Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The First Day in My Own Movie


(Continued from Wednesday, August 28, 2013 . . . )


The first five weeks in that seventh grade classroom in Omaha were straight out of the 1955 movie The Blackboard Jungle. Watching it as a college freshman, I’d thought that the unruliness and violence portrayed in the movie’s inner-city classroom could happen only among the really poor, those who had nothing to look forward to. Those whose rage boiled over because of poverty. I didn’t recognize the bias of that belief nor the naiveté.
         Now, five years later, I daily entered a classroom that vied in rowdiness with the movie’s—a classroom of young, middle-class, Catholic students whose lives seemed far removed from those of the high school students in the movie.
         Each day they gleefully dashed to their desks ready to intimidate me. The entry door was at the back of the room; my desk at the front. As I sat there, I could look to the left of the rectangular classroom and see three rows of desks parallel to the inner wall. The boys sat there. To my right, along the wall of windows, sat three rows of girls.
         On my first day in that classroom, I’d discovered, after everyone had quieted down, that they’d completed all the textbooks by Christmas. Hearing this, my mind went into high gear. “I don’t believe that you know everything that’s in those books,” I said. “I’m going to give you some written quizzes to find out. You’ll have to prove me wrong.”
         The challenge prompted them to take paper and pencil out of their desks and settle down. The day passed: a quiz or two; recess; another quiz; lunch; another couple of quizzes; recess; a final quiz.
         As the day progressed, I gave a twenty-five-question quiz on each subject area: English, geography, civics, science, reading, math, American history. Some answers would require a simple true/false or yes/no; others, a word or two; still others, a paragraph of explanation.
         Fortunately, I’d majored in English Literature in college with minors in history, philosophy, and math. I’d had a good education and so, simply by flipping through their textbooks, I thought of questions to ask.
         After each quiz, I had the students trade papers with one another. Then we’d discuss each of the questions to arrive at what might seem the right answer. But I insisted that we listen to other answers to the same question to determine if any of them contained some kernel of accuracy.
         A student grading a paper that had an answer that differed from the “right” one had to try and figure out why the other student had written that answer. Was it a feasible response to a question that might appear to have only one answer? A student could defend her or his answer if the grader argued with it. 
         They seemed to love to debate, although they often resorted to put-downs and yelling. But I’d remain silent, simply watching them or the clock. They didn’t seem to know what to make of me.
         At the end of the day, I collected all the papers and said I’d look them over and give them grades. That night, after getting permission from Sister Brendan to stay up late, I graded and then stapled together each student’s quizzes.
         The next day I asked Jenny, one of the seventh-grade girls, to hand back the papers. She sashayed down the boys’ aisles, humming. Suddenly she yelped, arched her body, and scurried down the row toward where I stood. But as she passed two other boys, she yelped again. When I asked what had happened, she looked down at the floor and muttered, “Nothin’. Nothin’ happened.”


         Walking purposefully down the aisle, amidst catcalls and hooting, I discovered that each boy had a math compass on his desk. At the far end of the row sat Ron—six foot tall already, broad shoulders, muscled arms and chest, smug attitude.
         I’d recognized him as soon as I’d entered the classroom that morning with Sister Brendan. He was the boy who’d done the bashing on the playground the Friday before.
         When I stopped at the side of his desk and put my hand out for the compass, he bragged, “No girl gets by me without tasting the sharp end of my compass.”
         All I said was, “Not any more.”
         From that time on, I passed out all the papers.
                           (. . . continued next Wednesday, September 11, 2013)

Poster and compass from Wikipedia.
Stack of books by Gualberto107 of freedigitalphotos.com

51 comments:

  1. haha you quizzed the crap out of them. Ouch to the math compass too.

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    1. Dear Pat, yes I did, but those quizzes gave me material for teaching, which I badly needed! Peace.

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  2. This is not easy to read. I truly hoped you would have an easier time of it, yet had no reason to do so. In the end you must have influenced some for the better; I'll wait to see.

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    1. Dear Joanne, the next couple of postings will tell more and so you can decide whether I did any good in that classroom or not. Peace.

