This happened in an examples class. The latecomers were drifting in so I started to hand out the examples sheets working from the front to the back of the class.

When I was done I turned around and already there was a student with his arm raised. Then another, then another. Pretty soon they'd all be signalling for help.

The guy who had his hand up first could only have glanced at the first question on the sheet for at most five seconds. That was enough time for him to decide that he couldn't solve it unaided, that looking at his lecture notes wouldn't help him, that thinking about it for another second was pointless. A few months ago this student was still at school, he had been good at this subject, engaged by it. Otherwise he wouldn't be here now studying it at university. Somehow in the intervening time, for whatever reason, that spark of interest, that ability, had been crushed.

Standing at the back of the class surveying this sorry scene was my most depressing moment in teaching. And then I had one of those rare cathartic moments. I felt a surge of adrenalin and I bounded to the front of the class. I was going to reawaken the joy these students once felt for a beautiful subject, reinstill their confidence, communicate the enthusiasm that I feel! This was my most inspiring moment in teaching. I hope I never lose that.

I have only been teaching 7th grade Language Arts for 8 months now, and I have had many of both kinds of moments. In the last two months of my first semester teaching, I had this one student, Donnell, who is now no longer in my class because of what happened. To preface this by saying that Donnell had emotional problems is a fucking understatement. He is a smallish black boy with a sweet looking smile. He doesn’t look like a nutcase, but he can act like one. Twice, before the incident I will soon explain, I had to send him out of the room for time out for not listening to me, whether it was constantly talking or getting up out of his seat, or distracting others, I can’t remember. There was one time I had moved him all the way to the back of the class (he sits up front in one of 4 rows of 8, as I have 30 or more students per class) to where my desk is. All he had to do was sit there and face the front, and he wouldn’t. He was yelling at top volume right in my face, refusing to look at me, and refusing to do what I asked. It chilled me then how completely detached from reality he seemed.

Weeks later, we were coming back from the lockers. The class Donnell was in is one of the hardest discipline classes I have. They are tracked as low achieving and I had come in behind a strong male teacher that could command the respect of this class most of the time, but they were not, and still do not, respect me or do much to show that they are willing to try. Anyway, in our school we have to walk the students from class to class. They do not get to walk anywhere unattended. So I pick up a class from the lunchroom, walk it to their next class, and pick up my next class, and walk them to my room. We go to the lockers on the way. Donnell had been wrestling with another student and his jacket fell off his shoulders. I picked it up and carried it with me. When we got back to my room, which is a “temporary” classroom, a separate structure outside the school to accommodate overcrowding (we also eat lunch in three shifts because there isn’t enough room), it had already started to rain. Donnell came up to me and demanded his jacket. I told him all he had to was to sit down and I would give it to him, whereupon he started repeating the statement over and over: I want my jacket I want my jacket I want my jacket. I was trying to keep him at arm’s length, but he kept pushing into me so that I had to put my arm out, palm up, to push him away from me. After so many seconds of this, he started pacing the room, knocking my stapler and a stack of papers off my desk, then finally 3 large dry erase boards that had been propped up on top of a bookcase built into the wall. The students were trying to hold him down, and he started to cry, but he would not stop. I sent a student to find another teacher to help me, and at that point, Donnell ran outside with my coat and disappeared.

The other students, who have done mean things to me that are almost as bad, picked up all my papers and stapler and the dry erase boards. It was like they understood that Donnell had crossed a line, even for them, and in this one moment, we were all in total agreement. One boy was able to retrieve my coat, unharmed, and another teacher appeared. I didn’t see Donnell after that, and the other teacher, older and much more experienced, took over dismissal. I sat at my desk behind my computer and tried to stifle my tears until every student had left the room.

What made me cry wasn’t that I had failed, but because in the melee, I wanted to hurt Donnell. I wanted to hit him or slap him to snap him out of it, and the fact that I wanted to hurt a child so badly scared me. I would never hurt a child, and I suppressed those urges during the ordeal. I was crying and sobbing uncontrollably. The hardest part was not letting the class see it.

