(Continued from last Wednesday, October 16 . . .)
On this gloriously cool day, I’m inviting you into that 1960, seventh-grade, Omaha classroom one last time. There I established a regime of strict discipline, onerous both for the students and for me. Most of those seventh graders wanted to learn, but surely not in such a tense atmosphere.
The situation was precarious. If the students acted as if they liked to learn, the ruling gang members might await them after school and batter them into submission. If they played along with the gang I might put indiscriminate checkmarks on the board and they’d have to stay after school and answer to their parents.
Richard Westall’s Sword of Damocles
Yet despite the pervading fear, most students took part in discussions, followed directions, and responded well to the varied techniques I used for teaching.
A coterie of them, however, remained adamant. No one was going to steal their power of intimidation. In every way possible, they undermined my attempts to make learning pleasurable. An undercurrent of retaliation lurked behind the menacing glares these students cast on their classmates. The image that came to mind was of a submarine ready to torpedo those students who were brazen enough to enjoy learning.
One of those students was Maureen. One day—a day when no one got three checkmarks on the chalkboard—she stayed after school to ask me about college. She was bright and wanted to learn—purely for the sake of learning. From my first day in that classroom, she’d paid attention and responded to questions and prompts.
The next day, I noticed that Maureen had a pained look on her face throughout our lessons. I discovered why only when the students filed out of the room at the end of the day. As Maureen passed me, I noticed that the back of her white blouse was marred with countless dark dots. I asked her to step out of the line. The other students left the building while I spoke with Maureen, who began to cry.
This is what she’d endured that day: The girl behind her in the third row from the windows had spent the day leaning forward over her desk so that her face was close to Maureen’s right ear.
Throughout that long school day, Jenny jabbed Maureen’s back repeatedly with a hat pin. The dark dots were the blood that welled up beneath the blouse. With each stab of the pin, Jenny muttered in Maureen’s ear, “This is what happens to snitches.”
Countless bloody specks stained the back of Maureen’s blouse. She never again wore it to class. Nor did she ever again stay after school to ask my advice about her future education.
Jenny did stay after school the next day and worked the math problem, cursing Maureen and me beneath her breath the entire time. I’d spoken with Sister Brendan about the incident, so I could say to Jenny, with certainty, that if she ever tortured anyone else in our class, she’d be expelled.
One more bonfire doused. One more casualty of the civil war that raged in that classroom. One more student filled with hatred.
I’ve never forgotten those two young girls. Where are they now? Who are they? And what about all the rest of those students who, in their recalcitrance and fear and longing, brought from me the creativity I never knew I had? Where and who are they? I wish I knew.
I would never want to relive those days, and yet I am grateful for what I learned from those seventh graders—all of them. The lessons they taught me served me well throughout all my teaching and my developing of curriculum for several Catholic publishers.
As I’ve aged, I’ve come to realize that for myself all has worked out to good. Hallelujah.
Note: I’m trying to establish a writing and blogging schedule that works for me. So after a year or more of posting on Wednesday, I’ve decided to do my weekly posting on this on-line memoir on Thursday. I hope to see you here next Thursday to share with you what happened when I returned to Mount Saint Scholastica Convent in late May 1960. Peace.
( . . . continued next Thursday, October 24.)
Photographs from Wikipedia.