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Virginia Journal of Education


First Person: Narratives from the Classroom

 

Civics, Civility and Getting Along with Jen


By Amy Issadore Bloom

“Why are you so mean to me!?” Jen jumped up and yelled, after I asked her to stop talking so I could begin class.
 
She was pretty, smart and mean, with long and shiny dark hair, intense eye make-up, and a figure that attracted the attention of her eighth-grade classmates, as well as her mother’s new boyfriend. She was angry at the world. And that day, she was apparently angry at me.

Jen had a tendency to overreact, so I went out of my way to be softer with her. I knew her blow-up wasn’t about me, wasn’t about civics class, or even school. You never knew what might set her off. One day she was paying attention, doing her work, and being somewhat pleasant. The next moment she was yelling at Akash, “Get out of my space!” when he approached her desk to collect a paper.

At first I chalked up her outbursts to typical teenage behavior. She was just a little more sensitive and impulsive. None of us in that class were morning people. They were always hungry, tired, not in the mood to learn. It was a class of only 10 students, which sounds like a dream, but it took double the planning and effort to keep them engaged and to help them understand the content.

Civics was a struggle for this group of students. For starters, they were below grade level in reading comprehension. Having arrived to the country within the past few years, they also missed some crucial elementary school background on American history. Plus, they really just didn’t care. It was “so boring.”

They were all smart in their own way, but they weren’t really “into” school. Or rather, they loved school as a way to be with friends; they just didn’t like the whole learning and studying part. Despite this attitude, and an immense lack of self-control as social creatures, they were all pretty endearing. So I made exceptions: Sure you can go get a granola bar from the office. Yes, let’s talk about your cousin going to jail (and then we’ll get back to the lesson on the judicial branch of government).

Most of the time when I was “mean” the students complained, rolled their eyes, then got back on task with some prompting.

Except for Jen. She took it all so personally. Soon her moods got worse, and she had more bad days than good. Her attendance dropped. A few times she showed up smelling like alcohol. From that morning or the night before, I was never sure. I guess it didn’t matter. Rumor had it she was spending time with a gang.

Mr. Gomez, the assistant principal, was the one who tried to help her the most. He was well-liked by students. Even the troublemakers respected and liked him, as did the staff. But he, too, was at a loss with Jen.

At one point, he used McDonald’s as an incentive (perhaps a bribe). If Jen came to school a certain number of days in a row, he bought her breakfast. It worked for a little while because I saw her happily eating from those greasy paper bags.
 
Many schools are moving away from such external motivation, but we were all so desperate to keep Jen in school. At least we knew that within our walls, she’d be safe.

When Jen did show up for class, I felt a mixture of relief and dread. Relief that an eighth grader wasn’t hanging out with a gang at 9 in the morning; dread that she would not only make teaching difficult, but would turn the entire classroom into a negative space. She was extremely influential with the other female students.

One day I saw Jen getting escorted out of school by the police, and a deflated Mr. Gomez. She never came back.

A few months later, sweet and chatty Karla, who used to be close friends with Jen, was attacked in school. Supposedly Jen was behind it. I’m glad I was there to support Karla in the months that followed.

That’s when I was able to let go of my guilt about not “saving” Jen. There were so many other students who needed support, attention and guidance—students who might not have paid as much attention in class as I preferred, but were receptive and thankful.

I never found out what happened to Jen, but I do know that the other girls in that class are on their way to being the first in their families to go to college.

Issadore Bloom (bloomindc@gmail.com), a former member of the Fairfax Education Association, is now a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. You can read more of her writing by visiting her blog at www.bloomindc.com.

 

 


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