As a former elementary school principal and rural junior high teacher, I knew that the teachers would gang up on a kid just because of his family background. But I was a little surprised at how blatant these teachers were, and especially about their undisguised racism. I spent a good deal of time thinking about this and becoming angrier at these particular teachers. There was no one I could talk with about the situation since my principal had basically told me to do what the teachers wanted or be prepared to hit the road. I had just finished an MA in Education where the faculty knew a great deal but were not available for practical help. I remembered in my reading somewhere that I should try the hardest to understand the people who bothered me the most. What would it like to walk in their shoes within their minds?
At about this point, I came to the realization that the teachers really needed emotional support to help them handle their fear of a black kid and his family. The teachers operated from their feelings, not from any kind of analysis of evidence. And I understood this. Unless you have been mocked by a bunch of 7th graders when you are trying to teach them some Math, you don’t really know how angry and desirous of corporal punishment you could be. I remembered during my first week at my first job as a teacher at a private Episcopal school, one 7th grader just wouldn’t shut up when I was trying to teach. I didn’t have any training so I would simply stop teaching and ask him politely to pay attention. I added that he was now sitting in a Junior High School style chair that was designed so students could take notes. Since he had neither listened respectfully nor taken notes at any prior point in his life, it was a fairly unreasonable request. My next move as I became angrier was to actually yell at him, “Shut up!”
He was proud of his skill at driving teachers nuts, as are many adolescents and kept interrupting me and making noises by rocking back and forth in his desk so it squeeked in a nice rhythmic way, whistling the Star Spangled Banner softly, over and over again and occasionally burping loudly. Once he even chucked a Frisbee across the classroom when I was writing on the board. I could tell my command of the classroom and the respect of the other non-rebellious students was at stake. I tried to hold my temper but just couldn’t pull it off. The next time he opened his mouth I calmly walked towards him, picked up the desk he was sitting in (with him in it) carried him and the desk to door, kicked the door open and chucked them both out into a bank of ivy. The class was silent.
After about 15 minutes I checked on him and let him drag his desk back in. He was better behaved but not perfect the rest of the day. The next morning the parents were at my door to apologize for their son’s disruptive behavior. He had evidently told them what I did and they let him have it for not shutting up when I asked him to.
They confided that he was hyperactive and couldn’t really control himself. I thought for a moment and said I thought he would be ok.
“Do you mean it?” cried the mother. She turned to her husband in tears and said, “Did you hear that Charlie? He thinks our son will be ok! Oh, thank you Mr. Rich.”
Of course I had no idea if he would be ok. But I learned that people in the role of teacher are ascribed incredible knowledge, insight and power from some in the world. From others, teachers are just cogs in the great machine of schooling. I was grateful not to be fired and the principal suggested I not throw kids out the door anymore. But this was a private school. Parents were grateful to be able to pay for their children to attend and bought in completely to the ideology of the institution, although it was true that throwing a kid in his desk out the door was out of line. I probably would have fired myself if I had been principal then.
But now I was in a very different situation. I was the new Junior High Vice Principal and the teachers were afraid of a black kid and his family and working hard together to get him expelled. I knew I understood them to a certain extent but I didn’t have a solution to this problem. I had suggested to them that his offenses weren’t that serious but they were not about to relent.