These Damn Kids: A Short Story about Almost-Wasted Potential

Think about what this would be like: Every single day, you have forty kids in front of you.  Your job is to ensure that they end up as functioning, contributing members of society.  Unfortunately, they’re constantly pushing the boundaries to see what they can get away with.  Half of them realize, up front, that they’ll get no quarter when it comes to stupidity and ignorance.  The other half, however, just refuse to accept defeat.  Their exorbitant pride will not let them look like they’re being told what to do by this authority figure, especially if he’s white!  Oh, and I forgot to mention, you have to teach them things and have them perform well on tests to ensure that you keep your job, all the while they’re declaring war on you and your policies.

Teaching is obviously frustrating at times.  You know what, though?  If everything was perfect and everyone swallowed the pill given them, I wouldn’t enjoy my job as much.  I’ll liken it to my love for writing.  I love to write classical music and I love blogging.  Sometimes though, things don’t just happen the way I would like.  The music doesn’t sound like I wanted, or I just cannot find the right wording to shape my thoughts perfectly.  That’s when I get frustrated.  Not because it’s not going the way I intended, but because my art is not living up to its potential.  Potential is very important to me, and to other teachers.  I’m equally as concerned with all of my students, but I notice many more issues with the black students than the white ones, to be frank.

Addicted To Cool

Black boys are overly concerned with being “cool.”  Actually, boys in general are, but usually the white kids will cut it out and do what they’re supposed to do when you get after them.  I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing, or if we white people just scare easily.  That’s not always the case with African-American boys.  Their “coolness” is a way of life for them.  They feel that it should trump all other pursuits, and everything they do is for the sake of being the coolest.  It frustrates me, because it presents a huge barrier to learning, not only educational material but life lessons.  I’ve read that being addicted to something keeps you at the same age mentally as you were when the addiction began.  So, for example, a person is 23 when they become an alcoholic, mentally they will stay 23 until they kick the addiction.  I see these boys’ desire to be “cool” as an addiction, because it is a “compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal,” according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.  It is, a) compulsive in that there is pressure from their peers to behave as such; b) habit-forming in that the person feels the need to keep up the façade indefinitely; c) characterized by tolerance because eventually they do not have to “try” to be this idiot, they just are; and d) upon realizing that being “cool” is really just acting like a child on a consistent basis (withdrawal), there are years of uncertainty of self because they haven’t developed their own personality yet (symptoms).  Unfortunately, these boys’ addiction is even more detrimental to black girls than it is for the boys.

Oh, you young black girls and women.  My heart is wrenched out of my chest every day to see so many of you try to be something you’re not, for the sake of impressing a group of people who do not have your best interests at heart.  Do not take this as a berating of black men, but as anger toward men of any color who do not respect you for what you are.  If the black boys frustrate me, then the black girls break my heart.  I cannot say enough about the topic of young black girls and women, but I promise I will dedicate a post just to you in the future, ladies.  This one is already much too long, and the story I have to tell is only going to make it longer.  I hope that you’ll continue to read.

Mental Anguish

You have to realize that there are a number of kids that are mentally distressed.  They haven’t had boundaries set for them, and so their minds are confused about what is right and what is wrong.  They would never admit that, and so their mental thought process translates to acting out.  Then, others of them have unhealthy desires for attention.  This leads to all sorts of problems, sexual promiscuity being one of the more dangerous ones.  We’ve caught kids having sex in the bathroom, just to name one of the more tame instances that I know of.  I’ve heard of much worse things going on from other teachers and students.  These things frustrate me to no end.  All I want is for these kids to grow up to be upstanding, contributing members of society with strong morals and values.  When I see that this is not the case, I get frustrated.  This frustration causes me to discipline students when they act out.  It causes me to get after them when I see them not performing to the level at which they are capable.  This might sound a little odd, but it’s a good thing they frustrate me so much.

