I remember this feeling. The same one I had every day of my first year of teaching. What have I done? Can I do this? I don’t think I can do this? When will it get better? If I’m so smart, how is it that this little posse of 7th-graders can have me so tied in knots, struggling to make it through the day with a thimble-full of sanity left in the tank?
I walk down the hall to my classroom and flip the lights to chase the gloom. I hang up my coat and unload my backpack into neat piles on my desk; graded papers here, lessons in the manila folders there, laptop. Another morning and another attempt to impose order on the day.
I visit the main office to check my mail and, there, on the counter is a Dunkin’ Donuts box of coffee and a tray of a dozen doughnuts lying open. Boston Cremes, jelly, glazed, all my favorites. Teachers love doughnuts. More than cops, teachers love doughnuts.
I had half a mind to flop down in the chair and spill my guts to anyone who would listen but my principal was already deep in conversation with someone. Her back was to me but I she was nodding and I could tell they were both smiling. Old friends?
I felt better anyway. Hot black coffee and a Boston Creme are magical together. Spanish was in full swing by the time I headed back to my room and, not wanting to interrupt, I wandered down to see the English teacher and pick her brain about how we should approach our first Peer Relations class. I had brought in a cooperative game consisting of two joint compound buckets, about four-dozen tennis balls and sixteen lengths of sash cord. It’s called Nuclear Waste.
I’m not sure how the conversation shifted to her first year in the alternative program. Maybe she could read my mind but she said that the kids circulated a petition to get her fired. It was rough, she said. There was this one girl she remembered being especially tough. Perhaps she was the one who started the petition, she didn’t know, didn’t remember. But this girl had a real temper. So angry.
There was this one day when the girl just flew off the handle, throwing desks, ripping things off the wall, yelling, screaming, and like a twister, she left and rolled down the hall spinning as she went all nails and hair. She went into the bathroom and continued to destroy everything in her path. The mirrors, towel dispensers and, one by one, the stall doors. She ripped them from their hinges and sent them pin-wheeling into the hallway. One, door, two doors, three doors…
And then she stopped. Behind that third door, there was a little kid. A girl from the day-care program had gotten lost and gone to the wrong bathroom. And there she was, staring back at this cyclone of anger and destruction, an innocent kid, mouth open, frozen in wide-eyed fear.
“That’s it!” The angry girl yelled as she rolled back down the hall through her own trail of discussion. “That’s it!” Kicking the door open to the classroom she had left and slamming it behind her. “We need to have a meeting.” She opened the door again, this time in quiet control and explained to the faculty and onlookers that had gathered there that she knew she was in trouble but asked if she and her classmates could have a few moments for a team meeting.
“It’s over,” she began. “We can’t do this anymore. I’m scaring little kids, now, and that’s not cool.”
She and her classmates spent the better part of an hour talking and when they finally opened the door, they had drafted an apology for their behavior and a plan to make it up to the little girl they had frightened. It was almost Halloween and they suggested a costume parade. The angry girl and her classmates would be the judges and organize everything including the prizes.
When the day of the parade arrived, everyone got a prize. “Everybody deserves to be recognized,” they said.
“And the rest of the year was better?” I asked. There was a long pause. It was still a long year.
“But that coffee in your hand?” she said. “That angry girl brought it in. It was a ‘Thank you’ from her.”