(Continued from Wednesday, September 4 . . . )
The four weeks between my walking innocently into the seventh-grade classroom and my taking tyrannical control remain chaotic in my mind. Just this morning, in a final dream before waking, I experienced again the bedlam that was that classroom. I woke in an irrational panic at having to write about the experience.
Each school day for four weeks I entered that classroom filled with anxiety, knowing that most students would refuse to listen to anything I said. Between January 18 and February 12 of 1960, total mayhem reigned supreme. Mine was a voice in the wilderness.
Battle of Gettysburg by Thure de Thulstrup
From the daylong quizzes I’d given on our first day together, I discovered what the students did and didn’t know about all the subject areas of that year. I found topics I could teach from scratch; others I could supplement.
On the second day I took from the classroom closet all the books their previous teacher had collected right before Christmas. All the while, I wondered why she’d gone through the textbooks so quickly and what she’d planned to do with the students for the remainder of the year.
As I distributed the books, many students threw them on the floor or sailed them through the air. They thudded against desks. Chalkboards. Windows. Students ducked while others yelled in pain when a book hit its target. I let them lie where they landed and tried to teach.
Battle of Gibraltar of 1607 by Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen
I wanted to introduce a topic from one of the quizzes, ask the students questions about it, use their answers to ask other questions, get all the students involved, and relate the learning to their lives. In other words, I wanted to emulate the way I’d been taught by gifted teachers.
A few students—both girls and boys—paid attention. Amidst the din, they leaned forward from their desks to listen.
What did the others do?
They sang rowdy songs, painted their nails, practiced pitching a hardball, styled one another’s hair, played marbles on the floor.
Ron and his gang started a game of poker, shouting their bets, stomping their feet, whooping. When the winner of each round slammed his palms down on his desk, the whole room quaked.
Battle of Waterloo 1815 by William Sadler
By the end of that second day I felt distraught. At my wit’s end. Unglued. I sought out Sister Brendan, the principal as well as the superior at the convent. Haltingly, fearful that she’d send me back to the monastery in disgrace—the first nun in nearly 100 years who didn’t know how to teach—I recounted what had happened that second day. Her eighth-grade classroom was across from my seventh-grade one, so she must have heard the din of shouting and upheaval throughout the day, but I needed to ask for help.
After listening intently to my sorry tale, Brendan said, “Sister Innocence, I could come into your classroom tomorrow and take control. But as soon as I walked out, you’d lose it again. They'll only feel contempt for you because they'll see you don't know what to do. They'll have won."
“But what can I do to get control?” I asked. “Just tell me that. I’ve never taken an education course. What do I do?”
“A classroom like yours isn’t covered in education courses,” she said. “You’re just got to figure this out on your own.” Then she told me not to talk about any of this with the other nuns. She didn't want to lower their morale or ruin my reputation.
I felt I'd already entered the madhouse.
( . . . continued on Wednesday, September 18)
Three paintings of battles from Wikipedia.