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Teaching . . . Learning . . . Retiring

After teaching thirty-plus years, I fully understood what a good and decent principal had told me when we were discussing the aspect of retiring: “They say that you just will know when it is time,” he said very slowly and meaningfully.  I had arrived at that point not because of any particular revelation or event, but perhaps because of the coming together of many points of understanding. The first being my own promise to myself that when I didn’t have the requisite energy to be the very best, that I would move on and hopefully leave a spot for a younger, more energetic person to emerge and develop. Other considerations included my wife’s determination regarding her retirement. There were other issues but they merely added to what became my firm decision that it was my time to depart on good terms with students, parents, colleagues, and mostly, myself.

As I reflected on my years of teaching just about every subject within the Social Studies, as well as Spanish, and German, I pondered over one aspect that is usually neglected during retirement conversations. What advice would I give to colleagues, especially new teachers, about managing unusual situations in the classroom? In other words, how to develop the ability to decide what constitutes a major issue, what issues should be de-escalated (and how?), and what issue(s) should be laughed at and considered humorous as you move on. The following are some case studies (names changed, of course).

Gavin.

“I’m sorry I am late, I had to go to the cafeteria to get some ice,” Gavin showed me a large white cup. I thought nothing of it, assuming he had a minor medical issue — maybe a sore throat or a sprain, etc.  He took his seat, opened his notebook. I was happy that he seemed to be thoroughly engrossed in the details of the most important Supreme Court case we would study, Marbury vs. Madison. How could anyone not be excited about the significance of this case in establishing the supremacy of the Court. He propped his head up on his right elbow with his hand covering his ear. Perhaps he was suffering from an ear ache. Anyway, I was impressed with his attention as he seemed to follow my every word and those of his classmates. Some twenty minutes into the details of the appointment of judges, he raised his hand:

“Can I go to the restroom to get some paper towels — my ear is bleeding.”

Somewhat alarmed, I responded: “Sure, what happened? Do you need someone to go with you?  Are you feeling faint?

“Oh, no, it’s nothing major.”  I wondered if someone had punched him in the ear during lunch? Or, was he stung by one of the many wasps that seemed to be everywhere around the school.

The minute he left the room, however, several students gave me some insight into his behavior.  He had been sitting in my class on the front row feigning interest but, in reality, piercing his right ear lobe. Wanting to perform the operation hygienically, he was using a safety pin which he had sterilized in his previous class with the flame of a Bunsen burner. Little by little he had pushed the pin through his ear, evidently feeling no pain due to the presence of the numbing ice. When he returned to class, he was smiling broadly. Incredulously, I asked:

“Gavin, did you just pierce your ear?”

“Sure. Look at what a good job I did — and I didn’t have to pay for it. Ponders Piercing Parlor charges thirty dollars and you have to have a parent with you.” Several students strained to validate his results. The general assessment was he had done a great job. Someone commented that “it isn’t even bleeding.” The girl sitting beside her offered him a stud. He accepted, smiling broadly.

“Gavin, do your parents approve of your having a pierced ear?”

“There’s nothing they can do about it now!

“Keep the towels on your ear so there won’t be any blood on the desk or anywhere else.”

What was I to do?  I made a general announcement that no further piercings were to take place in my class, nor anywhere at school. We returned to Marbury and tried to make him remotely interesting. One student asked, “Is there anything in the constitution about piercings.”  Another one responded; ‘Have you ever seen a picture of Thomas Jefferson or George Washington with a pierced ear?” Someone else said: “do you actually think that ear piercings are important enough to be in the Constitution?” Hey! Some students were thinking.

I reported the activity to an assistant principal who said that Gavin was merely one of a group of twenty of so who had decided on self-piercings including several nipple cases. Evidently there was no knowledge of any piercings south of that location. Then, he assured me that he would call the parents to advise them – and he told me not to worry since Gavin had performed the piercing so secretly. All I could think of was the potential of The United States vs. the Nincompoop Teacher who “allowed” a Student to Pierce his Ear in Class. Within a week Gavin had pierced the other ear, this time at home. He was so proud. He offered to do mine – I declined.

Jack.

Teaching classes after lunch are difficult because some students will just drift off and others will become preoccupied with whatever is on their mind at the time. Jack did not seem to be the least bit interested in the lead-up to The Great Depression. I often wondered why some students called him “Captain Jack” instead of just “Jack.” I couldn’t tell if it was an honorific title or a disparaging one. Then one day, the reason finally slapped me in the face, figuratively. There, in my class, in broad daylight, in the presence of God and country, Jack had his privates, now more appropriately referred to as his publics, out of his pants. And, he was into a serious massage mode. I did a double, probably a triple take, and after almost passing out, I quickly said:

“OK, I would like for all students to place your notebooks on your desk and also both hands on your desk. In other words, all hands on deck. We need to get serious about learning.”

