A Mutually Beneficial Arrangement
There were thirty-one of them, eighth graders in all their wondrous glory: humorous, witty, sarcastic, a tad rowdy, and they were mine fourth period. I had them “in isolation,” teacher talk for a class that I saw for only one period a day.
They weren’t my homeroom, I was the new teacher on the block, and as one of them succinctly put it one day in the library, when he did not think I could overhear him, “We got rid of the last two and we’ll get rid of this one, too.”
Unfortunately, there was a thread of truth to his boast, in that the previous year, as seventh graders, they had experienced their homeroom teacher quitting in mid-stream. Actually, she made it until some point in April, before matters got out-of-hand, and she pulled the plug.
The potato stuffed into his tailpipe, that last day of school, sealed the deal. The man was as demoralized as any teacher I had ever encountered, but that did not include the just-departed homeroom teacher who had bailed out.
I did not lack for confidence, I had grown out my flaming red beard, and I had decided there was to be no first-name business. I was Mr. O’Neill, or Mr. O, if you preferred. I made my expectations clear, I never even remotely got close to losing my cool, and I treated the little jabonies with a respect that they could not help returning.
Says so in the manual, page twelve, paragraph four, subsection C: If you give them a modicum of respect, they will return it tenfold. I had my black, three-ring binder, into which I would place class sheets, so that I could indicate lapses in appropriate behavior, with a delicate little checkmark.
I would ask the class for attention, wait quietly for a reasonable time (long enough to stroll casually over to my desk for the binder), and then open the binder and start arbitrarily looking out over the class with my pencil poised to strike.
Magically, the hubbub came to a halt, every single time.
No drama, no muss, no fuss, smile plastered on my face, I watched the beast shudder, shake its massive head one last time, and settle down for a fifty-minute siesta, only it had to actually keep its eyelids propped open.
I was gently chastised once, by the venerable Brian Buckley, superintendent at the time, for writing a referral for one of these same eighth graders, during a formal observation. The issue was not the referral, or the reason for the referral, but rather, the fact that when I handed the slip of orange paper to the student, I had the unmitigated gall to smile.
“It sends a mixed message to the student,” Mr. B explained.
Was I ever shocked to hear myself patiently explaining to the man who had been responsible for hiring me, that I had to disagree with him. If I make my expectations crystal clear, I said, and if the student makes a bad choice, then I am merely the dispenser of bad news, nothing more, nothing less.
For me to assume either an angry expression or one which indicated displeasure, was to make it a personal thing. My more benign expression was simply meant to indicate-if anything-a sense of mild regret, but certainly not anger.
Student Tony validated this attitude on my part once, by asking me in front of the class, just after he had earned a three-step referral, “Now, Mr. O, was this for being inappropriately unacceptable, or unacceptably inappropriate?” He was laughing when he asked the question.
If the person in the front of the class, manages to somehow suppress the desire to bolt for the door, and then actually directs the class in a forward manner, then all is a great success, because the little darlings are trapped.
Their parents, the state mandate, our culture, or for whatever reason, those 31 students were trapped between 11:25 and 12:15, for 180 days that year, in Room 21. In case you ever wondered, 31 eighth graders can form any number of little cliches, within a short period of time.
This class featured one small group, who proudly identified with anarchism; those five were my very own anarchists, which means they did not believe in rules. Don’t you just love diversity?
That’s where freedom of choice comes in, big time. You can play the anarchist if you are willing to pay the piper, in this case Pinkie, who ran detention with an iron fist, but one that was coated with love and understanding. No one, and I mean no one in the history of the universe, ever gave Pinkie a hard time. She would have won every time.
So hey, anarchists, give it your best shot! In point of fact, on the last day of the school year, these five sat around, comparing notes. Specifically, they were counting those orange referrals to see who came out on top. Of the five, four were male and one was a girl.
The girl, whose name shall mercifully remain unmentioned, took top honors.
And here is the point of this little story towards which I have been heading. On the last day of school, prior to Christmas break, moments after this savagely tame beast had vacated my classroom, I was sitting at my desk for just a moment, simply reveling in my success.
I was congratulating myself on having survived the first half, when the door suddenly burst open and my female anarchist came blasting in, the full impact of 120 middle schoolers out in the quad, creating a hurricane of energy.
Surprised at nothing anymore, or so I thought, I simply raised my eyebrows slightly, in a questioning look. I did not see the little wrapped Christmas present until the last second, and then I was flummoxed.
“Here, Mr. O!” was all she said, and just like that, she had raced back out.
Nothing, and I mean nothing, could have surprised me more. I thought this girl hated my guts. I knew this was not her mom, behind the scenes. I knew it was this girl’s idea. Then it hit me like the proverbial lead balloon. Duh. No self-respecting anarchist would give a teacher a gift. Other kids did, but those were generally the “good” kids. Was it possible she did not hate me?
Later, I joked about what was in the package. There was no heft to it, as though it were just an empty box. “I guess empty is better than what it might have in it,” I joked. “Scorpions don’t weigh much,” I suggested.
Being a hardcore traditionalist, I waited until Christmas morning to open the gift. Again, though I thought I was ready for anything, I was not prepared for the exquisite glass reindeer ornament that was in the package. No wonder it had felt empty.
A tsunami wave of emotion cascaded over me, leaving me dazed and confused, and infinitely delighted. I was told afterwards, that the range of expressions flowing over my features, had no limits.
To this day, when we set up the tree, I seek this ornament out, and allow that emotion to once more envelop me, and think back to those kids with no rules. And then I ruminate about my own life.
Something tells me I learned as much from those anarchists, as they learned from me.