When An Hour Lasts Forever

B&W sketch of hoody with no face Along the edges of the room sat five or six kids who didn’t look up the entire time, or had their hoodies so tightly cinched around their faces only their eyes showed.

Another knot of kids chatted loudly as they draped themselves across seats in the back corner of the room. A table to one side held a kid I’d talked to on an earlier visit. “Where’s your skateboard?” I’d asked him on my way inside this morning. “Broken,” he answered curtly. Oooh, we’re having A Day, I thought as I signed in at the front desk. His mood hadn’t improved by the time class started.

I stood at the center of the room, next to a tall cart that held laptop, a document camera/projector, a box of sharpened pencils, papers, the messy piles that signify a teacher who’s running flat out to stay in place. I was used to being able to roam freely around the room. In this configuration, I felt distant from kids, held in place by the tall cart and pair of scowling young men who sat behind it.

A fat black cord plugged in at the front of the room divided the rest of the space in half. All around the room, kids avoided my gaze, glancing away if I happened to catch them looking at me.

The plan was simple: give the kids 20 minutes to read from a book of student work. Then I would have the kids do a writing activity the teacher could build on in the weeks that followed.

The room was big. It felt like it took a long time to walk around, hand each kid one of the slim books I’d brought. A few opened the book and thumbed through it. Others simply tossed it to the side. The talking continued.

I pushed on. Described the pieces in the book: by students who wrote about a time in their lives they knew they were different. “Jeez, why would you want to go back and relive it all over again,” said the girl sitting in the teacher’s chair, speaking to no one and to everyone. “I would never do that.”

Whatever I said was not equal to such a great question. I was flustered by the undercurrent of conversation, the comments lobbed from several directions, the scowls and stony looks that said exactly what they thought of me and my little activity. Broken red pencilThis was a lesson about to go down in flames.

I opened my book. In a big voice, I started to read. And the room quieted. I gave the page number of each piece and some kids started to follow along. But every time I thought the class, a group, might come together for a discussion, the moment splintered. I was realizing, slowly, that these were kids who needed so much individually they simply could not function as a group.  

Sometimes, as a friend of mine says, understanding is the booby prize. I might have seen something valuable, but not quickly enough to apply it. So I introduced the writing activity, then stood back, took a deep breath, and began to walk around the room, cajoling, smiling, encouraging. “Just give it a try,” I urged one boy. He shot me a look so strong I felt scorched. “No,” he said.  I moved on.

By the end of the period, well into the closing section of the lesson, many of the kids became excited, calling out the number of words they had written. One girl who had filled several pages with neat cursive patiently took the notebook of the boy next to her. She carefully counted the words he had written. Columns and columns of the same carefully printed word: “be.”

But he had written. And he had started the period not meeting my gaze and ended it looking me square in the eye. I figured that must count for something.

I learned a few things that will help me do better for these kids if I go back. And I remembered: even though poverty and racism and abuse may take on different appearances in different communities, there are scars we can’t imagine.

And the damage is always real.

the word "be" in white chalk on blackboard







Slice of Life is the weekly Story Challenge on Two Writing Teachers. Come write along with us!



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8 responses to “When An Hour Lasts Forever”

  1. Such a powerful piece. Loved this line: “ running flat out to stay in place.” But you did it. You made a difference. This gives hope in a dark place.

    • Karen says:

      JeNan, Thank you for reading. Thank you, too, for saying that I made a difference, but I am not sure I did. When I told my husband about my day, he asked if I thought the damage could ever be healed. For the first time ever, I heard myself hesitate and say, “I don’t know.” But I’m afraid I think the real answer may be “no”.

  2. Liz Majino says:

    Wow…your last line, “the damage is always real,” is so powerful. You did a superb job setting the scene and helping me see the room and the kids within it. I’ve received my fair share of scorching looks when trying to encourage my readers and writers, so I know just how that feels. I hope you do go back and continue to make space for these young people to make their voices heard when they are ready to do so!

    • Karen says:

      Thanks, Liz. You can almost hear flesh burning when they shoot you with those laser eyes! Glad you could come into that teaching space with me– it’s always better knowing that even we’re alone in our physical rooms, we’re shoulder to shoulder in the virtual trenches.

  3. Carol says:

    Your descriptions are why I teach middle school instead of high school. Maybe fewer scars there? I slip of hope left?

    • Karen says:

      I admire you– middle school kids take a special kind of energy. I wish I knew how to prevent hopelessness. How to heal scars. Most of the time, I’m still enough of a sucker to believe healing is possible, at any age.

  4. I am so glad you wrote this piece. So well captured, with so many honest moments/reflections and well crafted lines.
    The student who wrote columns of “be’s”- its like a poem.
    You kept on, and some participated. We don’t reach everyone equally- these kids show you more clearly than other groups would.
    I sure don’t know the answer but you stayed present.
    I’m going to share your piece with my friend who works with HS city kids in the justice system (a residential program.)

    • Karen says:

      Thanks, Fran. I’m pleased you want to share this with your friend.

      I wish I’d thought of that poem analogy. I think that might have meant something to that young man.

      I really appreciate your observation that these kids showed me their absolutely honest opinions, unlike kids who might have seemed more polite…. And thank you for reminding me of the importance of staying present.

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