“fake it ’til you make it”

I have never felt so much love and hatred as I did for 8th graders.

I taught two sections of a combined 7th/8th grade North Carolina history class my first year of teaching. One section met before lunch and included a healthy mix of male and females of varying maturity levels. The other section was at the end of the day and included approximately 20 students, 18 of whom were male. It was my greatest challenge.

Each of them had their own personalities, but when combined I found that their sole purpose in life was to make me miserable. For example, after I painstakingly arranged a seating chart for this male-dominated class, I realized there was still a trouble spot on the far side of the room. Before too long (but later than the rest of the class), I learned why.  One of these clever young men whose seat was next to the door took it upon himself to ask in a low, hushed voice, “Did you poop?” every time someone came back from the restroom. He was the gatekeeper of the class, and no one could enter until the status of their bowels was ascertained.

Most of these students were academically sharp. Let’s be honest, this was a private school. Their breeding and background had all the makings of success – mostly two-parent homes, upper middle class, etc. They misbehaved because they were 8th grade boys, they got bored, and I was a 1st year teacher who did not know how to handle the situation.

One such individual who shall remain nameless was particularly skilled at dominating the attention of his peers. All of the shenanigans that I discovered amounted to only half of the incidents that he was responsible for. And this was old school stuff, too, like spit balls across the room, wedgies, etc. On one particular afternoon, I had finally had enough and I made the threat. “You can expect a call home to parents this evening.”

Little did he know that this would be my first phone call home to a parent, which was just as nerve-wracking for me as it was for him. I waited until what I thought was an appropriate time – after work, before dinner, and early enough so that he would know it was me calling. The phone rang, and his father answered. I identified myself, he listened patiently, took a deep breath, and told me something I will never forget.

“Mrs. Russ, do you have any kids of your own?”

“No sir.”

“Well, then here’s what I’ll tell ya. You gotta ‘fake it til ya make it’.”

Silence. Nervous laughter. “Excuse me?”

“There’s this look that he responds to. You don’t even have to say anything, but if you just stop what you’re doing for a few seconds, look him in the eye in a way that let’s him know you’re serious, he’ll get the message. You don’t have kids, but you can fake it til you do.”

This was a pivotal moment in my teaching career, and in my life. Why had no one told me about this “look” before? How had I never picked up on this from my own parents?

Sure enough, I had a chance to practice the next day, and it was beautiful. Perhaps we had an understanding because I had carried out my threat of calling home. Or maybe he was actually terrified of what was behind my eyes when I gave him the look. But either way, I now felt like a real teacher.


“i love you, but i don’t like you right now”

My high school church youth director told us a horrific story one night about how her own mother uttered these words to her.  How could a parent not like their own child? 

I don’t have kids of my own, but after today I know the feeling of loving someone, but needing to be away from them before you physically harm them.

Today my 8th graders decided to teach me a lesson in their 1st Amendment rights.  It was cute.  After asking them to “please stop talking” in the hallway, in the classroom, during the quiz, one lovely young lady decided to stand up for herself and her classmates.

“Mrs. Russ, I’m sorry for exercising my 1st amendment right to freedom of speech by talking to my friends.  I won’t do it again.”

“You’re right,” I said, “you do have the right to free speech.  But now you have to decide what’s more important – your right to talk or your grade.  So I’ll keep teaching, and you can make your decision.”

Then it happened.  Several of them looked at each other with this look on their faces.  I don’t exactly know how to describe it, except to say that it was as if they turned into raisins and their faces shriveled inward.  Their eyes scrunched up, their mouths were agape, their brows furrowed, and their expressions seemed to say, “What the hell is she talking about?”

I sighed quietly and kept going, trying not to let them see my clinched fists.  I had determined that I would not commit a felony today.  I would do anything to make sure these students are educated, safe, and taken care of.  I would even put myself in harm’s way if they were ever threatened.  But I really did not like them at that particular moment.

Right after school we had a faculty meeting about everything except school.  This week is Red Ribbon Week – the point is to encourage kids to stay drug free. So we’re wearing pink shirts on Wednesday to support Breast Cancer awareness and Thursday is team jersey day.

Read that again.  Let me know when you understand the logic.

We were also reminded that a group of superintendants from around the country will be visiting our school to see how we utilize state-of-the-art technology in our classrooms.  It’s both exciting and stressful, as there is a lot of preparation to be done.  To conclude the meeting, we watched a brief video clip about the United Way Campaign…on a 5-year old LCD projector hooked up to computer speakers amplified by someone holding a microphone. 

The irony was not lost on me.

but what about weed?

Each year, I am forced to act shocked about and interested in the ongoing debate over legalizing marijuana.  I hear the same arguments every year:

“Nobody ever got high and killed someone, but people get drunk and kill others all the time.”

“Marijuana is actually good for you.”

“It’s legal in most other countries.”

Today I was pleasantly surprised to be in the midst of the debate over marijuana and field this question:

“But what about weed?”

In case you were wondering, there is a difference (on “the street”) between the two, though I would never be so bold as to attempt to recount it here.  Plus I’m pretty sure the Feds are reading.

Today was especially long (longer than the usual 10-hour day) because we hosted Back-to-School night for parents.  It gives families an opportunity to come, meet the teachers, walk through the schedule, and sign up for conferences if necessary.  It was mildly productive, but I did have two eventful visits. 

First there were Daron’s parents.  He transfered into my class last week, and on a block schedule that means I’ve seen him about 2 1/2 days.  I didn’t even know that his name is pronounced darON, not DAREon.  Woops.

Then another student of mine stopped by with her mom and younger brother.  They were the last of the night for me, so we informally chatted about the course and I discovered that the mother holds a degree in history.  We began discussing various topics related to history and Civics.  In the context of the Bill of Rights and equal rights, she then revealed to me that she has a partner and they have a civil union together. For some reason I became very excited about this, and I’m afraid I came off a little too eager.  She might even think I was trying to hit on her. 

Tomorrow’s class with her daughter should be interesting.

hang ups

In my fifth year of teaching, I’ve almost earned the right to say “I’ve had a lot of things happen to me in my teaching career.” 

There was the time a girl asked about visiting her baby’s daddy in prison, and why she had to sign in as his sister. 

There was the time I got a little too angry and told the girl who stormed out of my classroom to “have fun working at McDonalds”.

There was the time I found out my student’s mom died in a car accident a month into his freshman year of high school.

There was the bomb threat.

But I’ve never had a situation quite like the one I found myself in last Thursday.  On the second day with this particular class, I had to make some not-so-pleasant phone calls home.  I actually got a hold of one student’s mother.  After explaining to her that her son couldn’t keep his hands to himself, seemed very hyperactive, ripped the arm off of the chair in the auditorium, and had to be escorted out by the resource officer, I asked if she had any insights.  She said, “no”.  But then she did something I did not expect – she hung up.

I was stunned. 

I have endured countless parental rants over the past five years.  I have been called many things via email, over the phone, and to my face.  I have been threatened.  But I have never, ever had a parent hang up on me.  I didn’t even know if she was angry.  Did she hear what I said?  Did she understand that I wasn’t trying to indict her as a parent?  After all that, how could she just hang up?  Did she just not care?

It was then that I began to get a clearer picture of my student, because it’s really the parents who tell you what you need to know.  This woman, whatever her circumstances, hung up.  If she hung up on me, how did she treat her son every day?  What kind of situation has she found herself in that makes it ok to do that?  And how do I respond to that as a teacher?