CHAPTER 1

Valium

Selected from Part 1: Classroom Trials

I wrote so many behavioral referrals during my one semester at MMS that I could have been accused of trying to drive up the stock price of whatever company supplied the paper for the forms.  Indeed, with just a few cases serving as exceptions, I might just as well have been sending the filled-out forms to some office on Wall Street because sending them downstairs to MMS administration sure wasn't netting me much. But what was I to do? Even though my submissions were likely a waste of my time, failing to submit referrals could possibly leave me open to being accused of, or reprimanded for, dereliction of duty. I found myself in a classic example of a lose-lose situation.  Humph. Anyway, writing referrals with such frequency made me a regular visitor to the school's offices area, either to physically deliver a referral or to check up on its status, if only for the sake of appearances. Indeed, it was a referral related visit to administration that I made before classes started one morning that allowed me to bump into a fellow MMS teacher named Donny. Furthermore, had I not encountered Donny that morning, I would have found an episode in which I was involved during the afternoon of that day to have been less meaningful.

Donny was a big guy, big enough to play linebacker in the NFL. Coincidentally, a man with the same last name as Donny's did once play a line-backing position for the Denver Broncos, and with great success. Donny team-taught with a man named Mel. I'd guess both men are about ten years younger than I, putting them in their early to mid-thirties at the time. Mel and Donny's teaching area was adjacent to Kay's and mine, making it easy for me to quickly become quite friendly with the two men. In fact, if I encountered either man somewhere around the building, such as the administrative area, we'd likely strike up a conversation. Donny and I did just that during the morning preceding the afternoon episode mentioned in the above paragraph.

During that particular morning, our conversation began by inquiring about our respective reasons for visiting administration so early in the day. I explained my presence first, wryly telling Donny that my visit was due to yet another behavior problem with one of my kids. Donny grinned and nodded understandingly. Why wouldn't he? He, too, was in the offices' area that morning because of a problem, male student, but Donny's situation had an added layer to it, a parental layer. As things were, Donny was hanging around administration that morning waiting on the father of one of his and Mel's students to show up, but not to simply meet or conference with the kid's father. No, Mel and Donny were going to be stuck with this father for a school day's length because, as Donny put it, the troublesome boy's dad intended to "ride along" for the day or some portion of it. Essentially, the boy's father was going to sit in on all of his son's classes, monitoring what was going on as Mel and Donny taught the boy the subjects each man was responsible for teaching, as divvied up according to their team-teaching arrangement.

I, of course, queried, "Why?" 

Donny responded by explaining that the kid was black.

Mel and Donny are both white men.

I must have replied to Donny's explanation with "Oh" or "Hmm" while slowly nodding.

TOP

Even though I didn't ask for details because I could easily surmise what was going on, Donny filled me in on the particulars anyway. Essentially, Mel and Donny had a black boy among their students who was a problem. I'm guessing that these men would have had five or six black students on their roll. Academically, this particular kid was inert.  Behaviorally, he was trouble. For whatever reason, the kid's father came to the conclusion that his son's problems at school were due to racism, a conclusion or, more accurately described, a charge that is not entirely uncommon.  Consequently, the boy's dad was going to sit in on all his son's classes through the school day to get a firsthand account of what his son was enduring. I used the word enduring purposely because this dad was going to receive a shocking lesson regarding who was enduring what, by his visit's end.

There is one other point I wish to make before proceeding, and it has to do with this business of a kid's parent(s) sitting in on the child's classes in order to get at the truth of what goes on during the school day.  All told, this approach is silly because a parent's presence alters the classroom's environment to such an extent that what the parent observes through the day is uncommon. If, by way of analogy, a wildlife biologist wants to get an accurate account of what life among a herd of zebra is like, he or she can't thrust himself or herself into the midst of the herd for obvious reasons. The same is essentially true for a parent in his or her child's classroom. I've always thought that the only way a parent could get a view of the reality of his or her child's behavior in the classroom would be to observe unannounced via an off-site television, whose images and sound are supplied by a camera and microphone in the classroom of interest.  Due to monetary costs, such accommodation, of course, is not practical. Therefore, as far as I'm concerned, parental observational visits that plant the parent in the middle of the "herd" are simply a waste of time. Sure, such visitations may serve to demonstrate genuine parental involvement or concern or whatever, but so what? I've always preached that if the parents are doing their job at home, I'll be able to take care of business in the classroom. This is to suggest that if the kid is a demon at home, he or she is likely to also be one in the classroom. If the kid is mannerly at home, he or she is likely to follow suit in the classroom. Period.

Donny and I hadn't had much time to converse before Donny interrupted the flow of our talk by suddenly remarking that he had just spied the kid's father entering our area. When I looked in the direction Donny was now looking in, I could see a black man possibly in his late thirties or early forties approaching what served as the reception counter that was the responsibility of a school secretary.  The guy was dressed casually, but not improperly, and his demeanor made him appear to me to be of a manageable sort, but appearances can be deceiving, very deceiving. In any event, this guy had made a charge, a grave charge, and he was, as demonstrated by his presence, serious in having made it. I was glad that I didn't have to deal with this guy.

