In the midst of my frustration in trying to control a class of 20 students who want to undermine me (and everything else), I sometimes fail to see the struggles that they go through. It’s too easy to feel my own pains and difficulties. Rarely do I catch a glimpse of theirs.
In the middle of my day, I have a student who has always been the top of his class. Sitting in the middle of a classroom full of loud, angry, rebellious children, he was one of two in that class that actually wanted to learn. He worked extra hard to get something meaningful out of my most turbulent class.
I noticed a sudden change in his behavior a few months back. He became withdrawn–keeping his head down and fidgeting with things on his desk. He no longer did his work. I received word that he was attending a counseling group for those who have lost family members.
Then he started acting out. He became loud and problematic–provoking others to fight him and disrupting my teaching. For the first time ever, I had to threaten to call his mom… and then follow through with it. I left several messages for her until one day she showed up at school.
He was having a particularly bad day. Everyone in the class was picking on him for not wearing socks. He had already been the subject of talk for wearing Wal-Mart brand shoes instead of Nike Jordans or the like. As someone who grew up barefoot, I couldn’t even begin to understand how this mattered. But to too many of my students, it means everything.
Before they picked on him about shoes and socks, they had picked on him for how bad he smelled. Thank God, I have a terrible sense of smell, because apparently a number of my students are quite rank. But I never notice. I’ve just been warned that the ones that never take their coats off, are most likely the ones that smell.
I met his mother in the front office during my planning period. He was with her, fidgeting with his hoodie strings in a nervous way. I smiled warmly and began by saying as many positive things as possible, “I know your son is a very bright boy and he was doing so well at the beginning of the year, but I’ve seen a change in him recently and he’s falling behind in work.”
That set the mother off. She turned on him in the front office like she had just heard that he had murdered someone. The boy’s hands were shaking like leaves as he twisted and tied his strings in silence. But he kept his chin up and his eyes on her face as a show of respect. He had a very dignified look about him that masked the fear, which was evident in his hands working the hoodie strings.
His mother tore into him for quite a while as I stood by. I couldn’t betray her parental rights, but it hurt me to watch.
In the hopes of looking for more positive resolutions, I asked, “Is there something I can do to help him focus better in class. Perhaps moving his seat–”
But my plan backfired as she cut me off to turn on him again, saying, “Why is your teacher having to ask me how to keep you on task? You should know how to behave in class. She should not have to ask how to get you to focus.”
After the boy returned to class, I asked the mother, “Is there something going on that I should know about? He didn’t used to act this way. I just want to make sure I’m sensitive to anything.”
“Oh,” She said, as if to shrug it all off, “He’s just upset. See, he used to live in a car with his father, but his father died of cancer, so now he’s living in the shelter with me… but that is NO excuse for his behavior in class.”
Suddenly so many things made sense. I didn’t want to contradict the mother, so I politely said goodbye and made a mental note to only ever say nice things to her about how her son is doing.