I went to school early to become familiar with the layout of the building and to put my lesson plans and activities in order. The classroom looked like those in the states: rows of flip-top desks with attached swivel chairs; counters strewn with spiral notebooks, teacher’s manuals, and paint tins; hanging cupboards stacked with yellowed bank boxes; bulletin boards covered with faded construction paper; dusty green chalk boards; and a stopped-up sink. It even smelled the same - sour milk, musty gym shoes, and bologna odors hovered in the stale air, trapped by painted-shut, screenless windows.
At one time, schools were built for function, not comfort. A couple of doors, a principal’s office, classrooms along a bleak hallway, a windowless multi-purpose room in the basement, which served as a gym, auditorium, and lunchroom, and open-stalled bathrooms, made an adequate facility to hold children captive while they learned the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, or until they turned sixteen. It didn’t matter if kids were hot, cold, bored, or constipated.
I placed a red welcome sign on the bulletin board and a curly ivy on my desk to brighten up the institutional appearance.
It was the middle of October in Quebec. I had been hired to take over a third grade class at Hampstead Elementary School, one of several English-speaking schools of the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal. According to Carol Miller, the principal, the teacher just up and left at recess one day and never returned. A cardinal rule in education is never, but never, leave school children unsupervised. I figured there must have been some nasty mosquito up her butt to cause her to make such a drastic, unprofessional move. Carol thought the teacher had suffered a nervous breakdown. I’ll say. I pitied that poor, inexperienced rookie who couldn’t manage eight and nine-year olds, not to mention her chosen career.
Educationalese comes in handy during an interview, and I inserted as many phrases as I could without sounding pretentious: Differentiated Instruction, Criterion-referenced Assessments, and all the levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. I was glib and confident. But Carol seemed more interested in my experience as a disciplinarian than in my ability to spout off instructional jargon. It wasn’t so much that I had been an elementary teacher for four years in Delaware and Vermont - it was that I had served as a reform school childcare worker in a locked institution for delinquent girls and was currently a group home parent for seven incorrigible female wards of the state who thought all adults were useless.
Carol told me a little about this particular batch of third graders. “They’re not quite, ah, how should I put it, obedient. They like to fool around, talk, act silly. They don’t pay very close attention to the teacher. They’re . . . ah . . . a bit difficult.”
If “well, duh,” had been a popular phrase at the time, it would have leaked out. What did she expect? These were little kids. Don’t little kids fool around? talk? act silly? not pay attention? She thought that was difficult? I wanted the job, and I didn’t want to sound impertinent, so I said something diplomatic and professionally strategic. “That’s unfortunate. Sounds like they need some rules and a bit of structure.”
I knew plenty about bad behavior. I’d had clothes thrown in my face and plastic forks poked into my ribs. I’d been threatened with bread knives and locked in the cellar. Her description of “difficult” sounded like petty annoyances compared to the all but near-death confrontations I’d experienced with crazed adolescent girls bent on making me go berserk.
Carol mentioned something about my having the grit and fortitude to take over this class mid-term without her needing to monitor me very much. She hired me on the spot. I was thrilled. I could switch my housemother’s job from full to part time, and my husband, now finished with his McGill class work, could become the full-time housefather. If this teaching gig worked out, we could leave the house parenting business altogether. The sooner I got away from the debilitating turmoil of the group home and the pervasive fear of retaliation, the better. And I was sure we’d make it because it wasn’t likely a bunch of little kids from an upscale community of primarily white-collar workers would get my goat.
I stood at the door to greet my new scholars.
The bell rang. They stampeded down the hallway, smashing into each other to be first at the coat rack. Book bags, back packs, lunch pails, jackets, and gym uniforms were thrown hither and yon on the floor beneath the hooks, which stayed empty of a single coat. Shouts tumbled over each other. “Watch out, you jerk, that’s mine!” and “Piss off” and “You stepped on my lunch,” and “Na-na-na-na-na-na!” and “She’s here!” and “Hey guys! We got a new one!” An unintelligible cacophony of little-girl shrieks and little-boy bellows grew into a discordant symphony as though orchestral instruments were fighting for their space on the planet.
I shushed them to quiet down. I tried to make eye contact and speak directly to a couple of them. They neither looked at me nor listened. I picked up a few coats and put them on the hooks. The kids threw them right back to the floor. Nothing worked. One red-headed, freckled boy shoved me aside as he entered the room . “Move over Stupid; you’re in my way.” He slithered into a desk labeled Jimmy, and swiveled back and forth in his chair until he was greeted by his friends, at which time they moved to the floor under the bulletin board and whispered and giggled and shot defiant glances in my direction.
