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Virginia Journal of Education


First Person: Narratives from the Classroom


The Middle Years

By Amy Issadore Bloom


“Fight! Fight!”  They swarm like bees and form a circle.

It’s just like in the movies.

I was down the hall in my classroom when I heard the commotion. The first period bell hadn’t rung yet.

Even if I weren’t pregnant, I probably wouldn’t have gotten involved. I’m a petite woman—most of the middle-schoolers were bigger than me. Plus, I just don’t have the stomach for violence. I watched a good chunk of The Sopranos with my hands over my eyes.

I didn’t realize it was Karla, one of my students. She was attacked by another female student—a friend of a girl who Karla had smartly distanced herself from. Maybe it was retaliation for ending the friendship. Maybe it was a gang thing. Who knows how the mind of a troubled teenage girl works?

The attacker was tough, and in trouble already—as in ankle bracelet trouble. Poor Karla. Although mouthy at times, she didn’t have the fight in her. She managed to escape without any serious injuries, though a pencil came frighteningly close to her eye.

Her best friend, Cynthia, witnessed the whole thing. She was upset by the violence, by not being able to help her friend. She wanted, it seemed, to talk to me. What could I say? I hugged her, told her there was nothing she could have done to prevent it or stop it.

And there it was, the connection I was missing from my elementary teaching days, where children trust much easier. I had frequently questioned my capability as a teacher when I transitioned to middle school. With the little ones, the trust, the connections, happen almost instinctively. I worked in small groups, or co-taught, so discipline was never too challenging. I also taught many of the same students several years in a row, so I knew them well, with all their “issues.” I knew when to take what they told me seriously, and when to let it go.

Middle school was a whole new thing. They look so mature, these girls. They develop quickly physically, and we forget sometimes they are really only children, still 13 or 14 years old. They’re living in that awkward limbo, torn between being children and adults. I was often unsure how to treat them, how to discipline them, how much freedom to give them.

I had so many more students passing through my room each day. Classroom management was a constant struggle. Despite longer class periods, it seemed like we never had enough time to cover the required material.

The class that Karla and Cynthia were in was small, but one of my most challenging from a behavior management standpoint. They were a chatty bunch, and full of explosive emotion. I finally began allocating time in my lessons to let them talk, share and vent a bit. I even put it up on the board with our daily agenda.

I consider it part of my job:  listening to the “gossip,” getting involved.  It’s the part some of us like best, and others loath. Some teachers just want to teach, to focus solely on academics. Personally, I like the mentoring role. But, like so many educators, in my classroom it often took a back seat to my other priorities.

Karla told me that she was afraid of this girl. She told me someone threatened her. I didn’t think it was serious. She’s prone to exaggeration, as are so many teenage girls. Everything is the end of the world. I encouraged her to talk to the guidance counselor. But, perhaps I should have followed up.

When the students in Karla and Cynthia’s class met again the next day, we spent a lot of time talking about the fight. They needed to get it out, to tell me their version.

A fist fight is bad enough. But to try to stab another girl in the eye with a pencil—that took it to another level, legally. The school did a good job convincing Karla’s family to press charges. Immigrant families are often hesitant to get involved at all with the police, even if their children are here legally. They don’t trust them; they haven’t been treated well in the past.

And so yet again, when Karla came in and told me that she would need to go to court, I abandoned my lesson plan so we could talk. Karla and Cynthia would have to testify about what happened. I tried to help them prepare:  Dress like you’re going to church. Be respectful, especially to the judge. Do not interrupt him. Don’t chew gum. Don’t roll your eyes. Try not to be scared. 

They might not have aced the Civics SOL, but I’m sure they learned a lot about our judicial system.

Issadore Bloom, a former member of the Fairfax Education Association, is now a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. Read more of her writing at www.bloomindc.com.


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