When An Hour Lasts Forever
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. This 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.
Slice of Life is the weekly Story Challenge on Two Writing Teachers. Come write along with us!