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  3. What a story you have here, Dee, with all the best elements (including that basic need for the protagonist to be set in awful circumstances against her will); plus you have my favorite element: it's a true story. I'm rooting for you like I did for Sir in "To Sir, With Love", and you're doing great. In such a real life situation, I think I would have folded into a fetal position or run away fast. Thanks for the continuing chapters.

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    1. Dear Deanna, I'd forgotten that movie "To Sir, With Love." I think it came out in the '60s. And don't think I didn't long to fold "into a fetal position." I wanted out of that classroom so badly. Peace.

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    1. Dear Fishducky, he continued to use the compass whenever a girl passed down his aisle. I continued to take them away; he continued to bring them to class. Peace.

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  5. I'm looking forward to the next part of this story. I would have been tempted to pin Ron's hands to his desk with math compasses.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. Dear Janie, yes! that would have been a solution! Peace.

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  6. I could never have the patience or strength to be a teacher, especially then.

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    1. Dear Michelle, it's surprising what we can do when we apparently have no other options, and as a newly vowed nun I didn't feel as if I had any. Peace.

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  7. wow, sounds like you took the class over right away! now i have to wait until the next installment.
    And I certainly agree with you. The nature of these classes has little to do with poverty, the class I described was in a middle class neighborhood too.

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    1. Dear Mimi, I went into that classroom every day for four weeks wondering what more could happen. Next Wednesday I'll share what really scared me. Peace.

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  8. I love these last several posts, and I hope that one day you will flesh out more detail of how you managed to keep your sanity as a new teacher whose students were determined to scare you to death. Your resilience never ceases to amaze me! Glad you're back writing again.

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    1. Dear Kari, you know I can remember so well many of the things that happened in that seventh-grade classroom and yet there's so much I can't remember. Just a vague painting in my mind--impressions, like a watercolor painting. Peace.

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  9. The classroom has only become more intimidating, I hear. Since it's been a long time since I was in one, I have to wonder if it's really that bad. Then I read this, from long ago, and realize it has only changed in intensity, not in tone. Looking forward to hearing more! :-)

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    1. Dear DJan, I can't imagine teaching in some classrooms today. But two movies and a book from the '50s and '60 do show that classrooms could be frightening even then: "Blackboard Jungle" (1954), "To Sir, with Love" (1960 something), and the book "Up the Down Staircase." Peace.

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  10. Dear Dee,

    I remember boys like that from my grade school also. I sometimes wonder what became of them. Did they end up in prison, were they grown- up bullies, or did they ever change their ways?

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    1. Dear Arleen, I don't know what happened to any of these boys, except for one. He was a seventh-grader who was shy and who had difficulty reading. I'm fairly sure he was dyslexic. The whole class laughed out loud when he read the first time. That was one of the few times, when I really lost my temper as a nun. Peace.

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  11. You had such wisdom, Dee, and knew when to push back and when to hold off. Your instincts appear to always have been available to give you what you needed at just the right time! I'm enjoying this story from your life, my friend. I hope you had some way of knowing how some of these children grew and developed. You had such a hand in their educational lives! ox

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    1. Dear Debra, I don't know what happened to any of them except for John, whom I wrote about in the response above this one. I do know what happened the following year and you're learn about that in the coming postings. Peace.

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  12. Ouch. On so many levels. My heart hurts for you - and also for Ron. I wonder why he developed into a bully, and wonder what became of him...

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    1. Dear EC, I don't know what Ron was a bully. He was the leader of the gang and as such never spoke directly with me. Peace.

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  13. You are so well rounded, my friend, and their "smarts" were no match at all for your well honed mind. The cheekiness of that boy to tell you no girl would get by him without feeling the compass...good grief! (I'm still limited with my internet, but wanted to leave a comment on this great post!)

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    1. Dear Shelly, oh "cheekiness" is such a good word! Thank you for it. Peace.

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  14. I am constantly amazed at your resiliency, Dee, and your responses to dilemmas. You were likely one of few adults that responded to Ron in such a way and perhaps showed girls like Jenny support in such a degrading, and dangerous, act. As others have mentioned, this kind of schoolroom activity has not stopped, just escalated.
    As always, I look forward to your next installment, Dee.

