Eight wide-eyed second graders sat in front of me, listening intently as I read from Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. The children, one of my “pull-out” groups at Quincy Elementary in Chicago, waited expectantly for me to show them the book’s next illustration. They rose from their chairs in anticipation and crept toward me as they sensed I was nearing the end of the page. By the time I flipped the book around to show them the drawing, they were crowded to within inches of it, all vying for the first or best or most extended view.
After we finished reading, we talked about Alexander’s troubles and listened as several of the kids recalled terrible days of their own. Then Antonio turned to me and asked, “Mr. Michie, have you ever had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day?”
“I’ve had lots of them,” I answered with a laugh.
“Can you tell us one?”
“Yeah!” the rest of the group shouted. “Tell us one! Tell us one!”
I told the kids about the day in second grade when I wet my pants in the school library. It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day to be sure. But it was nothing compared to what some of my students and I would go through at Quincy later that afternoon – a disaster born of my own inexperience and of the school’s practice of labeling and sorting its kids.
The bulk of the day passed by uneventfully. But when the final bell rang at 2:25, I winced. Since Quincy’s ten-week extended day program had begun a few days earlier, that bell had become a foreboding sound. Instead of marking the school day’s end, the bell now signaled the beginning of an hour-long extra period, which had been earmarked as a time for additional reading instruction. Teacher participation in the after-school program was voluntary. I signed up and was assigned to Ms. Ferguson’s sixth-grade class, Room 309 – “the low group,” as they were known. Since I worked with Ferguson’s students in a few of my pull-out classes, I already knew most of the kids, but there I had just six of them at a time. For the extended period, the entire class – all 26 of them – was in front of me.
“Don’t worry about it,” one teacher told me. “Just do what you can with them, but you can’t do much.” She wasn’t the only one who felt that way. According to the kids, their 4th-grade teacher had reveled in calling them “stupid,” and a teacher down the hall frequently referred to the entire group as “the criminals” (two of the boys had dubious police records). They had all ended up together as the result of their previous teachers’ “rankings”- at the end of each school year, every teacher was asked to list her students from 1-to-whatever in descending order of promise. Ferguson’s kids were culled from the bottom of each 5th-grade list, lumping all of the lowest achieving, most troubled students into one self-contained classroom for their 6th grade year. Tracking wasn’t official policy at Quincy, but it might as well have been. “Low,” “regular,” and “top” groups were identifiable at every grade level, and though they weren’t labeled as such, the reality of their presence escaped no one, least of all the kids.
“Our whole class is dumb,” Armando told me one day. With facial hair already beginning to thicken and the body of a defensive lineman, Armando looked like he could’ve been in high school. But writing a single paragraph was a chore for him, and he agonized over reading basic picture books.
“You think you’re dumb?” I asked.
“In a way, yeah,” he said. “All these days of going to school and we still don’t know nothing.”
“You’re not dumb,” I assured him. “Even the things you do that you’re not supposed to do take brains. You have to be smart to fool the teacher.”
“Yeah, but we’re still stupid,” he reasoned. “Why do you think they put us all in this class?”
I had seen flashes of inspired work from many of Ferguson’s students in my pull-out writing program. Despite their reputation, I knew many of the kids to be bright and thoughtful. Armando was a good example. He goofed off a lot, but not because he didn’t care or didn’t want to learn. Writing and reading were painful for him. He spelled few words correctly, and though I encouraged him to write without worrying about spelling, he fretted over words he felt he should know. He once wore a hole in his paper from erasing the same word over and over again. But he persisted through countless drafts and revisions, and eventually his writing began to reveal some of the concerns and joys one might expect from a 12-year-old.
The after-school session had barely begun when Hector pulled out a rubber band and began firing folded paper wads at other students. Had I known the chain of events that was about to be set off, I probably would have given in to Hector’s desire for a spitball free-for-all. The kids wouldn’t have learned much from it, but the paper projectiles would have been less destructive and hurtful than some of the things that ended up sailing through the air that day.
I nonchalantly took the weapon from Hector and returned to the front of the class. On the board, in big, block letters, I wrote “WHAT WE WANT TO LEARN ABOUT.” For the past few days, I had been trying to interest the kids in exploring the Civil Rights movement and the life of Martin Luther King, but they had resisted. Unlike the African-American students at Ellison, where I had taught during my rookie year, Quincy’s mostly Mexican kids had little background knowledge on the topic. They knew King was important but that was about it. This convinced me even more that studying the Civil Rights movement was important for them, but after three days of getting nowhere, I had decided to shelve it, at least for the time being.
My new strategy was to let the kids take the reins. “Okay, we’re changing things up, guys,” I said. “We’re starting over.”
