Wednesday, September 11, 2013

My Sojourn in the Asylum


(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.

52 comments:

  1. Sounds like it was quite the madhouse indeed, something you'd see acted out in movies. At least no cellphones back then haha

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    1. Dear Pat, you're right as usual, cellphones would have made a difference in the classroom. And the movie that this reminded me of at the time was "Blackboard Jungle," which I'd seen a few years before this. Peace.

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  2. I have to say this: you deserved instruction. You were entitled to advice. This is analogous to medieval surgery. Apparently no one knew and no one would say "lets figure it out." Lower their morale or ruin your reputation my aunt's fanny.

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    1. Dear Joanne, what the superior said did take me aback, but I so wanted to live the vows I'd taken a little over two weeks before that I accepted whatever she said as part of my being obedient and living that vow. I truly was naive and an innocent. Well named! Peace.

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  3. I can't imagine how you 'hung in there' with so much chaos, noise, and bedlam, Dee. I also find it hard to reconcile the advice you were given to figure it out for yourself. I am eager to continue reading how this process evolved for you. It seems obvious that the students were completely testing you, and I have confidence that in the end you gained their trust and the story surely doesn't end with defeat. But I'll be back to see how you gained the authority you needed to create an effective learning community. This is an incredible story, Dee. ox Debra

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    1. Dear Debra, I wonder how so many readers--like you--can think that I "gained their trust." As you'll see in next Wednesday's posting, that first year ended up with my having little to be proud of. Peace.

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  4. WHAT DID YOU DO? I know, wait until Wednesday!!

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    1. Dear Fishducky, you know that I try to keep all my posting at fewer than 600 words. So this story is taking several postings. But I do plan that this coming Wednesday I'll share what ultimately happened in that classroom. I'll need to write as I always do and then edit and edit and edit. And if I need 1,200 words more or less, I think I'm going to post two days in a row! Peace.

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  5. Although I see some wisdom in her telling you that you needed to do this on your own to gain the respect of the students, I do wish she had taken a more active mentoring role with you. Madhouse is an apt description at this point, but somehow I know you have something up your sleeve that will tame this wild bunch!

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    1. Dear Shelly, she was absolutely right that I needed to gain the respect of the students. And at the time I simply accepted what she said. Now, all these many years later--53--I know that she could have mentored me from the sidelines and the students would never have known the difference. Peace.

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  6. It broke my heart when students threw books on the floor in my classroom.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. Dear Janie, I am so sorry that you had to go through something like this also. I know that many teachers today step into classrooms that are much worse than I had back in 1960, and I always wonder at the fortitude that these teachers must have to endure. Peace.

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  7. Dee, I know I'll have to wait till next Wednesday, dang!!! Anyway, the advise she gave you and and the pending threat of "ruin your reputation" just makes me sad. As a recovering Catholic, I can just feel the guilt that was being tossed around.... I know you survived, because you're here...but oooh gosh....

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    1. Dear Turquoisemoon, yes, the guilt because I thought no other teacher/nun at the monastery had ever had trouble teaching. I was so young. So naive. And so unrealistic! Peace.

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  8. You are a mistress of suspense! I can't imagine how you had the wherewithal to stick it out, but I'm certain you came up with a very clever solution. I can't wait to hear what it was.

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    1. Dear Kari, this coming Wednesday I'll tell the rest of this sorry tale. And if I can't get the rest done in 600 words, I'll post on both Wednesday and Thursday! Peace.

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  9. another cliffhanger! but but but. I guess I will just have to wait.
    I am certainly enjoying your story.

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    1. Dear Mimi, I've responded to both Kari and Fishducky with regard to the waiting. All will be revealed next Wednesday and, if necessary, Thursday. I'm glad you're enjoying the story. Peace.

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  10. I am so not warming to Sister Brendan. Half right, more than half cruel and manipulative as well.
    Indeed you had to do it for yourself, but some assistance should have been part (a big part) of her role. And the moral blackmail she added? Hiss and spit.
    I am so glad that you are stronger than you knew (or know?) and survived. So very glad.