As I walked down the hall to the school entrance and out to the parking lot, the principal and vice principal called me into the office and closed the door. I was terrified that my job was on the line. I started crying again, just exhausted from what had just happened. As soon as I sat down they were telling me that this was in no way my fault, that Donnell’s entire family was nuts, and proceeded to tell me about their first student nutcase. They remembered their full names even though it had been 10 years or more for either of them when they were in front of a class. They said I would always remember Donnell, they said it laughingly and they knew I would laugh about it one day too, but not this day. It was all so soon. I think they were scared I would quit. Other teachers had told me of newbies that walk out the back door and don’t even tell anyone, they get that frustrated. In a sense, I was proving myself by not just doing exactly what I wanted to do in the moment, breaking that kid’s face, saying fuck this I’ve had it, and leaving 30 kids alone in a shack by the football field. Oh, the lawsuits.

Donnell was suspended for 12 days. Since this was close to Christmas Break, they found ways to keep him out until the next semester. I found out later on that, earlier that same day, Donnell bit another student, and his mother called in to report it. It was all we needed to get a nice, long break from Donnell. Still, I thought 12 days was a bit much. Even now, the school has rendered him a lost cause, unable to reach and unable to contain. When he returned to school, he was switched to another Language Arts teacher, one he liked anyway and one who, sadly, was liked enough that she was often given the kids no one else could handle. All the problems have been swept up, but I’m left feeling like nothing really changed for Donnell. I worry that he will never get what he needs to behave like a normal child.

I have inspiring classes, sure. My homeroom is the smartest class in the school, almost all on the Magnet program, all reading above their levels and concerned about their class rank more than most college students. My next class after that is more a bunch of goofballs and over talkative girls. They are both fun and exciting and challenging. Both have students that fall asleep and students who take me on one on one, not caring that they will always lose the fight, eventually. I can be myself around them, and talk to them more or less like adults, and their ability to talk to me in kind makes the whole thing a lot easier.

The class Donnell was in, my last class of the day, was both inspiring and depressing. They are an unruly bunch, fulla wannabe thugs who cared most about who beat who up and who was messing around with who, and who was either gay or acted gay. From their (likely inflated) accounts, they had single moms at home who beat the snot out of them when they got a call from the school, which they would get from me from time to time, but not often, as I never saw any dramatic or long lasting change from such actions. Funny thing is, they all had unique personalities that melded into this crowd of laughter and rage. They drew more strongly from flippant emotional states than any bunch of premenstrual or postpartum women I’d ever seen. The girls often couldn’t afford to have their hair braided and done up like others in my magnet classes; they came to school with scruffy heads, scars on their faces, and clothes too tight I wondered how they could sit down. The boys were the opposite, wearing shirts far too big to cover little bird chests, in so many layers that, in my room where we had no air conditioning, would be reduced to wife beater tank tops.

To a naïve teacher, I responded with two distinct sentiments: ooh, here is my Dangerous Minds moment to turn things around and dear God, what am I DOING here?. And so most of the year was just like that. Not to mention, and it may be obvious, that this class got it in its head it would make me quit, and so classes went pretty much in that direction. They would complain about the lesson no matter how different it was from yesterday’s, complain that they never got to do anything fun like my other classes, complain that they never learned anything. It was hard not to give in, to tell them they were stupid and pains in the asses. All I could tell them was that they were accountable for what they know, they are responsible only for their own mouths when confrontations get them suspended, and that I had no plans to quit or go anywhere. And I didn’t. I stayed right there and waved goodbye on the last day of school.

This coming school year, I will not have that class; they need a more experienced set of teachers, not newbies they can wear down. They will also be split up, removing some kids that simply cannot be in the same classroom, others removed because they can perform better when the pressures to be like every other thug aren’t so great. In a way, I will miss them, and I am sure now they will say hello to me in the hallway, and complain about the teacher they get next year.

Now, it is summer, and I am procrastinating the planning of my second year, with most of the same kids, completely different curriculum that will likely change again just before school starts. I let myself have a few weeks off before I tackled it again, but now it’s harder and harder to look at that Teacher’s Edition. I’ll be lucky if I plan one quarter of the school year during this time, but all in all, I miss school, and feel lost without those kids to mark the time and changing seasons.

When people hear I’ve started to teach, they either think it’s the best thing for me or that I’m completely insane. They say that they know many people who are teachers now, who seem to love it and are passionate about it, and they wonder aloud where were such teachers when they were in school. Well, they must have all been great at some point, in the beginning, and why many who seem to hate all things children still teach is beyond me, they all at some point thought they could make things better. I suppose I will ride that illusion for as long as I can, because I can’t imagine doing anything else.

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