First Person: Narratives from the Classroom
Handle with Care
By Amy Issadore Bloom
“Maybe the fish is just sleeping,” I suggested.
Barry, a first-grader, looked up at me sympathetically and said, “Nah, that fish is dead.”
The rest of the children agreed, yet continued to tap on the bowl. Nobody fed the class fish over the weekend, or left one of those food pellets for him, so the little guy was belly up on Monday.
I was trying to protect the students from getting upset, but for many, this wasn’t the type of thing that upset them. Like so many children growing up in poverty, they were wise beyond their years.
By first grade, several had a father or uncle in jail, or knew someone who had been shot. They had pregnant teenage sisters or cousins.
Inspired by his father who was recently out of prison, Barry tried to wear his pants low and strut through the hallway. But, in our small school, students wore uniforms and teachers didn’t tolerate that style or attitude.
Barry was energetic, stubborn and moody. He was also a fast learner, adorable and affectionate. He was one of my favorites. Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites, but we all do. The trick is to treat them all like favorites.
I spent a lot of time helping a teacher who had a nice, yet firm way with the students. They respected her. Ms. Smith also looked like their mothers, their aunts - women they were accustomed to listening to.
I, on the other hand, looked different, and not just because I wasn’t African-American. Jamea once looked me up and down and declared, “You little. Are you a teenager?” I was actually 28 years old.
I was a teaching assistant who sailed in with no experience except as a camp counselor and sporadic volunteer work. I was between jobs, and in a bit of a career crisis. This was my opportunity to “try” teaching before committing to a graduate school program.
I played games with the students. I taught them songs. I let the girls play with my hair. I didn’t know about starting off strict. I didn’t know how to manage a room full of inner-city students.
They were wild as soon as Ms. Smith left the room. One day I caught Barry drawing with marker on a chair. I was angry, and it was obvious.
He ran to a corner of the classroom. When I approached, he looked up with those incredible big brown eyes, and pleaded, “Please don’t hit me.”
I’m not sure how I didn’t just sit down and weep. Or how I didn’t pick him up right then, carry him out of school, and bring him home to live with me - safe from whoever instilled that fear in him.
I knelt down, hugged him, and explained that although I was mad and disappointed, I would never raise a hand to him. I promised Barry that school was a safe place.
That same year, I remember a parent being called to come pick up his son, who was out of control. The boy was aggressive, agitated. He was not yet receiving any special education services. But regardless of official labels, a kindergartner who throws a chair because he didn’t get another turn during a game, or wanted the blue marker, certainly needs some extra help and attention.
His father came to the school, probably more annoyed at being called away from whatever he was doing than at his son’s behavior. As he walked down the hall to the kindergarten classroom, he began unbuckling his belt. I was horrified. Some people grow up with that type of discipline, a he-needs-a-whuppin’ mentality. “Tradition” or not, it has no place in the halls of an elementary school.
How am I supposed to carry on with my own lesson plan after that, as if it’s just another day at work? How do I not only keep my students on task, but keep myself focused as well?
We cannot expect students to listen to us and follow directions when all they know is coercion, threats and corporal punishment. We cannot assume they are learning right from wrong at home.
We need time and flexibility in our lessons to teach students how to react appropriately to their feelings, and how to be a part of a community. Teaching in this atmosphere is often an uphill battle, a balancing act. We cannot do it alone. We need the support of our administrators, counselors and community leaders.
Above all, it’s imperative that we create an atmosphere of kindness, trust and professionalism - not just for the sake of students, but for our own sanity. That way, when we when we want to yell or cry or quit, at least we have each other.