Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Power of Two Desks by Jody Casella

Let's just say he wasn't my favorite student that year.

High school English, tenth grade, the third year I taught, and I was over kids like this kid. The kid who skipped class or came late. The one who never brought his books when he deigned to show up. The kid who interrupted, loudly, while I was speaking. Got up from his seat at random moments and roamed the classroom.

I mean, what the hell?

And I was pregnant that year. Exhausted. Between second and third period every damn day I'd lumber down the hall and vomit in the teachers' lounge restroom.

On top of all of that, I had to deal with this kid. Barely September and our relationship, such as it was, was a battle of wills. Me, swollen and frazzled and trying to teach a lesson on Julius Caesar, say, and Him, barging into class late and flopping into his chair and spewing out whatever.

I threw him out of the classroom probably every other day.

Once, and I will never forget this, I'd just ordered him out and he flung himself up out of his desk and strode defiantly toward me, stopping only a couple of inches away, his teeth gritted, his hand out, finger pointing directly at my enormous pregnant stomach.

"I hope your baby is..." he said, and there was a long pause while he faced me, pointing, "a whiner," he finished, his eyes glittering, before he stalked out of the room.

[Side note: my baby was, in fact, a whiner. Flash forward two or three years when my toddler wailed plaintively about-- wanting a bag of cheetos ten minutes before dinner or begging to go outside without a coat in 20 degree weather or refusing to let me buckle him into his damn car seat-- I'd recall that student and his pointed finger and the vicious curse he'd cast upon my womb.

But I recalled it, laughing. It became a funny story told to my tantrum-y son. "Now, you know you're just whining because Mommy once had a student in her class who cast a spell on you, right?"]

Funny, because not long after the Whining Curse, the student and I discovered a solution to our problem with each other.

What happened was this:

One day I threw him out of the classroom and this time, I followed him out into the hall. Look, I said, I know you don't like me, and honestly, I don't like you all that much either. You bug the heck out of me...

Student: (grumbling and muttering and possibly casting additional spells upon me) Well, you bug the heck out of me too .

Me: Right. So what are we going to do about that?

Student: What?

Me: I mean, it's September. We've got an entire school year ahead of us. Do we really want to have this battle every day?

Student: (still grumbling and muttering) I just want you off my back.

Me: I want you off my back too. How can we make that happen?

Student: (looking down) I don't know.

Me: Maybe we can do something to make that happen.

Student: (grumbling and yet looking at me curiously) Like, what?

Me: Like, you come to class on time and bring your books and sit in your seat and don't talk while I'm talking. If you do that, I'll do something for you. What do you want?

Student: (now staring at me) I want... (he pauses here and for a horrifying moment I wonder what he's going to request)  ...two desks.

Me:  Two desks?

Student: (shrugging) Yeah. Two desks. I get bored sitting in one place for an hour. Sometimes I just feel like getting up and sitting someplace else.

Me: (nodding vigorously and restraining myself from falling upon my knees in gratitude at the simplicity and honesty and beauty of this boy and his modest request.) You got it.

Long story short, I set him up with two desks on opposite sides of the room. For maybe two or three days he took full advantage of our deal. Hopping up, annoyingly and intrusively, a dozen times a period, staring at me defiantly as he did so, testing to see if I'd call him out for it and go back on my promise,

but I didn't, and after a while, he sat, most days, in one desk.

I won't say this kid ever became my favorite student. He still came late to class occasionally, still blurted stuff out every once in a while, (and of course, there was the power of his lingering whining curse to contend with later), but our daily battles were a thing of the past.

Who knew it was so easy?

It occurs to me now that I owe this student a thank you. So--

Thank you, Demarcus McGee, for teaching me that sometimes the only solution is to take a quiet moment in the heat of battle, and ask the other side what they want...

and listen.


11 comments:

  1. I would venture to say that he probably learned more from this one negotiation than from anything in the prescribed syllabus that year. One more reason why education shouldn't be outsourced to computers ...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't know how much he learned, but I learned a hell of a lot. Also, I agree with you about the complexity of the teacher/student relationship. It's what the "Let's Run Schools Like a Business" people always forget.

      Delete
  2. Great post. I wonder what he'll be doing 10 years from now. My mom taught 7-8th grade language arts and following her students (or having them visit 15 years later)was pretty eye-opening. Thanks for sharing this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Berek. He did come back to visit me a year or two after he graduated I think? Writing about him and our daily battles made me realize that I remember this boy more clearly than nearly all of my other students.

      Delete
  3. Great post, Jody! You cracked me up with the Whining Curse. There's a fractured fairy tale in there somewhere!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Fun fact: the curse affected my next child too. This student really did have a special gift :)

      Delete
  4. I love this so hard! I wish I'd had his guts and your courage when I was in school.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I never thought about it this way, Patty. The boy did have guts! (As for me having courage.... I don't know. Mostly, I was tired and at my wit's end with him.)

      Delete
  5. I bet you're a great teacher, Jody! And kudos to Demarcus for knowing what he needed and to you for giving it to him.

    ReplyDelete
  6. What a great story! I'm sure he remembers you, too. :)

    ReplyDelete
  7. Man, this is awesome. That's the best way EVER to deal with a student.

    ReplyDelete