Problem Child

Here’s a story about a student with a lot of potential that was almost wasted on trying to be too cool:  Let’s call this student Benjamin.  Benjamin is a small, black Freshman with a Napoleon complex, an attitude problem, and an unhealthy need for attention – a lethal combination.  The word on the wire is that Benjamin got put in one of my classes (general music, the class that kids who need a fine art credit but don’t want to do band, choir, drama or art join.  It’s quite the interesting mesh of students) because he wasn’t doing well in another class.  I don’t think that’s true, but I can see how the rumor got started because I have a lot of kids in this class for whom this could be the case, upon checking their grades.  For the first few days of the term, Benjamin was testing me.  I would do rhythm exercises where I would have the kids pat their desks and attempt to find the strong and weak beats to their favorite music, in an attempt to determine the meter.  The first day, Benjamin slammed his hands on his desk to the beat and laughed.  This lasted about three beats before I was in his face.  His hand stopped in midair.  “Slam that hand down one more time,” I growled, my face about a foot away from his.  He was visibly perplexed.  I could see the wheels turning in his head, weighing the options.  He didn’t know me very well yet, so he was unsure of what I would do.  He put his hands down.

Next day, similar stuff.  He’s distracting other students, as I start class.  He’s yelling across the room and dancing.  Everyone quiets down as I just stare at him.  It takes him a second to realize why his peers aren’t looking at him and laughing anymore.  They’re all looking at me, but he’s still looking at them.  He turns to look at me and stops.  We stare at each other for a few seconds, and he starts to smile.  He’s starting to get the idea that I won’t do anything when he acts up.  I stare at him for a good solid minute.  It’s getting really uncomfortable in the classroom.  I can see his thought process slowly go from one of, “this guy is a doormat,” to “this guy is possibly crazy.”  He sits down.  I’m starting to get frustrated with this kid.  I call him up after class and have a conversation with him.  “Benjamin, how old are you?”  “14.”  “Is 14 the age of a child?”  “No.”  “No, what?”  “No.”  “Look me in my face and say ‘no, sir.'”  -begrudging shift of the eyes toward me, but still at a slant-  “No. Sir.”  “Benjamin, if 14 isn’t the age of a child, then why are you acting like one?”  “I don’t know.”  “‘I don’t know’ is not an acceptable answer. Why are you still acting like a child at 14? Would you prefer to be in middle school?”  “No.”  “No, what?”  “No, sir.”  Now we’re getting somewhere, but I’m still frustrated.  “You better not come to my class acting like fool anymore, do you understand me?”  “Yes, sir.”  “Good.  Have a good day.”  He leaves.

Third day.  Half of the class period goes by with no trouble, but around the middle of class, Benjamin decides to act like a child again.  I do my staredown until he notices me and looks.  He starts to smile again, but remembers that I’m quite possibly insane.  “Benjamin, do you remember our chat from yesterday?”  “Yeah.”  “‘Yes, sir’ or ‘no, sir’ are the only acceptable answers in this situation.”  It has become clear to me, by now, that he has a need for attention so I decide to give it to him – though he’s not gonna like it. “Yes.”  “Say ‘yes, sir.'” He stares, slant-eyed, at me and slowly and ever-so-disrespectfully says, “yes, sir.”  “Benjamin, do you see that corner over there?” I point to the corner of the room. “Yes.” “Act up one more time in my class, and that’s your new home.  Your nose will be in that corner so long that when you try to leave it’ll break off.”  Several students laugh and he stares at me, not quite believing me.  I go on with class as normal, but I am inordinately frustrated with this kid.  He’s consistently disrupting kids from the learning process, and especially the three black girls near him that are very smart.  I’ve found that black girls are usually some of the smartest kids in my classes, but they feel the need to be seen as cool by the black boys so they allow the boys to distract them.  It drives me nuts.

