Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Teaching, Year-One, Revisited: My Time in "The Shank"

In my previous post, I gloated about how teachers don’t have to work over the summer. But I forgot to mention one thing: no work translates into no money. So I actually have a summer job; I teach summer school four hours a day. But don’t cry for me, Argentina. This summer, I have a student-teacher to help me out.

When I think about it, the very notion that I am now mentoring a would-be teacher amazes me. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I absolutely hated my first year teaching high school. I wouldn’t have wished teaching on my worst enemy. Now here I am, eight years later, shepherding young neophytes into the profession.

Why’d I hate my first year so much? A lot of reasons, I suppose, but one particular class really took me to the brink. I thought I'd share a little bit of that story today. But first, some prefatory comments:

(1) I currently teach at Glastonbury High School in Glastonbury, Connecticut; this story, however, is from my two years teaching at South Windsor High School, also in Connecticut.

(2) I started teaching high school in November of 2000; someone had retired, and I took over his class. Now I know that taking over for someone else midstream is probably one of the toughest gigs in education. Let’s just say that I didn’t know that then

So here we go, the first glimpse into the Soul-Crushing Chaos that is Teaching, Year One:

I knew fourth period would be the toughest. I had been lingering in the background for about three or four days, watching, taking mental notes, and I knew who was naughty and who was nice. (Not too many of the latter.) And on the morning I took over for real, I knew I had to set the tone immediately. I knew everything—except that I was fresh fish.

You remember that scene from The Shawshank Redemption, right? It’s the first night in "The Shank" for Andy Dufresne and a bunch of other prisoners, and the seasoned cons are betting on which one of the new arrivals will break down and cry first. Just a little game they play, to pass the time at the expense of the newbies.

When the lights go out, the fishing begins. The cons start whispering, “Fresh fish! Fresh fish today! We’re reeling ‘em in!” or “Here fishy, fishy, fishy…” The taunt relentlessly, but they rarely exceed the level of whispering; the point, after all, is to break down the newcomers slowly, methodically, not to attract attention to themselves.

The fishing expedition ends when a new prisoner known only as “Fat-Ass” starts sobbing. Grizzled Shawshank vet Heywood, who pinpointed Fat Ass as the weakest of the litter from the start, wins the game. And Fat Ass? Well, for making noise after lights out, Fat Ass gets the beejesus beaten out of him by Officer Byron Hadley; we find out later that he doesn’t last the night.

That Fat Ass coda doesn’t really come into play here; no one gets clubbed to death in this story. And I don’t mean to compare (implicitly or otherwise) my students to “cons”; they weren’t criminals, after all—they were just sophomores.

No, I’m talking more about the taunting. The taunting of the fresh fish by these cons, who have nothing against these newcomers personally, who don’t even know them but decide to torment them anyway, not out of revenge but simply because they can, because it entertains them—keep that in mind as you picture me in front of that fourth period class. Let us join the descent into misery, already in progress.

OK, so what did you guys think about blah-bah-dee-blah.”

(Author’s note: we were going over some short story—I don’t remember which one. Forgive me for my lack of specifics: I’ve tried my best over the past eight years to drive the whole experience from my mind.)

If the students read the story at all, they didn’t seem interested in talking about it, or even acknowledging Mr. Dursin’s valiant attempts to talk about it. Doing so, after all, would interrupt their own private conversations.

Another pitch: “Well, what about the main character, Who-zit? Do you agree with when he blah-blah-blah-ed?”

Maybe two students have even looked up. The rest are just talking—to the person in the next seat, to the person across the room. They’re not picking fights, they’re not verbally assaulting each other. They’re having a great time, it seems. It’s really quite a community in that room—why can’t this new teacher see that?

A plea from Mr. Dursin: “Come on, folks, let’s get focused.”

Surprisingly, this doesn’t work.

Mr. Dursin knows he needs to get their attention, establish some authority. But how? Just then, his mind reels back to a story, something his wife told him just a few nights before:

“It was my freshman year history class. Our teacher is Ms. Othmarr—the definition of hapless. She has no control, and we had every jerk of a boy in this class. Well, about halfway through the year, Ms. Othmarr says she’s leaving—she must have retired, because she was getting up there—and a new teacher, Ms. Hartstone, was taking over for her. So Ms. Hartstone spent a few days in the background, watching, sort of like what you’re doing.

“Finally, it’s Mrs. Othmarr’s last day. We have a party for her in class—which, naturally, is just bedlam. Kids screaming, jumping on the desks. Food all over the place. Animal House for ninth graders. Halfway through the party, Mrs. Othmarr leaves, never to return. And after she’s out of earshot, Ms. Hartstone walks over to the door—SLAM! Picks up a pile of books—SLAM! Then she starts screaming. Railing into us, like she's the general from An Officer and a Gentleman: ‘That’s it! Who do you think you are? Things are going to change!’ I mean—wow. It took about four months before she even cracked a smile.

“The thing is, she was a really nice lady. I got to know her over the years, because my locker was right outside her classroom, and I really liked her. So a few years later, I remember asking her about our class. And she said, ‘I knew I had to take control right off the bat—you know, show that there was a new sheriff in town. It was a matter of survival.’”

Mr. Dursin keeps thinking of these words—“matter of survival,” “new sheriff in town”—as he looks at these kids not looking at him. Suddenly, he acts.

In front of the room, next to the teacher’s desk, is a vacant student desk, storage space for lined paper. Shouting “No one is paying attention!,” Mr. Dursin picks up this desk and lets it drop. At its peak, the desk is maybe two inches off the ground, just high enough for it to make a sound—one just loud enough to get their attention— when it hits the floor. As an added bonus, moving the desk dislodges an empty can of Canada Dry ginger ale that is hidden inside with the lined paper; when the desk drops, the can falls out and lands on the floor with a “clink-clink-clink.”

For a moment, after the Canada Dry can settles, it’s quiet.

For a moment, Mr. Dursin thinks he’s won. They’re listening. New sheriff in town, indeed.

But it’s only for a moment. See, they’re not actually listening. They’re plotting. During those moments of silence, about seven or eight students—totally independent of one another but unified by a common vision-- decided they were going to make the rest of my year absolute hell.

Of course, I didn’t know this at the time. In those silent seconds after I picked up the desk, I don’t know what’s going to happen over the next eight months. I just know that, for right now, I finally have their attention. I don’t realize that they’re only watching me because, in that moment, I had transformed, right before their eyes.

I was no longer Mr. Dursin, New Teacher.

I was Mr. Dursin, Fresh Fish.

“Here, fishy, fishy, fishy…!”

To Be Continued!!

No comments: