breath and thought, “oh, boy.” He had a face that looked much more mature than an 11 year old should, but not in the “I know better than to cause problems” sort of maturity. His solid jawline and squarish features indicated that he was either older than the others in the grade, or that he simply matured, physically, much faster than everyone. Either way, it screamed trouble to me and gave me flashbacks to some of my most difficult students of previous years–the ones that ran gangs and got girls to do things that 11 year olds are much too young to be doing.
He smiled broadly at everyone–the kind of smile that was less friendly and more mischievous–and stepped into my classroom with a swagger that made him look like he owned the room.
That smile never left his face as he squatted with his feet in his chair and raised his hand to volunteer to read out loud just before saying, “psych!” And pulling his hand down.
When I asked him to sit properly in his chair, he jokingly tried out several positions with his feet on the desk or wherever he knew would be bothersome.
His cousin sighed loudly across the room.
I wrote him off after only 2 attempts to call on him, deciding that he probably wouldn’t give a reasonable response to anything, regardless of the fact that he raised his hand constantly. I gave up on him before the first week of school had ended.
But I was wrong. And this isn’t a “people can change” story. No. This boy didn’t suddenly change his attitude. He is still the playful kid he always was.
But in an attempt to be “fair” I called on him the second week of school to answer questions. “Nah, I don’t want to answer,” he said with a smile and yanked his hand down. I gave an internal eye roll and looked to someone else to answer, but then he said, “I’m just kidding, I’ll answer.” The next string of words that came out of his mouth proved to me that everything I thought about him was exactly wrong. Not only had he been paying attention to our class discussion when I thought he had tuned out, but he had solid insights to offer.
I called on him more often after that and was greatly impressed with his level of positive participation. The one thing he still would not do was read out loud (though, he did manage to psych me out about it a few more times).
But even that barrier got crossed eventually and I realized why he was much more comfortable playing games instead of reading. Three syllable words were not easy for him. And as I listened to him struggle to read a few sentences out loud in front of the class, I realized that it took a lot of courage for him to go through with reading instead of psyching me out.
We’re into week 5 in school and he has become a lot more comfortable with trying, even when he sees those big words and knows he’ll stumble in front of everyone. He keeps that mischievous smile on his face and volunteers more than most students to do/answer/read anything. And I am so grateful that my first impressions of him and my reactions to him did not harm his desire to try, do, and learn.
Thank you, Michael, for teaching me a valuable lesson so early in the school year.