Upon offering me a quick farewell, Donny took his leave of me so as to greet the "ride along" and to escort the man upstairs to the part of the building where Mel and Donny taught. In all truthfulness, I can't imagine that I figured that I'd ever see this particular black man again. There was simply no reason for me to think that I would. Huh! One never knows.  As it turned out, this accusing black man would put me squarely in his sights that afternoon.

I can't recall the bulk of events that occurred during my day after Donny and I had our chance encounter at the day's beginning. I'm confident, though, that most of my time that day, as it was on all days, was spent trying to maintain some semblance of order and decorum among my kids. Part of my regimen toward this end was to periodically walk out into the corridor at the back of my teaching area to do a little patrolling, as it were. This part of my routine was necessary for two reasons. One reason was that MMS was of an open school design. The second reason was that the school was plagued with free roaming renegades, as I called them, eager to exploit this openness. The exploitation often took the form of penny throwing. Specifically, these roaming renegades would stroll past instructional areas and fire pennies at teachers and/or students in those areas. I didn't fancy being struck by thrown pennies. They hurt. Also, I didn't want my kids struck, either. To be sure, the pennies hurt them, too.  Moreover, I had kids who would instantly mount a counterattack, starting something like a snowball fight by using pennies or whatever else they felt was convenient for throwing at their antagonists.  In hopes of preventing flying pennies from shattering any moment of orderly behavior I would have worked so hard to establish among my students, I would conduct brief patrols in the corridor that bordered my teaching area. This practice was significantly successful. For the most part, the disruptors steered clear of me and mine. It seemed that the renegades didn't relish having to deal with the little bald guy. But at MMS, one never knew what one might encounter along the school's corridors, and so any one of my patrols could have placed me smack-dab in the middle of some skirmish.

TOP

As fate would have it, I had just stepped into the corridor to perform one of my little patrols when I saw Donny's "ride along" parent in my left peripheral vision. He evidently had just left Donny. As soon as this man and I made eye contact, he very deliberately veered in my direction, which took me by surprise and made me wonder why he was so eager to approach me. Given what I had earlier learned of this guy's presence in our building, I was, in fact, somewhat concerned about his approach.  As he neared, I simply couldn't figure any reason for which he would feel compelled to engage me in any form. I briefly wondered if he had recognized me from his stop in the office that morning. Would this recognition somehow be the basis for his approach? I would later conclude that this parent veered toward me because I was the first adult whom he encountered who looked like a member of the MMS teaching staff as he made his way from Donny and Mel's area. Anyway, once he was within mere feet of my position, he made his purpose abundantly clear. And from my point of view, delightfully clear.

As soon as this nameless man came within reach, he extended both of his hands, clasping my right hand between them and shaking it with great vigor. Within a fraction of a second after gripping my hand, this guy told me with heart-felt sincerity that he wanted me to know that I had his deepest sympathies. He continued by stating in a gasping manner that the public needed to know what we teachers at MMS had to endure, and that he couldn't believe what his eyes had seen and ears had heard that day. He suggested that we teachers should have access to a free Valium dispenser in the teachers' lounge. The man just couldn't believe that anyone could work in such a madhouse and maintain his or her sanity.

Naturally, I took an immediate liking to this guy. Now, broadly smiling, I was shaking his hands as much as he was shaking mine. Furthermore, I told him that I had left the construction business to become a teacher and wondered about the wisdom of my decision. His reply was to tell me that if he were in my shoes, he'd be back on a construction site in the morning, even if doing so meant that he would have to push a wheelbarrow all day as his job. What teachers had to endure at MMS was intolerable by this guy's measure. The man was completely, thoroughly and absolutely appalled by what he had witnessed during his observational exercise in his son's classes. I thanked him very appreciatively as we separated, and he went along his way.

Here was a man who, in the morning, had come to MMS as an adversary and probably eager to confirm his suspicions regarding his son's treatment at the hands of his teachers. Here was a man who, by the end of the school day, left MMS wondering just what it was the world had come to. He wanted to know how things had gotten so bad, so rotten, regarding kids' behavior in a public school. I would never again see this gentleman after that day, but I'll never forget him. My encounter with this man was a turning point in my stay at MMS, specifically, and in my teaching career, generally. This outsider who had gotten a look at the inside let me know in no uncertain terms that I wasn't nuts. He let me know that what I stood for and fought for was right, regardless of what some others would have me believe.

Allow me a moment to further accentuate that teachers must expect that it can be difficult for "outsiders" to appreciate how tough things might be inside a school.

My teaching partner at MMS, Kay, once complained to me that her husband was unsympathetic toward her work-related stress and frustration. He would respond with doubt to Kay's complaints about her job, at least in the accounts of their conversations that she related to me. He couldn't understand how she could become so depressed; dealing with kids was no big deal from his point of view. She told me that he would commonly comment in response to her vexations by arguing something to the effect that, "They're only kids," implying that he didn't think that things could be so rough. She wanted to know what I thought about her husband's attitude, and what she could do to get him to understand the torment she endured on a daily basis when at work. In giving Kay advice, I had to chuckle as I asked if she would be able to appreciate what went on at MMS if she were on the outside?

Would you like to come in?

TOP