Chapter 11: The Supreme Pleasure of Getting it Right

We teachers all have incredible stories to tell, each one illustrating the uncanny ability we had in dealing with difficult school situations. Maybe they are inside jokes, but we know a good one when we hear it, and there are those days where success comes in unexpected ways.

Every middle school teacher knows that late afternoon classes for adolescents can be perilously close to catastrophe. I was teaching away one day in front of a TV monitor, quite pleased with myself, when the first spitball whizzed past my face. It landed on the TV screen. Another landed on the board to my right, and others, coming in fast and furiously, were aimed at the ceiling and walls. This was a pretty good class, so at first I ignored them thinking those responsible would stop. From time to time I would get a glimpse of the perpetrators from those famous teacher eyes at the back of my head. They were usually good kids. Unwilling to give them any attention for their acts, but sensing the class’s frustration, I finally had no choice but to use my fiercest teacher voice and snap, “Cut it out!” The spitballs stopped, and the class went on. Then something very strange happened.

It is an unwritten law that teenagers never squeal on their friends, but this class was mad and couldn’t wait to tell me who did it. When the bell rang and the class ended, one by one the students walked past me, betraying their fellow classmates. Of course, I already knew that Jeff and Ivan were the guilty ones. With the class united behind me, I knew I had to take some stand against this behavior. It took an hour, but I scraped off every spitball but one from the walls and ceilings. The last one I thought of as the “memorial spitball,” and it stayed there for years until the room was painted. I put the collected spitballs into two boxes and covered them with bright wrapping paper.

The next day the class entered somberly, waiting to see the fate of the guilty ones. Were they going to detention, suspension, or what? Was I, the teacher, going to exact revenge? I asked the two boys to stand up in class. The quiet was deafening; in fact, I never had a class so quiet. I told the boys that I had a gift for each of them. I heard some grumbling from the class – something about the bad guys getting a gift. I had the boys open their presents and display the contents to the class. When the class saw all the spit-balls, they simultaneously burst into applause.

One of the most important units I taught all year was a Social Justice Unit. I felt that some of the most serious problems in middle school, as in real life, involved prejudice, racism, sexism, and homophobism. This unit spoke to harassment of any sort. I taught this curriculum after winter break because, by that time in the school year, my classes usually were working well together and could share their thoughts freely without embarrassment. We spent a good deal of time in this unit discussing what it is like being different and what it feels like to be harassed because of your differences. One year we were well into the unit when an incident occurred outside the classroom that would have a remarkable affect on all my classes.

One of my students, Ramon, had autism. He was very bright, but responded to oral stimuli very slowly and often appeared unresponsive. His learning disability was in writing and expressive thought, and he could be obsessive about things. The students tolerated him but mostly ignored his presence. A handsome and very popular male student, usually found surrounded by female students, was fairly impatient with Ramon. He was known throughout the school as a bully.

One day, in the hallway outside of class, in a voice intentionally loud enough to attract attention, he called Ramon a “retard.” Ramon had been called this his entire school life, but this time he had had enough. He decided to do something about his constant persecution. He wrote a letter describing, in his own words, what it felt like to be picked on and laughed at. He didn’t use the name of his persecutor, but everyone knew who it was. It was a beautiful letter and must have been very difficult for Ramon to write. In it, he poignantly described what it was like to be autistic. He talked of being slow but not dumb, and of smiling a lot even though his feelings were being hurt, because he did not want his tormenters to feel that they had won. It was one of the most impressive pieces of writing I had ever received as a teacher. This was a very moving letter, and I wanted desperately to share it with the class. I asked Ramon’s permission and he agreed, but he did not want to read it aloud himself. Here was the ultimate “teachable moment,” and I was going to use it to the fullest.

I read the letter to the class, very slowly, and with the honest emotion I was feeling. Occasionally I would look up and see a student’s face, and I knew the class was taking this letter very seriously. Most of the girls were crying when I was finished, and so was I. I could teach social justice every year for the rest of my life, but only Ramon could push it into an unforgettable moment. The class rushed to his defense and apologized for the cruelty shown him. They wrote him letters sharing their thoughts, and I doubt if Ramon had ever before been surrounded by so much love. I wanted to read his letter to my other classes, and not only did Ramon agree but this time he read it to them himself. The next year I invited him back to read it again, and I noticed how confident he had become. Ramon had taught us all so much. Did the class bully change? I think so. Although he never admitted to inflicting hurt, he did apologize. Maybe something good was percolating inside him.

