Finding a Rhythm
“How many more?” Jim asks from his open doorway down the hall.
“Only two,” I reply with a sympathetic smile. It’s Friday. In two hours, we’ll be walking our students to the bus ramp and sending them home for a much needed three-day weekend.
He sighs and slumps his shoulders, heading back into his classroom. Jim Brandon is a first-year teacher, and most days he is obviously overwhelmed. In his mid-forties, this is his second career. He loves to tell kids about fighting in Desert Storm under “the first Bush.” I often feel sorry for him, even though he is almost twenty years my senior. His students – the lower quartile math students who need remediation – tend to run all over him. They are a rough bunch. He hasn’t quite figured out the whole concept of classroom management yet. As I watch him go back into his classroom, I say a silent prayer that he makes it through the rest of the year with what little hair he has left.
I, on the other hand, am in my first career. Some days it feels as if it’s going to be the first of many. This is my third year teaching in my district, and I finally feel like I know what I’m doing. However, that certainly does not mean that I have all the answers. But what I lack in knowledge of my profession, I make up for in enthusiasm.
Teachers, it seems, are perpetual parents. I have no children (unless we were to count furry things), yet I am in the process of helping to raise one hundred forty young people. Every year, I fall in love with a brand new set of students. Many teachers would never admit to loving their students. Some actually don’t like kids at all, which to me is almost as bad as parents who don’t care about their own kids.
Walking back into my own classroom, I actually feel lucky to be doing this job. Most of my students are working on their warm-up exercise and getting ready for class to begin. Sure, there are a few who are mingling or goofing off, but that’s easily corrected with a questioning look first at their bare desk, then at the board from which they are to be copying a sentence to correct. I walk around the room silently for the first five minutes of class, simply observing them as they work, mentally noting who has good answers and can share later. The corrections to this sentence are fairly easy today – a pronoun/antecedent error, a few capitalization mistakes, some missing punctuation, and a misused homophone.
It’s February, and there are still a few people who ignore the signs posted on my wall that “a lot” is not one word and the differences between “your” and “you’re.” It’s simply laziness, but they continue to think that they can get away with it.
“Not in my classroom,” I tell them.
My students are seventh and eighth graders and range in age from twelve to nearly sixteen. I have three students who are repeating the grade they’re in for the third time. The neighborhood my school is in doesn’t technically qualify as the “ghetto,” but we certainly cater to the lower socioeconomic end of the spectrum. I have students wearing $100 sneakers who tell me that their parents cannot afford to buy them a new binder or a pack of paper.
“Okay, guys, let’s correct this thing.” Three of the twenty-six raise their hands – the same three that always offer. My one saving grace here is that they actually believe that I remember who participates and that they will lose credit if I don’t at least see their hands in the air. I also have a Smart Board, which they are still fascinated by. I call Sarah up, one of the few who never offers a response, and she quickly adds the missing period at the end of the sentence.
Sarah is one of those sad cases whose parents genuinely don’t care. She is tall for her age and has a quick temper. She and I butted heads early in the year, but a few of the famous “I’m very disappointed in you” speeches and she is now one of my biggest allies. I would take Sarah home with me if I could.
“Nice job, Kiddo. Who’s next?”
Marcus has his head buried in the newest Harry Potter novel, so I walk over and tap him on the shoulder, asking him quietly to put it down for now and to go up to the board next. He opens his mouth to refuse, but closes it with a snap. Reluctantly, he stands, pulling up his overly baggy pants as he walks toward the board. This brave soul has chosen to fix the pronoun problem, just as I knew he would.
However, his handwriting is sloppy and several of the other kids complain that they can’t read it, so he clarifies snappily, “It says ‘his or her,’ moron. You can’t use ‘their’ there because the subject is ‘everyone.’” I press my mouth into a tight line to hide my smile and send him one of those “knock it off” glares.
When I meet kids like Marcus, I realize why it is that I do this job. Kids like him make me feel like all of the bullshit I deal with on a daily basis is worth it. Maybe he reminds me a little bit of myself at that age. Maybe he reminds me of what I wished I had been – all attitude and fire. A talented athlete, wonderful student, and pure smartass, he is – even though I shouldn’t say this – one of my favorites. There are several students that I know I will hear from after they move on to high school, and this year, he’s one of them.
Our warm-up is quickly finished, and we move on into our activity for the day. Today, I’m having them brainstorm arguments for both sides a debate: “Should students at this school have to wear uniforms?” As soon as they see the question on the screen, they’re in an uproar.
“No way, man!” one cries.
“You ain’t gettin’ me in a uniform! I’ll just quit school!” yells another.
It takes me a few seconds to get them to settle down, but I’m glad they are interested. I knew this was going to be a hot button issue for them because the district has been threatening this alternative for years to help maintain the local gang influences. It’s bound to be an interesting class period.
“Okay, guys. Settle down. Take out a sheet of paper and fold it in half—”
“Hamburger or hotdog?”
I sigh. What she means to ask is do I want their paper folded vertically (like a hotdog bun) or horizontally (like… well, you get the idea). “Hotdog,” I reply, “next time raise your hand, please. Moving on: Label the right half of your paper ‘For’ and the other half ‘Against.’ Make sure you write the question at the top of the paper, please.” I give them a few seconds to complete this task. “Okay, everyone ready?”
“Do we need to draw a line down the middle where the crease is?” That’s Kate. She’s got a bit of an OCD problem, and she happens to be one of the brightest students I’ve ever taught.
“If you’d like.”
“Oh, good. That was bugging me.” She looks relieved, like drawing that line was the cure to some fatal disease that she didn’t even know she had. She pulls out a ruler and carefully draws her lifeline down the center of her paper.
By now, a group of boys in the back have begun turning their “hotdogs” into paper airplanes. I ignore it. A teacher learns to pick her battles carefully. “Okay, here’s your assignment. I’m going to give you about twenty minutes to write down answers to this question – but here’s the catch. You have to give me answers for BOTH sides of the argument, not just the one you agree with.”
“Man, why we always gotta argue on both sides?” asks the official class whiner, Larry. “Why can’t we just pick one?”
“Because that would be too easy. You should be able to anticipate the opposition.”
“Opposition.” I write it on the Smart Board. “Look it up. Two extra credit points if you bring me the definition by the end of the day.”
Marcus, who sits behind Larry, chimes in, “It means the other side of the argument, dipshit.” Of course, that last part is mumbled under his breath so I can’t hear it, but I read lips pretty well. I ignore this, too. If they weren’t friends, I would have a talk with Marcus about name-calling, but since they’re “homeboys,” I let it go.
“I want at least ten reasons on both sides of your paper. If you want to share your ideas, that’s fine, but no taking from anyone without their permission.”
They like this topic, so they work fairly quietly, scribbling down notes about why uniforms would turn them into zombies and about how it wouldn’t matter if they had to wear them anyway because they just wouldn’t come to school. It still surprises me that in the same class I can have students who are on both ends of the maturity spectrum. Some are still very naïve, while others are extremely mature. In both cases, I’m afraid for them. Many have already had a rough life, and the rest still have so much to learn.
Their twenty minutes pass quickly, and then we spend the rest of class debating the issue. They draw “For” or “Against” papers from a bucket, and we quickly go over the rules for class debate. Their assignment for homework is to turn the debate into a persuasive essay, which is what we’ve been studying for the past month.
As this class files out and the next group comes in, I stand at my door and glance down the hallway. Jim, disheveled and tired, calls, “How many more?”
I smile, shrug, and think to myself, as many as possible.