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    1. Dear EC, for most of my life I thought of myself as pretty much a milquetoast kind of person. No backbone. The truth was that I never liked myself much. After all, if my parents could leave me when I was five, I mustn't be worth much, I thought. And that thought stayed with me--glued like a barnacle to my psyche--until I was in my sixties.

      Only in the last ten years have I come to recognize that there is a strength to me. And that sometimes I can be indomitable. I suspect that strength came at birth when I was born with asthma and had to spend the first weeks in the hospital back in 1936. Until I was eight, I fought with asthma and held on to life. And I think that has stayed with me. Peace.

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  11. This IS the madhouse! I can't wait to find out how you got out of this... :-)

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    1. Dear DJan, I didn't realize how bad it was until that summer when I returned to the Mount for three months. I'll post about that realization after I complete the story of the classroom in another couple of postings. Peace.

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  12. Oh My Gosh.... Not sure what I would have done in that situation --but I probably would not have kept my 'cool'.... I might have even knocked some kids on their behinds!!!!! I'm sure that was not to be done though... Gads--- Hope you found some good answers as to what to do with them... What a horrible experience. Hope it turned out to be a FINE one for you though in the end. Can't wait to hear more!
    Hugs,
    Betsy

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    1. Dear Betsy, I did, with help, find some answers. I'll share that next Wednesday or Thursday. Peace.

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  13. Good grief! They were no help at all. Useless!!

    I would never have been able to have all that going on without getting angry and demanding their attention somehow...but then, what do you do? The first thing I thought of was if they couldn't even behave like first graders and didn't know how to sit quietly in their seats that we wouldn't do anything but work on that until they could act like students. Write a list of what was expected on the board when they came in--silence--or maybe shock them somehow--taking things away. No wonder the books were locked in the cupboard! What a madhouse! Since the principal didn't really help--send the worst ones to the principal--LOL! My mind is going wild trying to think of what could be done--but that depends on the room and the kids. You have to win over or control the worst trouble makers. I do know that...the leaders....

    Anyways, automatically just thinking out loud and dying to know what happened in the bedlam!!! Talk about stress! Carzy--just crazy--that they were allowed to get that bad in the first place and the other teachers gave you no practical advice!!! You were brand new as a teacher!! How awful, Dee. :(

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    1. Dear Rita, I wish you'd been with me back in January 1960. I bet you could have cut a swath through those fifty-five students, separated those who wanted to learn from those who didn't and then shown who was boss! Peace.

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  14. How unfair to leave you to sink or swim. My daughter hss been a pupil in classes like this where the teacher has to spend all the timr doing crowd control rather thsn teaching.

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    1. Dear Annie, I'm sorry to learn that your daughter has had experiences like this in classrooms. A teacher wants to teach, just like a writer wants to write. One of the reasons I'm looking for an agent is so the agent can free me from the details of getting published. If only a teacher could have an agent to deal with discipline!!!!
      Peace.

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  15. I find it hard to believe you didn't get any guidance out side of "You’re just got to figure this out on your own." I really feel sorry for those kids who really wanted to learn. Can't wait to hear more.

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    1. Dear Arkansas Patti, the saving grace of all this was discovering those students, like Maureen and John and James, who truly wanted to learn. They gave me hope that good things could happen in that classroom. Peace.

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  16. The one thing I know, and it IS covered in education courses, and that is that your fellow teachers, be they nun or lait (is that right term?), are the very people you should have been directed to talk to. These children didn't just show up out-of-control the day they entered seventh grade. Previous teachers would have knowledge of how to work with these kids. I know in my time, whether we tended public or private/church schools, a note or call from the teacher or principal meant there would be consequences to pay once we got home.

    What any eye-opener this has been, Dee. I'm eager to hear the continuance of your story, though sorry that it still wreaks havoc in your dreams. I wish for you stillness and the peace you always share with us as you continue to write this.

