One of my fifth grade special education students scared me. The first time I’d met his mother she told me the unvarnished truth that she had been beaten by her ex-husband and that he had been a witness. She knew he’d been affected but I’m afraid she failed to appreciate the depth of his trauma. Though he had his mother’s innate sweetness he also had his father’s brutality and he was subject to abrupt personality changes that he could neither understand nor control, though he clearly hated the violence within. One morning he entered the classroom in with his mild demeanor but tightly clenching a pair of scissors in his fist. I asked him if he might be willing to put them down in my least threatening voice. “No,” he told me, “I need them for protection.” He then sat down at the computer with three other students. He didn’t appear to be a threat to them. Two of them were scheduled for speech therapy twenty minutes into the period, so I surreptitiously sent a note to the office requesting help at that time. When the time came the other student left and the counselor arrived. She asked for the scissors. In response, he barricaded himself behind my desk and refused to give them up. After a few minutes of conversation and about the time I was ready to dial 911, he began hyperventilating and complaining of chest pains. He then gave her the scissors and went willingly to the office. He admitted the fears that caused him to pick up the scissors and we discussed his need for counseling.
We made it another year without serious incident. Then, his personality began to show a significant strain. He began refusing to do any school work and using a belligerent tone with his teachers. When I confronted him about his rudeness, he would reply that “At least I’m not cussing at them.” Finally, when his math teacher found him in a bathroom in a restricted area of the building and asked what he was doing there, he just said- “DUH.” We’d all had enough. The principal placed him in in-school restriction. He refused to work there and began banging on the wall so she suspended him for the day. When the principal called his mother accused her of picking on him. We scheduled a conference and it began acrimoniously. Charlotte, the math teacher and I shared our frustration with his refusal to work and behave. I shared an article about the effects of childhood trauma which included hostility and non-compliance. This meeting which began in anger ended in tears and smiles. Later that afternoon, mother and child burst into my classroom with their sixth month old puppy in his arms. She told me that he just wanted to show us his dog. Given the exhausting demands of teaching, I don’t often feel great about being a teacher and, given the way people behave, I don’t often feel great about being human. When he came into my room with that dog, I felt great about both.
The editorial view of teachers is a monochrome- if we paid them more we would get better teachers- and uniformed. Plenty of smart people try out the classroom for a year or two, see what they are up against and quit because they don’t have the heart for it. Other very smart people see what they are up against and can’t bring themselves to walk away. I’ve worked with a lot of them and I am happy to be one of them.
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