“Starting over what?” Eduardo asked.
“Well, you haven’t been too enthusiastic about what we’ve been doing so far, so we’re going to try something else. I’m going to let you guys decide what it is you want to learn about.”
Another paper wad sailed by from the direction of Hector’s seat. Annoyed, I asked him to give me the rubber band. He insisted he didn’t have one. “I shot it over there,” he said.
“Don’t let me see it again, okay?” I said, figuring that even if he had shot it, there were more where that came from.
“All right,” he said, unable to conceal a smirk.
“I mean it, Hector.”
“I ain’t got it, I told you!”
I went back to the front of the room. I knew the activity would go nowhere unless I could draw Hector in somehow. On most days, he had a much stronger hold on the class than I did.
“Okay, what we’re going to do is brainstorm a list of things you guys are interested in learning about. Hector, why don’t you come up and write people’s suggestions on the board?”
“But what happened to “Marthin” Luther King?” asked Ruben.
“You weren’t interested in Martin Luther King,” I said.
“Yeah, I was. When he was a little kid, he went over to those white dudes’ house and their ma wouldn’t let them play with him ’cause he was black, and he said that wasn’t fair.”
I was amazed. I hadn’t thought he had been paying attention. “Maybe we’ll go back to that, Ruben, after we do whatever you guys come up with.”
“I want to learn about rats,” said Martha. “I heard they can eat through anything.”
“That’s nasty,” countered Yessica.
“Nah, it’s cool,” said Eduardo. Hector wrote it on the board.
What is Beautiful?
As Hector wrote, I noticed a pile of papers on the floor near the back of the class. I moved closer and could see a black notebook, bent and ripped into three pieces. Torn and wrinkled papers were scattered around it. I bent down and sifted through the mess. Everything belonged to John Kraft, an awkward white kid who left the room each day during the extended period to receive speech therapy.
John had a pronounced speech impediment and because of this was one of the frequent targets of ridicule among boys in the class. They mocked his garbled words and made fun of his appearance: bony arms, long hair, cheap gym shoes, and thick glasses. But John never fought back. He would act as if he didn’t hear, or simply look down and smile, nodding his head to the beat of the hurtful words. Amid the debris on the floor in front of me, I saw one of the poems he had written in my class:
Do you know what beautiful means?
It means like the sun rising into the sky
Like the play of Romeo and Juliet
Like the beautiful lake
Like the sculpture, The Thinker
I love all these things very much
I hate thinking of bad things
It’s so bad I don’t even want to say it
And a rainbow is also beautiful
“How did this happen?” I asked, standing and surveying the wreckage.
“He left it like that,” replied Kiko.
“Nobody leaves their stuff like that,” I said. “And it wasn’t like that a few minutes ago. Who did this?” I asked, a rhetorical question if ever there was one. No one said a word. I picked up the papers and notebook and stacked them as neatly as I could on John’s desk.
“How do you think John is going to feel when he walks back in here?” I asked, raising my voice to vent some of my frustration. “I’d feel pretty bad if I were him. And what am I supposed to say to him?” No suggestions. “Something like that should never happen. Not in a classroom where people respect and trust each other,” I concluded.
Just as the word trust left my mouth, a paper bullet zoomed past me and landed in a girl’s swooped-over, heavily gelled bangs. “That’s it for you,” I said, turning to Hector. “I’ve asked you twice already to put those away. We’re going to see Mr. Manning after school.” Hector knew as well as I did what a lame threat that was. Although Manning was the school’s disciplinarian, his credo was “Handle it in the classroom.” Teachers who brought him disruptive students got more of a reprimand than the kids.
“I don’t care, you dumbo” Hector said, throwing the chalk down. On Hector’s scale of profanities it was a pitifully weak response, having as it did a certain Disneyesque charm.
Without saying anything, I directed Hector to the corner of the room, away from the other students. I didn’t know if what I was about to say to him would have any effect or not, but either way, I didn’t want the other kids to hear. “Look,” I said in a hushed voice, “I’m trying to help you guys, but I need your help, too. I can’t do this by myself. I want you to participate with us in this, but you can’t be shooting things across the room or cursing out loud like that. I don’t think that’s asking too much, do you?”
“Then can you help me, or not?”
He considered the request. I waited. I heard a few kids giggling, but didn’t think much of it. But the giggling turned to laughing, and the laughing to pointing. Before I could figure out what was going on, Ruben stood up, lashed an accusing finger toward the back row of desks, and announced to the world: “She peed on herself!”