Everyone complied, including Jack, however, it took him a period of readjustment. Surprisingly, I had two interesting comments: One normally very shy and quiet girl said, “I know why you said that, about both hands on your desk — it was because Captain Jack was playing with his “thang.” I did not respond.

A boy boldly stated; “Did you say ‘all hands on deck, then he spelled out  d. E. c, k? The entire class laughed. I finally caught on. That’s correct, let’s move on with the lesson. I was now aware enough, thankfully, not to say with the “lesson at hand.” Jack seemed to be proud, even though he had been interrupted from his reverie. When I discussed the case with the counselor, she made me aware of the fact that such issues had to be dealt with caution as some parents would beat the daylights out of their child if such behavior was reported. I was more than glad to turn the case over to her.

Shanelle.

Religious issues arose occasionally in my classroom, one time involving homework. I never felt the need to assign homework unless it was meaningful and students were capable of doing it on their own, without asking their parents. I also wanted them to write the purpose of the assignment as a header. Shanelle informed me that she did not do her homework, nor was she ever going to do so on a Wednesday evening, because she attended “Prayer Meeting,” (sometimes referred to as mid-week services).  “There should never be any assignments to prevent me from taking part in my Bible study on that night.” Other teachers knew better than to violate this unwritten rule, she assured me. I decided that on Wednesdays I would have instruction for one-half of the class and a homework assignment for the other half. If students worked efficiently, they could be finished by the end of class.

The same student had a bizarre answer on a Revolutionary War quiz and proceeded to question me as to my marking of it. She very authoritatively asked: “Are you not familiar with the Book of Revelations?” Puzzled, as were most of the students in the class, she gave a long and convoluted rant about the Apostle Paul on the Isle of Patmos. What relationship it had to the question was never pointed out. I reiterated the correct answer and moved to the next question. I expected a call from her minister, and indeed, I received it —the minister also being her father. He tried to justify the answer and I just held my own. He ended the call with the affirmation that he and his congregation would pray for me. I thanked him and told him to add me to any prayer list he that he was aware of. I could use it.

Josiah.

Another student started reading his Bible in class every day. He quit taking notes, discussing, or participating in activities with the other students. Baffled by his change in behavior, I confronted him gently one day. He stated that the Lord had moved him to devote his life to saving souls. From deep within my Presbyterian upbringing, I remembered an appropriate verse, reciting it to him: “Render unto Caesar, that which is Caesar’s, unto the Lord, that which is the Lord’s.” I stated that he should consider me Caesar. He slowly developed a big smile and said, “I’ve never thought of that verse that way.” And then he thanked me. Never again did he read the Bible in my class instead of focusing on the lesson of the day. He did invite me to several revivals.

Artists.

NASCAR, the Confederate Flag, and marijuana leaves seemed to appear whenever I had an art project of sorts. To promote the community service project of providing cans of soup to the local food bank, I asked my students of Spanish to decorate a drawing of a soup can. The lettering was exactly like Campbell’s but referring to the school mascot. After completing their cans, they would point out in Spanish the items and colors they chose to use and then three or four sentences in Spanish such as “My favorite soup is . . . , I eat it once a week . . . etc.  The pictures of the cans were displayed on a very large hallway. There were some beautiful rainbows (arcos de iris) on the cans. Some students brought in their own glitter. Hunters had everything from wild boar to wild turkey soup. Invariably, however, someone would go horticultural and try to sneak in a can with marijuana leaves. And usually there were two or three who managed to draw the Confederate flag. Then there were the NASCAR numbers, which several students drew. They explained that the number was the car’s number, not the driver’s. Dale, Jr., car (#88) was popular as was Jeff Gordon’s (#24).  Incidentally, when I placed the more questionable pictures on the wall, they just somehow landed at the top, so high that I needed a ladder. They also seemed to be blurred in certain parts, almost as if they had been subjected to a large art gum eraser? Was that a flag of some type? Were those carrot leaves? Distance did seem to matter and served me well.

Pashmina wearers.