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    1. Dear Penny, I can't remember whether there were any lay women teaching that year--1960. All I ever heard, and this was from one of the other nuns at the mission that year, was that their previous teacher, a nun, had handled them by saying they were her Nazi stormtroopers and they could do what they wanted outside the classroom but inside the classroom they were to give all their loyalty and obedience to her. I wonder now if perhaps the stress of all that drove her a little mad and that's why she ended up in the mental hospital in Council Bluffs.

      Thank you for the wish for peace. Telling these old stories does bring peace because I find that as I recall these old stories I bring to them my learning of a lifetime and so can come to resolution and understanding. I do wonder why the hard times have lodged in my mind and heart rather than all the really good times. I need to spend some time thinking of what made life on mission good. Peace.

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  17. Teaching is so hard sometimes; it can be cruel when you are grappling with how to take control. A very powerful post, Dee.

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    1. Dear Kate, you know when I was in the silence of the novitiate for the eighteen months previous to making first vows, I never thought--or at least now I can't remember--thinking about discipline or what teaching would be. I was so naive that at the time I just thought that along with the grace of vows would come the grace of teaching well. Peace.

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  18. Teaching is a noble profession. I only wish we paid you all what you're worth.

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    1. Dear Rick, I so agree with you. Peace.

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  19. What a baptism of fire for you, dee. i'm sorry you were left to wrestle with this on your own at such a young age and am eager to learn how you finally gor your class under control and realty started to teach them. I can't help feeling sorry for the children too. As others have said, they didn't get like that overnight. No wonder your predecessor had a breakdown!

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    1. Dear Perpetua, please read the response I left for Penny in which I share my thoughts about my predecessor and the predicament she was in. In a sense, I reached the same point she did with deciding how to gain control. I did something different from what she did but both our solutions came, I think, from desperation. Peace,

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  20. I like this week's connection with famous battle scenes. I think these classroom experiences depict basic conflict scenarios between human beings and the emotions that go with them. It's amazing that people do this to other people (at least I've always thought so). Feel free not to spend time answering this pondering comment; I'll be watching for your next installment and no doubt will ponder more to you then.

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    1. Dear Deanna, I always like your pondering. Although I'd call what you do musing. Musing philosophically about being human. Peace.

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  21. Horrendous. Quite outside anything I have ever experienced as a student at any of the schools I’ve attended.

    I am sure I’ve turned tail and taken the consequences.

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    1. Dear Friko, if I'd been more mature t the time I probably would have "turned tail and taken the consequences" also. But I truly thought that this was how classrooms were and I was just a bad teacher. Peace.

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  22. What a terrible experience! I did not know this happened in real life – I thought it only happened in the movies. I certainly never saw any of this while going to school in France – everyone was very quiet in class. I wonder how those kids behaved at home. Also, I think it was totally unprofessional to let you among those monsters without any help from experienced teachers – what where they thinking.

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    1. Dear Vagabonde, in an October posting I'll explain what the reasoning was for throwing me "in the deep end." I was astounded when I got back to the monastery that summer and discovered why this had happened. Peace.

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  23. Not the most helpful advice, I don't think. Yet you clearly found your way, and I can hardly wait to read the next chapter of this story.

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    1. Dear Deb, and I can hardly wait to write the next chapter and see if I can encapsulate what happened to change all this. Peace.

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  24. You were/are a brave soul Dee! Looking forward to reading how this all turned out.

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    1. Dear Michelle, I think I was more naive than brave. Today I would have realized the impossibility of the situation and I'm not sure whether I'd have accepted the obedience to teach in that classroom! Peace.

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  25. I thought that this kind of thing went on only with substitute teachers.

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    1. Dear Munir, thanks for stopping by. I know this does often happen with substitute teachers, but that particular class tested everyone I think. Peace.

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  26. I love this series. I can't wait to read the rest of it!

    Pearl

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    1. Dear Pearl, I'm glad you're enjoying the series. Tomorrow--Wednesday--I'll post the the rest of the story, if I can fit it into 600 words; if not, I'll post on both Wednesday and Thursday and finish it off! Thanks for stopping by. Peace.

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