(Continued from yesterday, Wednesday, September 18 . . . )
Toward the end of the four weeks between January 18 and February 15, 1960, I began to think that if I became a pal to the seventh graders in our Omaha classroom they’d like me and want to learn.
I discovered how mistaken that notion was on Friday, February 12, when we had a Valentine’s party. Besides bringing cupcakes, soda pop, and candy, several students also brought radios to the classroom. The party began in early afternoon. What ensued is like a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
Allegory of Gluttony and Lust by Hieronymus Bosch
First, the students had a contest to see who could throw a cupcake up to the ceiling and make it stay. The contest continued an interminable time with much hooting and raucous laughter. Soda pop fizzed on the floor and against the windows. Girls ran around the room, trying to evade the groping hands of the boys.
Then, several boys came to the front of the room, threw themselves on the floor, and turned up the volume on their radios. Moving their bodies suggestively, they humped, thrust, moaned. I stood by my desk as they performed their obscene floor dances just a few feet from me. They fixed their eyes on me and smiled with glee at my discomfort.
That Friday-afternoon party was an ending for me. I knew I couldn’t go back into that classroom on Monday. That evening, my body must have proclaimed my great weariness—I’d lost ten pounds—and my despair and desperation. I say this because of what happened next.
Sister Nicole, in whose fifth-grade classroom I’d substituted the first two weeks of January, was now home from the hospital. When she asked me how things were going, the whole sorry tale came pouring out.
“We’ll put a stop to that,” Nicole said.
“But how?” I could see no happy ending.
“Here’s how. It’s this or Council Bluffs.” Nicole laid out the following plan: On Monday, I’d go into the classroom and announce a new beginning. I’d read a list of what I’d no longer tolerate:
1. Interrupting my teaching
2. Interrupting the responses and questions from others
3. Jabbing with math compasses
4. Throwing papers and books
6. Making rude and obscene remarks
7. Getting up from desks without permission
8. Visiting other desks without permission
9. Talking without permission
10. Failing to do homework
The list must have had at least twenty-five unacceptable behaviors.
“The next thing you’ll do on Monday,” Sister Nicole said, “is to explain the punishment system.” What we devised is this:
· Every time a student did something on the list, I’d put a check by his or her name on the chalkboard. At the end of the day, anyone who had three checks had to stay after school.
· I’d give that student a subtraction problem by multiplying a three-digit number by another three-digit number. The student would then take the paper to his desk and begin. He’d subtract the second number—the subtrahend—from the first number—the minuend. He’d keep subtracting until the difference was zero. He’d stay after school until the problem was completed to my satisfaction.
“But how will I know he hasn’t cheated to get out of detention early?” I asked.
“When he shows you his work. Check it by multiplying your second number by 10, 20, 30, 40 . . . and so on. Look for the resultant numbers among the subtrahends. Just look for numbers that end with zero. Most students start to fudge and make up numbers until they get to a final answer of zero. You can show them where their subtracting went askew and set them to working the problem again.”
“Once the students discover just how long all that subtracting takes it will.”
I worked a problem and saw what Nicole meant. Then I went to Sister Brendan to get permission to keep the students after school for as long as it took for them to do the subtraction correctly. I also needed permission to miss Vespers, the lengthy chanted psalms the nuns prayed together after school ended.
Monday came. I announced the new beginning. Within a week life had settled to what became the norm for the rest of the school year. In the next posting I’ll describe the atmosphere in which the students and I lived until the end of May. Cold. Chilly. Bleak.
( . . . continued next Wednesday, September 25.)
Bosch painting from Wikipedia.