(Continued from last Wednesday, September 25 . . . )
In the beginning of my draconian rule of the seventh-grade classroom in Omaha, five students spent time after school trying to subtract and get to 0.
For the next two or three weeks, five or more had to stay and work until they’d done the subtraction correctly throughout the entire problem. As I said last week, this process sometimes took two hours.
As the days passed, fewer and fewer checkmarks went on the chalkboard. Ron held out for two or three weeks and had to stay after school each day. Led by him, Bill and John also had to stay for they followed his example and disrupted class when he did or disrupted it on their own and looked to him for approval. All three always had several ✔✔✔✔✔✔✔after their names.
But once Ron decided he’d had enough of this, he settled into brooding silence—like Heathcliff on the moors. He had a good brain and somewhat infrequently would offer an answer in class. His buddies would look at him admiringly and he’d preen. But when I complimented him on something he’d done or said, he seemed appreciative. I wasn’t letting him bully me and I think he developed a grudging respect for me.
Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff
in the 1939 film version of Wuthering Heights.
The surprising event to me was that no parents called or visited me to object to their son or daughter staying after school.
In mid-March a couple did come to the convent one evening to demand that I change their daughter’s grades. Pam had taken her 3rd quarter report card home that afternoon and her parents insisted I had a grudge against their daughter because she was smarter than I.
For the first two quarters of the school years Pam had gotten straight As. I’d given her Bs and Cs because she'd done sloppy and incomplete work. She seemed to think that the assignments I gave were too juvenile. She was a ringleader of the girls, but she didn’t get checkmarks. She was too intelligent for that. Her resistance came in the form of inflections and facial expressions when she answered or asked a question.
Pam’s parents simply couldn’t understand why her grades had gone down, and when I told them about her attitude, they expressed their belief that she was smarter. More attractive. More charming than any of the girls in her classroom. For all that, they thought, she should be given As.
I assured Pam’s parents that if her work and attitude changed for the last quarter, she’d make better grades. I’d become steely by then and her parents seemed to recognize that the grades would remain as given. They left angry, but Pam began to respond to class questions without disdain and arrogance. She was an attractive girl and she and Ron were a couple.
Sister Mary Norbert, who’d been at St. Peter and Paul’s Grade School for several years, had taught many of these seventh graders in her fifth-grade class two years before.
One day she said to me, “You know, Sister Innocence, that lot’s not innocent. They haven’t been since they started carousing. Partying in the fifth grade. They changed then. And not for the good.”
Seeing my befuddlement, she whispered, “Sex.”
The next day I looked out upon that sea of fifty-five students and felt sad for them. I could see now why several of the girls seemed too mature for their age. Too knowledgeable. Why they stood on the playground with hips and chest stuck out provocatively. Why they looked at the boys with their mouths open while running the tip of their tongue over their lips.
I knew that with regard to their sexuality they probably had experienced more than I. Yet that fact wasn’t important. I was there to teach them; they were there to learn.
From February 15 to the end of the school year, I was perhaps more creative in my teaching than in any of the subsequent years. The students’ passivity and boredom became a challenge. Next week I hope to share with you some of the projects with which I captured their attention.
( . . . continued next Wednesday, October 9.)
Photographs from Wikipedia.