The sun casts long shadows as I follow my familiar path to the M60 bus. In the South Bronx, even the projects are early-morning quiet, shimmering in the golden light. I have the beginnings of a headache, probably the result of too few hours of sleep. I try not to concentrate on it, but hope it doesn’t get worse.
Once at school, I learn that the teacher who was hit with a chair is still out, as are a few others. So, despite our full-time substitute teacher (a wonderful woman—a legend—who taught at the school almost from its beginning and retired just last year, but came back to sub), coverage slips sit atop many of our time cards. “Coverages,” as we call the request to sub for an absent teacher, are one of the great pains in my life. I hate them. Here in New York City, it is difficult, more or less impossible, to find a substitute teacher to fill in for an absent teacher. Instead, regular teachers are called upon to give up their prep periods. You can’t turn coverages down. Some teachers sign up for them, figuring it’s a good way to make an extra $36.50 a day. (You can always count on someone being absent.) Administrators see coverages as an incentive for teachers to come to school every day, no matter what, since you risk making your colleagues miserable with your absence. I cross my fingers and look at my card—no coverage yet.
But I soon discover that I counted my blessings too early. At 8:25, while my first-period students are entering the room, I’m handed a coverage slip for period 3. I’m teaching periods 1 and 2 already, so now I have to cover three periods in a row, and somehow prepare for the third while teaching the first two.
Periods 1 and 2 go well, considering I am teaching my difficult class. The “I misbehave because I’m angry” boy is especially subdued, and he keeps catching my eye to make sure that I notice. The most talkative, disruptive kids snap to attention when I remind them that I spoke to the coach of the Junior Knicks, the after-school basketball program they attend. The coach warned that they will be suspended if they misbehave in class. For today, at least, that’s the silver bullet. It also helps that it’s only 9 a.m. When the period ends, I tell the class, “You see, if you can behave like this every day, you’ll have no stress, you’ll pass all your classes, and you’ll never get in trouble.”
Period 3 begins very differently. When the class comes in, I realize that there is a student in this class who used to be in my difficult class and whom I haven’t seen in months. He was removed from my class after I took a 4-inch letter-opener with a sharpened edge from him. It was the closest thing to a shiv I’ve ever taken from a kid. He was suspended only a short time, but his parents decided to relocate him to the cow country of New Jersey to chill out for a bit. It’s not long before I discover that the rustic tranquility of the Western counties has had little lasting effect on him. No doubt the kid still holds a grudge. The first thing he says to me is that I need to get a shape up. That one I let go with a stern look.
Soon afterwards he advises, “You shoes is dusty.”
In classroom management seminars, they will tell you all sorts of ways to handle situations like this one. There’s The Neutral Path: Ignore it, don’t even engage the child, deal with it after class. Then there’s The High Road: Explain to the child that such blatant disrespect is not acceptable and that his parents, the dean, the principal, whoever the kid is most afraid of, will be told. And then there’s The Low Road, which they tell you (and this is good advice) never to take—engaging the child on his or her level. They tell you that if you challenge a child, you will always lose. And they are right.
“So, you talk about my hair, you talk about my shoes, you’ve checked me out head to foot, when are you gonna get your eyes off of me?”
It comes out in a rapid blast, instinctive, regrettable (maybe), and it stuns the kid. His friend, sensing danger, fills in, spitting noisy, furious syllables, but the class is momentarily awed at my counterattack. I calmly continue the lesson, turning to the other side of the class. The offending student sits quiet and uncertain, so for the moment at least, it seems that I won. Years ago, I’d never have thought of saying or doing anything like this, but there it is; it happened. I put the kid down, and I did it on his level. The kid doesn’t challenge me again, even volunteers an answer or two, but still I’m not convinced I won.
During lunch, the angry misbehaver comes to my classroom to ask if he behaved well this morning. He asks if I saw his mom yesterday when she came to confer with another teacher. He tells me she told him to act that way. I tell him to keep it up and he’ll make everyone happy.
The next period is a prep period, during which I preview part of a Rome video. The school psychologist visits while I’m watching. He’s a fundamentally decent guy who has an unfortunate habit of entering my room while I’m teaching, standing very close to me, and whispering things. I suppose that’s his odd way of being unobtrusive, but the class and I find it to be his way of making us uncomfortable. I’m not teaching at this moment, so he stands at a comfortable distance and asks me to answer some questions about one of my difficult students. While I’m writing a few comments on her academic achievement (negligible) and behavior (apathetic), he watches the video screen. Suddenly he cries out, “Romulans!” He looks at me for confirmation. “Aren’t they the ones who go—” he thumps his hand to his chest and salutes. I stare blankly. “Oh, you’re not a Trekkie,” he says.
I would compare the class I teach sixth through eighth periods to any group of 30 sixth-graders anywhere. When a class is going right, you can feel it—and it’s the best feeling in the world. Your breathing changes; you feel tension sheeting off your body like water. My headache begins to evaporate. Toward the end of the day, we’re discussing why Cincinnatus left Rome and returned to his farm. One kid says, “He was weak.” Another says, “He was probably afraid they’d kill him.” Another says, “He was a homey person, he just liked to farm.” The bell rings. One girl sits with her hand raised, waiting to ask, to learn.