Had I not taught in the sub-continent for a while, I probably would not have appreciated the beautiful pashminas that three students wore to class one day. The pashminas had beautiful designs and just the right number of sparkling threads to present an almost regal appearance. One of the three said that they had worn the long scarfs to celebrate their hours of study for a test in my class. They knew they would perform very well. I called the roll and then distributed the test. As was my practice, I walked up and down the rows for a few minutes then sat down on a tall stool to grade a few of the tests from the previous class. I noticed, however, that the “pashmina-nites” were constantly rearranging their wraps as if they just could not present the effect they desired. Then suddenly, a cell phone fell out of one of the students’ pashminas. Several students giggled. Pursuant to school policy, I requested the phone. At the end of class, I would be required to take it to the administrative office. The student begged for the phone, but I could only follow the procedures. Then I saw a second student appear to be texting something from her phone, partially concealed by the pashmina. I requested the phone and she absolutely denied having one. Unfortunately, for her, she had not been able to conceal it properly and it fell to the floor. I announced that if anyone else had a cell phone out, that I would need to have it now. The third student, with righteous indignation, stated that she would not be accused of participating in such an incident of cheating. Before I could respond, the second student reached over and pulled it out of the indignant student’s pashmina, stating: “If we’re going down, you’re going down with us.”

“Just check my phone, you can see that I didn’t even use it for this test,” she pleaded. There was a collective moan that rippled throughout the class. Another student raised his voice and said, “Yeah, just like you didn’t use it the other day in English class when you were caught.” The suggestion from an administrator was that I give the three students another chance, meaning prepare a different test and stay after school with them while they took the test. I declined the suggestion. I did not receive any communication from the parents, and the students never graced the class again with their pashminas.

Sunflower seed eaters.

Sunflower seeds became a fad for a while. Rather than buying the shelled seeds, students (mostly males) purchased the entire pod, put several into their mouths, crunched around for a few minutes and then spit out the inedible part into a cup. It was somewhat like dipping snuff. When I called upon students with the banned substance to participate in a discussion, they either gave me the  “I don’t know” shrug, or spit out everything in their mouth and attempted an answer. Several girls were sick of the sight and let their feelings be known. One stated: “I don’t want any of your nasty DNA slung on me.”

The boy answered very proudly, “Oh you don’t have to worry about that, you’ll never have a chance to get any of my DNA,” obviously referring to something other than saliva.

“You’re nothing more than a piece of trash, you jerk.”

“Oh, you know you want it,” as he made several pelvic thrusts aimed in her direction.

I quietly stated that eating in class, regardless of whatever, was a violation of school rules, and that I wanted all eaters to put their seeds, etc. in the waste basket. Since they were sharing a can, several just came over and emptied their mouths there, to the sounds of “gross,” “stupid,” “jackass,” and several other choice words.  I asked the chief offender to stay after class so I could read him the riot act. He offered me some of his seeds and I declined. After mentioning the incident to his counselor, she advised me that I could safely call his mother.  Her response was:

“Well he’s just a teenager and they just do those things.”  After several more excuses, I was able to coax out of her a promise to deal with her son, or he would have to face after-school detention. She nixed that immediately because he was on the JV football squad and had practice every afternoon.

“You’ll have to devise some other punishment.  My son is going to the NFL. Knowing that she wasn’t referring to the National Forensics League, I responded with:

“Yes, detention trumps any activity, including football, so I know that you will deal with him appropriately.” I ended the conversation immediately with a “Thank you,” before she could continue. No more noticeable seeds after that.

Taylor.

An indignant student named Taylor came to my desk and demanded to know why his grade was so low on a test. Sensing his distress, I asked him if he had studied. “Of course I did.”

“Well let’s look at your answers,” I replied.

“They are the same as my friends.” The friends sat on his right and his left.

“Are you saying that I might have made some errors in grading your test?”

“Yes – I know you did.”

As I numbered my tests, I saw that he had test number 17. I began reading the questions and applying his answers. They did not match. He became angrier by the minute, eventually grabbing one of his friends answer sheets to show that it matched his sheet. I calmly retrieved the friends test and asked him if I could use his answer sheet for a minute. The first question was correct for the friend’s test, however not for Taylor’s. We proceeded for about five minutes – question by question.  Finally someone at the back of the room, yelled out – “You fool, you cheated and you got caught. There were several versions of the test.”  You would think the matter was over, but Taylor’s mother appeared and I had to do the same again with her. She did not apologize, but she did tell me that I was not going to prevent her son from going to the proverbial NFL. She left saying that her son would come to school early for tutoring. He never appeared.

Rozelle and Laurinda.