Fourth day.  I catch students passing notes every now and then, and I’ll take them from them and either read them or hold on to them and use them as motivation.  You know, stuff like, “if you get an A on your next test then I won’t read this out loud” if it’s a really embarrassing note.  I’ve never had a student NOT get an A on their next test when they’ve got their pride on the line.  This particular note was from Benjamin to another trouble-maker in my class.  We’ll call her Sandra.  I stop class, as usual.  I walk up to Benjamin and stick my face right up in front of his.  “What’s this, Benjamin?” “Nothing.” “Give it to me.”  He gives me the note and I read it.  It’s at this point that my body tightens up and I feel the blood rush to my ears.  I’m about to pick this kid up by his poorly-lined ‘fro-puff and shake him.  The note said, “are you still a virgin?”  I cannot tell you how mad I was that this little jackass was trying to make sexual advances to another 14-year old.  “Get up.” I said, as calmly as I could muster, which was not very calm at all.  “Corner,” I said.  He just stared at me.  “Take your eyes off of me and move your little feet over to that corner.  Stick your nose in there and do NOT move.  That is your new home and that is where you’ll be every day until you can learn to assimilate into normal society.”  He kept staring at me until one of his peers said, “you better go!” “Yes, you had better,” I snarled.  He walked slowly to the corner and turned to look at me.  “Nose. In the corner.”  He faced the wall.

Several times throughout the class period he tried to turn and face the class, and every time I would stop what I was doing and tell him to turn back around, not in a manner that suggested asking.  The next day he tried to sit in his seat.  “No, sir,” I said.  “That’s not your home.”  “Seriously?!” He asked, bewildered that his punishment was not yet over.  “Seriously,” I replied.  The whole hour-and-a-half block he stood with his nose in the corner, not once turning around.  Just before the end of class I called over to him while everyone watched.  “Benjamin, do you feel stupid?” No answer.  “Because you look stupid, over there in the corner like a child.”  The bell rang, and everyone left.  I called him over before he could get out of the door.  He stared at the floor, still mad.  “Look at me.”  He did, with the same slant eyes.  “Take that look off your face.”  He did.  “You want to sit with your peers tomorrow?”  “Yes, sir.”  “Are you going to act like a young adult, or a child?”  “An adult.”  “Good. This is your last chance. One more childish action on your part and you are out of my class. I’m certain your mom and dad, and the principles will not be happy about that.”  “Yes, sir.”  “Good. Have a good day.”

For the last two weeks, I have not had a problem with “Benjamin.”  He’s still his vibrant self, but he reigns it in when he sees that I’m about to say something to him.  I just have to give him the look and he says, “sorry” with this “oh, ****” look on his face.  It almost makes me laugh, but I have to act like a tough guy.  I’m not a tough guy, but tough love is the best remedy for what ails these kids, and his addiction to being cool was definitely an ailment causing him to waste his potential.

I’m not in the business of breaking the spirit of a child, but I am in the business of breaking bad behavior.  As I said before, these kids and their bad behavior frustrate me, and other teachers.  For those of you with kids, and those of you concerned about our children, just know that your teachers are frustrated.  And that it’s a great thing.  If we didn’t care how your kids turned out, we wouldn’t be frustrated.  As a matter of fact, we would just let their bad behavior go and ignore it, allowing them to continue to waste their potential.  What would we care?  We’d still be getting paid the abysmal salary that we get.  But we do care.  We care so much that it hurts and pisses us off.  Pain makes me angry.  When I experience physical pain, I get mad.  It’s the same for us teachers when we experience emotional pain.  We experience pain at the thought that a student of ours could grow up to do something awful to another human being, and we could have done something to prevent them from becoming that person.  That’s why I say that it’s good to be frustrated.  It makes me work harder to make you into a better person, kid.  So, Benjamins of the world, I wish you the best of luck trying to hold on to that ignorance when you come into my classroom.  I’m good at what I do, so you’ll need all the luck in the world.

I love These Damn Kids,

 

– Teach