Wednesday, June 21st , 1978, remains a day of transformation for me. It was the last day of school for the students of my first year of being an assistant teacher. I walked out to a virtually empty, expansive parking lot. I had a box of my personal things in my arms – folders, stapler, pens, books – knowing somewhere inside that I wasn’t coming back the next year even though Sam, the head teacher and my good friend, was trying to convince me otherwise. As I neared my light blue VW bug, I knew that something was wrong.
Picture a car covered in smashed eggs, dripping down windows and doors; mushed watermelon allover the windshield with the rinds tucked on top of windshield wipers, and seen through the back window: my tennis racquet shattered, strings limp and misshapen on the back seat.
As I opened the door to put the box next to the ruined racquet, I remember biting my lip, refusing to give into tears there. It was quite likely that the kids who had ruined my car and racquet were in the woods waiting for the thrill of my crumpling into a heap of sadness. I would not give them that satisfaction.
I waited until I was a mile down the road from the school parking lot to pull over and cry. Something happened as I was parked there as it often does when you are in depths of darkness. Somehow I found strength in me I didn’t know I had.
Feeling something new and quite powerful, I called Ronnie’s mother when I got home (this was well before cell phones), a parent I had come to know well and who lived close to the school.
“Please go look in your refrigerator to see if you are missing any eggs.”
When she came back on the phone with a yes, I asked, “Is Ronnie there?
“Yes – Scott, Chuck, and Steve.”
“Keep them there; I am coming over right now with a ruined car that they are going to clean, and I want $80 for the tennis racquet that they smashed.”
I drove over to Ronnie’s house, and the three boys were on the curb with buckets and sponges.
“That was cruel, mean, and wrong what you three did to my car. Let’s go – clean this car like it’s never been cleaned before,” I said.
I left an hour later with eighty dollars, a sparkling car, a stronger voice, and my integrity.
That entire year had been a trial – one that I really didn’t pass until that moment. I was scared and panicked most of the time I was in the room with these fifteen seventh grade students who had been corralled in one contained classroom because they were deemed by other classroom teachers as too disruptive to be with others. Each had some experience with the local police as well. Basically, I was ineffective at garnering any authority. Sam, the head teacher, was an ex-Navy, 6’3” bundle of positive energy – he had control of them. When he left the classroom in my unable hands for even minutes to copy something or make a phone call, we were always in or teetering on pandemonium. Two particularly tough kids, Ronnie and Roxy, had sensed my vast vulnerabilities and made my life in the classroom a version of hell – where I was completely not in control. And then there was Chuck, who always deflated the tires in my VW bug at my home in the cover of night (an unfortunate neighbor to have in Cundy’s Harbor) so he’d have entertainment as he’d see me filling up the tires with my bike pump on his way to school in his father’s pick-up. I was bad at my job, and I was having no fun. In fact there were a lot of tears.
But that moment of utter failure and sadness at the end of a very difficult year released potency I had needed to excavate. Kids needed fair, clear consequences, and I needed to feel that I was following my moral compass. Bad behavior needs immediate, appropriate response. Honestly, I’m not sure why it took me so long to realize these important truths as a leader. My post-college idealism and optimism were too ingrained perhaps. Certainly, I had never had any training in how to manage a group of kids, especially a challenging group of kids. I just didn’t know the importance of setting clear rules, having fair consequences, and the magnitude of being comfortable with being unpopular. Once I realized the importance of integrity over popularity, I was on solid footing as a teacher.
And I decided to stay another year. The next year with these kids was not easy. Once after a field trip to a fish farm, I had to get all of the kids who drove with me to sit in my locked car for twenty minutes with the windows rolled up until one of them told me where he had hidden the dead fish – it was behind the speaker panel in the back seat. Who brings a screwdriver on field trips?
However, I started to be myself, laugh with the students, and was sort of able to control this unwieldy, disruptive group most of the time. When one said, Fuck you, I didn’t unravel. I had a plan, didn’t mind being disliked, and learned not to take things so personally. These kids needed to lash out; so much had gone wrong in their lives. When they weren’t angry and I was being clear and consistent, we learned about having fun together.