This is Episode 28 in the story of the formation, rise and fall of the little education collective that used to exist up here on our mountain. I wrote and posted this account three years ago on my blog and then pulled it off because someone whose name I had not changed, objected. Now I have changed both the name of the little school itself, and the names of everyone who might be negatively impacted, and plan to re-post the story, one episode per day, until all 32 are again on my blog.
Double or Nothing
Heck, there were only thirty-one of those seventh graders in that two-period block of student-teaching, and I didn’t even have to handle them for the first two weeks. All I had to do was sit in the back of the room, watch and listen. Ironically, there was a pleasant young man sitting at a table behind everyone else, a smaller version of the tables at which the other kids were sitting. There was a chair for a second student beside him, but the chair was empty, and I had made that my base of operations.
I was student-teaching for Marianne and she had told me that I could sit anywhere, and maneuver my way around the class, in any way that I felt comfortable doing. She said I should feel free to interact with students in any way I wished, and that there were two weeks to get acclimated, before I would begin delivering particular lessons, or directing the reading of the literature.
As I sat next to this nice kid, he filled me in on the basics, including the fact that he was the “new kid” Woodrow, and had only moved to Laytonville a couple of months earlier. There were the maximum thirty-one kids in this class, with the addition of this kid, which seemed like a lot. He told me that the kids were pretty cool, and that his grades were OK. His hair was fashionably long, and he had an earring. There was nothing in his demeanor to indicate, that he would take his place amongst the eighth grade, in a most unforeseeable manner.
Meanwhile, I got the opportunity to cruise around in the back of the classroom, and check out who the trouble-makers were, and what their technique was. I don’t know if I gained a lot during this time, but a couple of interesting things took place, that were to come back to visit me, especially when this same group, dropped by my classroom the following year for fourth period, just before lunch time.
I was pretty invisible, rarely making my presence known, and therefore, the kids tended to forget I was around. So when that nice “Hildegard” sent a note over to her friend, she forgot to send up her periscope first, to check that the coast was clear. I was standing behind and to one side, and she extended her arm off in my direction, without looking to see who would take the note, so I simply accepted it. Not until her friend looked over and gasped, did Hildegard realize her error.
I had slipped the note into my back trousers pocket, without looking at it, and was staring, transfixed at Marianne, as though her words meant everything in the world to me. When Hildegard attempted to get my attention, I casually sidled around to where there were a couple of kids with their heads bent over something that was not visible from my position in the room. They quickly stashed it, as I approached, and I walked past them and into Marianne’s office behind the classroom, and moved out of view of the glass window, so that I could examine what I had snagged from Hildegard.
The paper indicated that the girls had been making good-if not appropriate-use of their language class. It was covered with messages in two distinct sets of handwriting. The messages covered a wide range of middle school girl topics, but the series of comments that I zeroed in on, were the ones referring to cannabis. These girls were discussing some fairly sophisticated adult activities, with a casualness that belied their age.
I was well aware that the school district grappled with the complexities of an underground culture, that made its collective living by growing things above the ground, things that proved a safety net for many of the impoverished inhabitants of the region. Many’s the denizen of our hallowed hallways, who was accompanied each morning to classes by unwanted baggage. There was no way to determine for sure, who the players were, and to what extent they were impacted.
I thought fast as to what to do about the note and more importantly, its contents. If I turned it over to Marianne, thus garnering an “Attaboy,” the girls were simply dead meat. Sirens would go off; they would take their respective places on the hot seats of life. I could ignore the note, leaving them in limbo, or I could address the subject matter with them.
I took the time to reread the note, as the last few minutes dissolved and the bell rang for lunch. Clearly Hildegard was the frequent flyer, no pun intended, and the other girl, an interested party. The note was infused with questions from the one, and responses from Hildegard. She seemed pretty familiar with the topic.
As the bell rang and the kids were gyrating their way out of the classroom, I caught Hildegard’s eye, which was not hard to do, because she was obviously stressed, and simply motioned with my head for her to join me. The chaos within the classroom contrasted with her silence, as her caught-in-the-headlights countenance betrayed her thoughts.
“Am I in trouble?” was what she asked.
“Oh, I think only you can answer that,” I responded. “There’s a lot going on in this note.” The class was now empty, except for Marianne, sitting at her desk, copying the results form an assignment into her grade book. She looked inquiringly at me for a second, but I waved dismissively at her and she returned to her grades.
Obviously not what she expected to hear, Hildegard asked, “What is that supposed to mean? You’re the one who writes referrals.”
“I mean that there are different types of “trouble” that you might get into, and some are more important than others. If I write a referral and your parents are informed, then that’s one type of trouble. However, you are probably thirteen years old, and you are messing around with something that can cause problems in the big picture, and I see that as a different sort of trouble.”
“Yeah, but one will get me thrown off the basketball team and the other one won’t.”
“Are you sure about that second part? All I am saying, is that you need to make wise choices and by becoming too dependent on something like this, you do not give your own personality an opportunity to develop. As an adult, you are in a better position to decide whether or not to partake.”
“Does this mean you’re not going to write me up?” I had been twirling this question around in my head but had not formed a final decision.
“Technically, writing a note is not worth a referral and the content of the note, whereas it is serious, is not an infraction since you didn’t bring any with you.” That may or may not have been true.
“So, no referral?” I saw the advantages of having this knowledge without divulging it to the staff. I was well aware of Hildegard’s family situation, and Hildegard’s knowledge in this area would come as no surprise. If I were going to survive this student-teaching experience, I was going to need some allies.
“I think I am going to play double or nothing with you. That means if I never hear your name in connection with cannabis again, then end of discussion. However, if you bring it to school or are connected in any way with it, then I produce this note, and it gets tossed into the mix for you to explain. Does that sound reasonable?”
I did net that ally. In fact, the following year, when I was to teach this same class as eighth graders, the two kids I mentioned in this excerpt ended up as two of my five anarchists. We did well together during that eighth grade year, the seeds of communication and trust, having been sewn in this, my inaugural experience with them. I have always felt that Hildegard reaped more gain from this decision, than she ever would have, if I had written the referral.
It allowed me to know that open and honest communication could be a two-way street, and that as we approached intersections, there was a better possibility of avoiding collisions, if I could continue to foster this sense of trust.