Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Una selva selvaggia

Una selva selvaggia. 

Translation: a savage forest.  It’s from Danté Aligheri’s Divine Comedy.  My understanding of it is hazy at best having struggled through layer after layer of The Inferno as a freshman studying Italian.  No doubt my professor’s idea of a little joke.  Ha, ha!
What I got out of it besides a shoe box containing 16,737 vocabulary flash cards and a well-worn Italian-English dictionary was that Danté had it all figured out; life is Hell and there’s plenty more where that came from.
Una selva selvaggia.  I love to say it.  Such a beautiful language.
I have been wondering what happens to students if they can’t make it in the alternative program.  Is it like The Inferno?  Different levels of Hell arranged in succession further and further away from the good place, wherever or whatever that is?  If you can’t handle it here, then where do you go?  Misbehave in class and you sit in the hall.  Do it enough and you sit in the office.  If that’s not enough, then the principal explains the meaning of life to you through the sports analogies that you may or may not understand; yellow cards, penalty box, infield fly rule.  Too many men on the ice.  Three-second violation.  Offsides.
But if you threaten a teacher?
Well, we had a student.  A skinny kid who moved like a villainous shadow.  Unsettled.  He liked to hum so he sounded like an electrical transformer.  Lots of current ran through that boy.  Dangerous voltage.  But tell him he couldn’t sit here or not to do that and he exploded in a shower of sparks.
He snapped on me one day.  Said he was going to pummel me.  Huffed around the class.  Left.  Returned.  Left again.
He had to meet with the superintendent but he was back after spending a week downstairs sitting in the corner.  He did his work.  Best work I’ve ever seen out of him.
But he snapped again with an aide.  Then again with another teacher.
Then what happens?  I mean, there’s not much you can do.
I tend to think he should be sent to someplace where he might find out what it is to be tired, very tired.  To know tired intimately.  To explore all the kinds of tired.  A potato farm upstate.   A lumber camp in the Maine woods.  Another level of Hell that will make all the others seem downright comfy.  I forget who it was who said it but she thought it might actually be a waste of time to put middle school-aged boys in a classroom.  I forget but she was a famous educator.  It was someone well-respected.  Someone who wrote books on education.
Send them to a farm, she said. 
We got word that he was out.  That he had officially been labeled ‘unteachable.”  I didn’t know there was such a label.  I didn’t know there was such a thing.
What was going to happen to him?  The 3-5 program was a possibility.  He would sit with a tutor for two hours a day at the town library.  Then again, he might go back to the regular middle school although I found it difficult to believe.
But on Monday, there he was hopping out of his father’s car as though nothing had happened.  Had a long talk leaning through the window of his father’s Kia .  Dad assured me his son was ready to come back.
“He’s going to do good, now,” he said, pausing to take a long pull on a cigarette.  “I explained to him that he needs to just do what he’s supposed to do.  Say he’s sorry and he won’t do it again.”
I said my good-byes, made my way down the hall and poked my head inside a classroom to see how this kid was getting on with turning over that new leaf.
“That is such bullshit,” he was saying.  “I didn’t do hardly nothing and I got four days suspension.”
Some things get lost in translation.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Lifeboat

This was the one where the ship, after striking an iceberg, went down leaving thirty survivors adrift on the arctic sea in a lifeboat designed for a third that number.
In order to weather the oncoming storm, so the story went, the captain ordered most of the survivors overboard.
His reasoning? Better sacrifice some in order that others may survive. The curveball was that the captain kept the strongest while the weak went into the drink.
I don’t know if he had tryouts but there was a long row ahead for the survivors so he chose the ones he thought were up to the task.
It’s a moral dilemma. We presented the choice, one teacher and I, to a class of seventh-graders.
“Have you ever heard of a choice ‘between a rock and a hard place’,” my co-teacher asked. “Or 'the lesser of two evils', 'between the devil and the deep blue sea', 'between Scylla and Charybdis'?” The students’ expressions ranged from blank to confusion.
“Hobson’s choice?” I added unhelpfully.
On Friday, we do this kind of thing, weather permitting. We call it ‘Peer Relations Friday’. Cooperative games, mock trials, anything that might help these kids learn how to work together instead of tear each other down day after day.
“What would you do?” We asked. “Was the captain right?”
Many students refused to accept the choice. One suggested that the extra survivors could be tied together and hung overboard. We had a lengthy discussion about hypothermia and of how long a person could survive in frigid water. Immediately afterward, another student proposed the survivors take turns swimming. Again, an explanation of hypothermia. But the students had made up their minds and that hypothermia stuff is just more mumbo-jumbo from a grownup’s lips.
“But I can swim mad long in cold water,” another student insisted to cheers from the rest.
Much of what adults tell them is viewed with suspicion. It’s all a plot. A diabolical trick to get them to become old and ugly like us. It’s not time that makes you an old fart, it’s information punctuated by regular punishment for no apparent reason that makes your hair grow gray and fall out, makes your breasts, buttocks and jowels succumb to cruel gravity, makes you groan when you get up from a chair.
Their view, not mine.
But they may have a point.
Another student, the small one wearing impossibly tight clothes said, “I’d punch the captain in the mouth!” She knotted her tiny fist and punched an imaginary captain to emphasize her point.
I began to rethink the value of these ‘Peer Relations Fridays’...

“I have the list right here,” my co-teacher said in the teacher meeting the next morning. “But you all know who’s on it.” Yes, we did. We had our own lifeboat dilemma and the list represented the students we were giving up on. There was no hope for them and their presence in the classroom reduced everybody’s chance for survival; students and teachers alike.
So we made a class of the cast-offs.  Castaways.
We consigned them to a fate of being with each other so that the other kids, the ones willing to do a little work, to sit in their seats, to keep to themselves and allow the educational process to have a fighting chance. We ordered them overboard.
In the lifeboat dilemma, the captain was right. At least he was right in that the remaining people, the ones he chose, survived. Unfortunately, the story they told landed the captain in court charged with 20 counts of murder. The real dilemma wasn’t the captain’s. It was the jury’s in the courtroom.
Was he or was he not guilty of murder?