During my early years of teaching, I had a student (I’ll call him John) who often put his head down in my class. I had cajoled and spoken to him too many times to count, when one day as soon as class began he began to sleep before the tardy bell even rang. The nerve! I went over to his desk, tapped him on the shoulder and flatly stated, “You need to stay awake.” I turned my attention to beginning class.
As the students worked on their bell ringer, I began to take attendance. By the time I had gotten to John’s name, he was already dozing off. How was that possible? I had spoken to him less than three minutes ago.
As a relatively novice teacher, I was furious. I took it personally. I walked over to his desk, tapped him on the shoulder. No response. I leaned down to him and whispered, “You have work to do.” Again to no avail. My frustration mounted. Many of his classmates were now watching. As a young teacher, I felt I had to prove myself. I couldn’t let a fifteen-year-old show me up.
I knocked—maybe even pounded—hard on his desk.
He shot up! In one fluid motion, he pushed his books off his desk and shouted “Leave me the **** alone you ****!”
Any eyes that weren’t on us before, now surely were. I was stunned. Silence came over the room.
I’m sure I stumbled over my next words as I tried to regain my composure and the class. I was furious that a student had just cussed me out, but I knew I couldn’t let my emotions get the better of me (although in hindsight, they already had).
I managed to teach the next portion of the lesson before I stepped into the hall to confront John. John sat on the floor, curled into a cocoon. Stunned, I searched for words, “John…”
He looked up, tears rolled down his face. I stood speechless. How could he go from this maniac who just cussed me out to a timid, fear-ridden young boy?
Changing tactics, I bent next to him. “What’s going on?”
“Mr. G. I’m sorry. I’ve had a horrible night. I shouldn’t have cussed.”
I paused. Again, unsure of what to say.
John opened up, “Last night my mom’s boyfriend was over. They started arguing. My younger brother and sister were scared. The argument grew worse and worse.”
He continued, “He started beating her. Right in front of us! We're in the kitchen and they were in the living room. I tried to pretend not to be scared. But my mom was crying. My brother and my sister were crying. I didn’t know what to do. I just held my brother and sister. I held them tight. I took them to my room.”
“My mom’s boyfriend, he’s such an ***. He's drinking. My mom’s crying. Everyone except him is crying. I’ve talked to her about him, but she says they love each other.”
I stammered, “I’m sorry.”
“He yelled at her all night. He beat her up good. My sister and I never fell asleep. All three of us cuddled up in one bed for the entire night. My mom didn’t get up in the morning to send us off to school. I was scared to check on her when I left. I did though. She got beat up good.”
“John, I’m sorry. Let’s go to guidance.”
Another teacher, walking towards the teacher workroom, crossed our paths and asked, “Everything alright?”
Immediately I experienced an epiphany. If only I had started off the class by asking John, “Everything alright?”
The entire confrontation would have been avoided, but more importantly John would have known that I was there for him.
Instead of my unwieldy attempt to demonstrate power, I needed to open up my heart and soul.
I had succumbed to thoughts of revenge, when my thoughts should have been of compassion and mercy.
As teachers, before we reach our students minds, we must reach their hearts and souls.
John, the guidance counselor and I spent the remainder of the period talking while the teacher who passed me in the hall covered my class.
Social services and the police were contacted.
Over the remainder of the year, John and I had an uneasy relationship. If I saw his name on the absentee list, I worried. I’d check with the attendance office and if they knew nothing, I’d call home.
In class, I tried to comfort John; to be there for him. He never opened up, and I never pursued/pushed the issue. I told him many times that I was always there for him and would talk whenever and wherever. He never took me up on the offer.
Sadly, I don’t know what happened to John and his family. During the summer, they moved to another county.
I doubt I positively impacted John’s life, but John forever changed my approach to teaching and to life. To this day, I wish it were the other way around.