At the second bell, the rest of the children charged in from the hallway - some to their seats, but most to the floor - chattering with each other as though summer vacation had just begun. I shut the door so the other teachers couldn’t see nor hear what was going on, but I think they already knew, considering they had all shut their doors earlier while my students created chaos in the hall. I did wonder why not one teacher had stepped into my room to welcome me, or even give me a generic greeting, “Welcome to Hampstead. Have a nice day.”
So there I was - a trained teacher, a tough disciplinarian, and an expert, I thought, at building rapport with youngsters - responsible for the educational progress of twenty-four wild banshees who currently were running around, tossing spiral notebooks, performing hand stands and summersaults in the corner, tearing down my welcome sign, and dumping the dirt out of my curly ivy.
I was in the middle of a teacher’s nightmare and I couldn’t wake up. Terror swelled my throat shut and cemented my feet to the floor. Paralyzed by indecision, I watched in disbelief as the students poured paint into the sink, drew nude bodies on the board, complete with breasts and penises, smeared Elmer’s Glue around the tops of their desks with their forearms, and then blew the glue dry so they could peel it off in long strips and roll it up into balls to throw at each other – and me.
Finally, after what seemed like an hour, but was probably just a few minutes, I fixed my voice an octave below normal and boomed at them with the force of a drill sergeant. “STOP! NOW! RIGHT NOW! And SIDDOWN! They stopped and looked at me, a little astonished, I think. No one moved. “I SAID SIDDOWN! NOW!”
One or two kids sat down. Jimmy didn’t, nor did his entourage. I threw Jimmy’s bottle of Elmer’s Glue into the garbage.
“You can’t do that – that’s mine.” He reached for the bottle.
I stuck my foot into the can and pushed the glue toward the bottom, hoping it wouldn’t end up on my shoe when I pulled it out. I said, “You touch that glue, and you’ll sit in this room with me until midnight!”
“You can’t do that either. That’s against the law.”
“Try me, you little squirt! I’m new here. What do I care?”
Jimmy sat down. Without his glue. But he grinned at me. Then the others sat down, grinning, waiting.
Immediately, my moral code sent me into a tailspin of regret and worry. Each of these evil brats - probably all tattletales - had heard me call Jimmy a nasty name and tell him I didn’t care if I broke the law. I decided to recapture my integrity as a teacher and start at the beginning, as if these were normal children in a normal classroom. I introduced myself and wrote my name on the board. “Hi, I’m Mrs. Searl, and I will be your teacher for the rest of the year.”
Giggles, taunts, ridicule, hoots, jeers, and heckles. From various desks came new names for me and their echoes. “Mrs. Cereal, Mrs. Serious, Mrs. Hurl, Mrs. Whirl, Twirly Pants, and Mrs. Surly.” Other than thinking there must be a smart one in the crowd, I was at once appalled and terrified by the absolute disdain for authority these children were willing to display. The pride they demonstrated for each new corruption of common decency indicated that I needed to watch my back. Nothing, not one thing, in my repertoire of disciplinary techniques worked. I couldn’t stop them. I couldn't reason with them. I couldn't control them. They were the most unresponsive beings I had ever encountered, and I was totally out of my element. This group of hell raisers had me in a stranglehold and they knew it. Even the knife-waving, fork-prodding, cellar-door shutting group home girls didn’t throw me into as much of a fear cyclone as these little human horrors.
I tried my best to tamp down my panic and ignore the paper airplanes, unauthorized bathroom visits, encores of Elmer’s Glue desk-smearing, continued interruptions and manglings of my name, whispering, note passing, farts, burps, and chair swiveling as I struggled to teach one spelling lesson and one math lesson. Only a handful of kids wrote anything on their papers or into their workbooks. The others didn’t even bother to take them out of their desks. I figured four out of twenty-four was better than nothing. I could report 1/6 of my school population was responsive. That’s good in some cultures.
The lunch bell rang and the kids hightailed it out the door. I heard Jimmy say as he shot by, “Let’s see how long it takes to get rid of Mrs. Searl.” At least he got the name right.