Two ninth-grade girls had a habit out of returning from lunch later than other students, sometimes as much as ten minutes. What they were supposed to do was to check into their history class, leave their bookbags, go to lunch, and then return thirty-five minutes later.  Both girls were older than most students in their grade and had a rough look about them. One combed her hair over half of her face and the other wore somewhat revealing clothes, barely meeting the school standard. Whenever they perceived that other students were gawking at them, they responded with “what you looking at?” “ Never seen a real woman?” “ Don’t look too hard or I have to hurt you.  Little boy, come over here and let me teach you a thing or two?” Most of the class, both boys and girls, were afraid of them.

I tried to keep everyone calm, but it was difficult at times as both girls seemed to lack any internal constraints on what they said or did. They obviously seemed to be more aware about “things” in general than their classmates, and, they really enjoyed their status as girls you didn’t want to “mess with.” It was known that their tardiness was due to the fact that they would meet male students during lunch behind the cafeteria dumpster.

Rozelle, the girl with her hair covering part of her face, had already returned to class and was sitting on the back row causing, or participating in, some kind of commotion. I went to the back of the class and she was stating very loudly, “You bitch, you know you were laughing at me.” The more timid girl denied the charge and said she was laughing at a joke someone had told her. Then Roselle shouted out, presumably to me.  “Hey, where’s Laurinda?  I bet you don’t know what she’s been up to, do you? She’s been having a real good time. You boys (as she waved her hand across the room), you wouldn’t know. She’s only likes men, real men, with real . . . “ I cut her off before she could say the obvious. Rozelle was not happy, but she quit talking long enough for me to say:  OK – Let’s start our lesson on the Grimke Sisters and their role in South Carolina history. But bang! the door of the room was flung open, and there was a breathless Laurinda. Her appearance said a lot. She was disheveled and had a wild-eyed look about her. She seemed to be enjoying the complete attention of the class. Roselle could not stop herself:

“Oh, I smell pussy!  I smell p u s s y  – two elongated syllables. Then she spelled out – p. u. s. s. y.  Laurinda just flashed a big grin, no words, just a grin. She would have made Donald Trump and Billy Bush proud.  There was a mass choreographed movement of heads in my direction, with a “what is he going to do” look. Laurinda moved to the back of the room and plopped down in her seat. Rozelle started again, “Oh I smell it –  Somebody has had some . . .  and I stopped her before she could get the “p” word out again.

“Rozelle, you can’t have this kind of conversation in class.” But she was already tryng to get the details out of Laurinda, completely ignoring me, the other students, the lesson, the world.

I interrupted them with: “Laurinda, do you need to see the counselor.”

“A counselor?” She asked in disbelief. “Why? This is the best I’ve felt in a long time,” as she moved herself around in her desk, glaring at the students who were either shocked or snickering.” Oh, this is what I need two or three times a day.”

Enough said about that, I stated. OK, let’s get back to our lesson about the two spinster Grimke sisters of South Carolina, knowing that they were not anywhere near what most of my students were imagining. I went about the lesson as Laurinda continued relaying her details to Rozelle, but at least without commanding the attention of the rest of the class.

I knew that I would have to do something to demonstrate to the students that I recognized the inappropriate behavior, so I asked Laurinda to stay briefly after class. I talked to her in the hallway in plain view and earshot of God and country. “You know that your behavior was inappropriate, and that I will write a referral to your assistant principal.”  I said this loudly enough so that as many students and colleagues as possible could hear it. “You just do whatever you have to – I’m just feeling way too good to care,” as she sashayed on to her next class, presumably.  I went immediately to my female colleague in the next classroom and told her the story. Not the least bit alarmed, she died laughing and told me it was the best story she had ever heard. I went to the assistant principal and she tried to have a straight face, but couldn’t. Evidently, my colleague told the story to several other teachers, and they were coming out in droves to hear the details of the entire episode. By the end of the week, I don’t think I could have said the “p” word one more time.

Over the years, if I had stopped the lesson as the focus of the class every time there were  infractions, an off-color comment, or unusual event, I never would have enjoyed teaching and my students never would have learned anything. The act of knowing what and when to ignore and when to downplay certain behaviors becomes as important as one’s knowledge of the preterit and imperfect tenses in Spanish, the separable and inseparable prefixes in German, and the guiding principles of our government as outlined in our Constitution. Not taught in textbooks, it is the incidental learning that allows you to survive, to laugh, and to continue.

James Carbaugh recently retired as a teacher.

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