Just keeping one step ahead of today’s children is a monumental achievement. One student, who was something of a class clown, got tired of having his name called out all the time, so we devised a means whereby I could let him know when it was time to calm down. Instead of calling out his name I would quietly say, “Abercrombie and Fitch.” It worked for him, but the rest of the class would freeze, stop what they doing, and look at me as if I was crazy. It turned out that “Abercrombie and Fitch” caused all class work to come to a halt.

On Halloween I brought in a wax candle in the shape of a hand that dripped blood red wax as it melted. I put the sound of a beating heart on a tape recorder, turned off the lights, and read excerpts from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado”. I reveled in such a teachable day.

Each year on February 14th I recited the romantic poets to my class. Of course, the poetry they preferred and appreciated was more in the form of rap music or Brittany Spears at her worst. It was a difficult task bringing them back to another century with a different civility and strange idioms of language. However, I heroically faced my adolescents each Valentine’s Day with Shakespearian sonnets, Wordsworthian odes and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s love songs to Robert Browning. I recited “How do I love thee, let me count the ways…” in a deliberately slow and seductive way. Then I would compare this poem with the lyrics of an average rap: “Come here bitch, I love your booty.” This was met with laughter and applause. They knew the difference.

Nothing like having a riveted audience at least twice a year!

I once took over a class from a teacher who allowed the students to call her by her first name. This was during the time when teachers wanted their students to be their “friends.” I was not my students’ friend. I was their teacher and so I insisted that the class call me by my last name. One student just couldn’t give up the first name idea and insisted that I tell her my name. I told her that she could call me Mrs. Passman or she could call me “Your Highness!” She thought it over and for the next two months she unrelentingly addressed me as your “Your Highness.” I was just about at my wit’s end when she conceded.

Another interesting moment came early in my first year of teaching middle school. One student who seemed to be somewhat of a leader in the room decided she didn’t want to sit at a desk and preferred the floor instead. She chose a corner and sat there. The question was, should I interrupt the class to go one-on-one with her, or should I let her revolt pass and see where she went with it? What if the entire class decided to sit on the floor? I decided to gamble, and I let her sit there. Fortunately the class was pretty smart and decided that it was too cold and dirty on the floor to follow suit. This left her pretty much on her own, and in a couple of days she returned to her desk. I learned that it was going to be a long year if I didn’t win this student over, and she learned that pushing my buttons wasn’t going to be that easy. Years later I received a phone call from her, and it seems she was becoming a history teacher because she liked my class so much.

All of these moments could be looked at as assaults on my classroom control, but I never thought about them that way. I considered them as student challenges that energized me. Rather than use a confrontational approach, I tried to see these incidents from the student’s point of view. We both went a round or two and then settled into a communal respect for one another. I loved those moments in the classroom when my students learned what I was about while I gained some information about them. There was a mutual connection with one another that always excited me.

Each year I held a mental contest with myself to see how long I could go without sending a student to the detention room. Removing a child from the classroom meant that I had failed this child in some way. If he or she were not present, how could they learn anything? The classroom is a miniature world, and my students and I spent a lot of time together. In this world getting along with each other was essential.

I always gave my home telephone number to my students and their families. If there was any way for me to help a student with homework or answer any question that a parent might have, I would rather talk it over in the evening than have the student spend an uncomfortable night worrying about a problem that could probably be solved with just a few words over the phone.

To say that I loved teaching is to understate it. In a perfect world all teachers would feel the same way about their careers. This may not be possible, but it is realistic to expect that teachers who do should receive the respect they have earned and have the security of knowing that they are supported both financially and professionally. But the strange thing is, if we truly love what we are doing, we continue to do it in spite of the swirling winds around us. I would not have traded my job for more money or acclaim because it meant too much to me. However, wouldn’t it be ideal if I taught on a “planet where education was the only thing that mattered?”