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    1. Dear Penny, this installment took me a lot of time to write. I couldn't get it organized because I kept wanting to say and explain more. I wrote and wrote and then deleted whole paragraphs. And after writing it, I felt so depleted and I wondered how I ever really got through that semester in Omaha. I think all the people who had died and loved me gave me the strength and the instincts to get through that time. Peace.

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  15. I'm curious as to how well these kids actually did on the quizzes--and thankful that Ron didn't also poke you as you went by. At least he had some respect for you, I guess. Allowing them to defend their answers--genius! They were being listened to! You're an amazing woman! :)

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    1. Dear Rita, I talk about those quizzes next week. They proved helpful. And Ron didn't poke me because the nun who'd taught them the first semester had told them that if they touched or harmed a nun they'd be excommunicated. Peace.

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  16. I love the exchange of test papers and the open discussion of answers. Very clever. You really made it interesting by involving them in the process. You really had it going at such a young age. Well done.

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    1. Dear Patti, that was pure instinct based on the teaching that I'd experienced in grade/high/college. All those wonderful teachers were a blessing in my life. Peace.

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  17. Not sure I could be a teacher. I admire anyone who is.
    R

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    1. Dear Rick, to teach well, a person has to put her or his heart and soul into listening to and respecting the students. But to do is to exhaust oneself daily. So teaching well is really not for the faint of heart. For myself in that first year, I was just trying to survive. Peace.

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  18. Dee
    How did you keep your cool? I couldn't. But I have a feeling that you are going to tame these kids like the "horse whisperer" Or this would be the kid whisperer.

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    1. Dear Manzanita, I was so scared that I just sort of shut down. I automatically began to teach the way I'd been taught by some fine teachers. The next couple of stories will show whether or not I was a "kid whisperer." Peace.

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  19. You appear to be managing the brutes fairly well so far . . . . . .

    You must have had the patience - and the cunning - of a saint.

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    1. Dear Friko, I don't know about the patience and the cunning. Mostly I just remember being scare and knowing that if I didn't do something soon I'd also be sent to Council Bluffs and put in the mental hospital. Peace.

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  20. Now THAT was a quandary: a big guy used to being the bully.
    I look forward to hearing the end of this story!

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    1. Dear Susan, Ron was then and remained the rest of the year an enigma to me. I simply couldn't relate. Peace.

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  21. Nice post, great blog, following :)

    Good Luck :)

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    1. Dear GranTurismo. congratulations on starting a blog. I hope it works well for you. The blogging community is a welcoming one. And thank you for your reading of my posting and for leaving a supportive comment. Peace.

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  22. You were a quite obviously a born teacher, Dee, to know intuitively how to start to tame those unruly teenagers - and so many of them. I still can't get over the class size! This is an enthralling series of posts.

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    1. Dear Perpetua, the class size really was typical at that time--at least in a Catholic school. I'm glad you are enjoying this series of postings. The next couple will, I think, be somewhat difficult to write--I don't much like the memories. Peace.

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  23. I had a terrifying six-week stint as a teacher back in the 70s, in a newly integrated high school in Georgia. Your description brings back every feeling I had standing in front of those kids. So glad I chose another career after that.

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    1. Dear Linda, I'm sorry to learn that you had a terrifying six weeks as a teacher. Most of the years I taught, everything went well. But this particular class was truly problematic. I don't know whether they were like this because of the teacher they'd had for the first semester of 7th grade or if they'd always been difficult.

      I don't know about the career you chose, but your choosing to learn mediation after you retired seems to me to be a stroke of genius. You are so well suited for it. Peace.

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  24. There's something primal about teenagers, isn't there? Greatness and violence, hormones and craftiness.

    Pearl

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  25. Dear Pearl, true. I've always thought that seventh graders don't know what they really think from moment to moment. They are taking in great gulps of life. Peace.

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  26. wow....your nice information ,I am very happy see your website and your good working in this. post but this web desing is so nice .thank you for the good sharing.
    Estetik

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    1. Dear Estetik, thank you for dropping by. Peace.

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  27. You were very patient in that crowd! And seems you are a winner.

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