I recalled the principal’s portrayal of this bunch of deranged Dennis the Menaces, these Cujos in human form. “Not obedient. Like to fool around. Talk. Act silly. Won’t pay attention. Difficult.” Where had my perceptive brain been? I knew how to read between the lines, and I knew how to read people. What had I missed? I must have been so infatuated with the idea of escaping the confines of the group home, I had surrendered my intuitive abilities and seized this job before making a thorough analysis. Who was I to judge their previous teacher? Now I thought of her as courageous for making it all the way through September and into the middle of October with this herd of feral beasts.
I stayed in my room during lunch and tried to reconnect with my humanity. Exhausted and utterly intimidated by this gang of bandits, I was sure I wouldn’t get through the rest of the day. And the disappointment at losing an opportunity to quit the group home made me weep.
Then I got mad. To hell with ‘em. I thought. Let’m rot. I’ll just read stories for the entire afternoon. If they listen, fine. If they don’t, fine. I won’t be back tomorrow anyway, so it doesn’t matter.
When the students plowed into their seats after lunch, I started to read to them in a very quiet voice. All eyes settled on me. All ears receptive. It was a miracle. I read to them for the rest of the day. As long as I read to them, no one shouted obscenities, no one left for the bathroom, no one mangled my name, and no one squirted glue. A glimmer of civility trickled through. Once the stories were over, all hell broke loose, and we were back to chaos until it was time to go home.
Sheer determination and an ounce of hope sent me back into the ring. I refused to let the fear of Terrible Tiny Town keep me from knocking some decency into their ill-mannered noggins. Very early the next morning, I returned to the classroom with empty boxes and baskets. I removed all items from the students’ desks, packed and labeled everything, and stored them on the shelves made by the hanging cupboards around the perimeter of the room. As the students arrived, I handed each one a pencil and a stapled collection of simple math and vocabulary papers. I said, “Sit down, do this, and don’t talk. When you’re finished with one do the next one until you’ve finished everything.”
My new approach to behavior control in that classroom saved my sanity and my career. I should have published the program I created that day, because years later, the same concepts and techniques became well-known in the educational arena as Assertive Discipline, and had I published mine before Lee and Marlene Cantor published theirs, I could have made millions.
Rather than going into the details of my new program, I’ll just mention that by the end of the day, I had five students staying after school, three until 6:30 pm. I jumped through a series of persuasive hoops to get the parents on my side, especially the single mother of the boy I smacked up-side the head because his insolence caused my hand to rise with a will of its own, bringing a sobering sting to his left cheek. Carol Miller was sympathetic, but a bit rattled at the thought of police intervention. If the mother didn’t sue me, Carol wouldn’t fire me. Fortunately, the mother was as disoriented and spacy as her son was unmanageable. She looked at me with over-medicated eyes and murmured, “Gee, Derek must have made you really mad.” Then her gaze slowly veered off into the hinterlands of some dream world as she lost all mental contact with her surroundings.
Time, structure, and plenty of consistency transformed the trouble-making energy of these tykes into potentially courteous beings. And it took plenty of resolve to remember that these little butt-heads deserved to be appreciated and respected as much as anyone else. I designed and followed a slow, steady educational path, easing into instruction gradually with lots of discipline sandwiched between lots of compliments. By December, they were a functioning class with a modicum of appropriate behaviors and the ability to sit almost through an entire lesson without interruption.
It was at our class Christmas play that I received some recognition for my endeavors. A school psychologist had come to watch Sarah, a particularly needy student, perform the starring role. The play parts had been drawn from a hat, and skinny Sarah, a scrawny kid with decaying, buck teeth, drew the part of Santa. A co-worker told me that Sarah was the worst possible choice for Santa, just as she had told me, on and off since I had arrived, that using worksheets was the worst possible way to educate, regardless of the reason, and keeping kids after school for two hours listening to them vent about their home lives was the worst possible way to discipline, and reading and illustrating stories all afternoon was the worst possible way to teach literature.
The play was a smash hit, and Sarah took her Santa bow with the widest, most rotten–toothed grin ever seen on that stage to the loudest, most appreciative applause ever heard by that class.
Later at lunch, I understand, my skeptic co-worker asked the psychologist what she thought of my teaching style. The psychologist took a sip of her tea, put down the cup, and smiled. “How do you improve perfection?”
That afternoon Jimmy took his book bag and coat off his hook and waved a friendly good-bye. “I liked our play. See you tomorrow, Mrs. Searl.”
I may have started in October, but I arrived in December.