I looked beyond his playful grin and outstretched arm to see Nelly Morales, sitting pigeon-toed, slinking nervously down into her seat, wishing she could disappear. A puddle was beneath her, and a few drops continued to fall from her chair. A couple kids were still laughing, but for the most part the room had fallen silent. Nelly continued to sit motionless, as if the moment she moved the event would become real – maybe if she just stayed still it would turn out to have been only a bad dream.
I grabbed the hall pass and gently told Nelly to go to the washroom and get cleaned up. I sent one of her friends with her. As soon as they were gone, I buzzed the office and said we had an accident in 309 that needed to be cleaned up. It seemed pointless to continue with the brainstorming at this point. The board still had only one word on it: “Rats.”
I began talking to the kids about Nelly and how embarrassed she must have been feeling. Amazingly, I found myself recounting my own pants-wetting experience for the second time that day. I emphasized that we should try not to make it any worse for Nelly. When she returned, I said I didn’t want to hear any comments or laughter. For the first time in the entire hour, all the kids listened and seemed to understand. But several of them then blamed me for what happened. They claimed Nelly was scared to say she needed to use the washroom because I had said no one would be excused during the extended day period. They were right – I had made that statement during our first session together – but I had always made exceptions for kids who had an emergency. Nelly couldn’t have taken me that literally, could she? Well, maybe she could. She was a submissive child who rarely spoke up and had probably been taught that what the teacher said was final. Maybe it had been my fault. I just wanted the bell to ring so I could go home and be depressed in peace.
10 More Minutes
I looked at the clock. It was 3:15. I only had to get through ten more minutes. Just then, the door squeaked open and in shuffled John, back early from his tutoring. The entire class watched in silence as he returned to his desk. Through his taped-up, cockeyed glasses, he looked at the mangled pile in front of him. “Aw, man,” he said to himself. It was as if he saw his own self-image on that desk, torn and battered almost beyond recognition. A few muffled laughs escaped around him.
“I don’t know who did it, John,” I said, as if revealing the names of the perpetrators would make him feel any better. “It was my fault, though. It shouldn’t have happened. I’ll bring you a new one tomorrow.”
“That’s all right, Mr. Michie,” John said calmly, sitting down and beginning to sort through the debris. It wasn’t all right, though. Most of what had happened that hour wasn’t all right.
At three twenty-four and thirty-seven seconds, mercifully, the bell rang. The class left the room in chaos. In the hallway, Hector brushed past me, said “F- Mr. Michie” just loud enough for me to hear, and vaulted down the steps. I started to call after him, but my voice trailed off. I was too exhausted to do anything.
I sat down at the top of the stairs to collect what was left of my thoughts. I remembered the book I’d read with my second graders that morning. Terrible. Horrible. No good. Very bad. The hour I had just staggered through had been all of those things, and it was tempting to lay all the blame on the kids. After all, I reasoned, I was trying my best to help them. I was trying to give them a say in things, to listen to them. Couldn’t they see that? Didn’t they appreciate it? Why did they have to resist my efforts so vigorously? Why couldn’t they respond the way I wanted them to?
My mind was flooded with self-pitying questions. I was coming uncomfortably close to using the same words I had used to describe my day – terrible, horrible, no good, very bad – as descriptors for the kids.
But it wasn’t really their fault. At least not all of it. The mean-spirited and self-destructive attitudes that sometimes pervaded the group had been encouraged, at least in some part, by the school’s actions. For years, the kids had been tracked into low-end groups or classes, and for their sixth-grade year things had gotten even worse.
Whereas all other sixth-graders rotated classes in a departmental arrangement, Ferguson’s class was self-contained. When the other sixth-grade rooms went on field trips, Ferguson’s class stayed behind, later taking alternate trips of their own. When students were chosen to participate in extra-curricular programs or activities, Ferguson’s kids were often overlooked.
Besides, Ferguson herself – like me – was a fragile and relatively untested new teacher. If the school had really wanted to help the kids in 309, why hadn’t they assigned them their best, most creative, most enthusiastic educator? The principal had tried to sell the kids on the idea that what they were experiencing was a program especially designed for them. They had been selected for “special” pull-out programs, she told them, and had a “special” schedule. And I don’t doubt that she really believed all this. But no matter how attractively she tried to dress it up, the kids knew the deal. At best, they were being treated as less than adequate; at worst, they were being demonized. Should anyone have been surprised when they acted so aggressively resentful?
‘I Don’t Wanna Be Dumb’
I don’t remember much else about that day. In the days and weeks that followed, the after-school sessions remained difficult. The student-generated themes I had envisioned went no further, and the “rats” study never materialized. Like many other things, it got lost in the confusion. Occasionally, we had productive days. The kids were so enthralled the afternoon I passed out the first edition of the class newsletter – which contained typed versions of the students’ poems, stories, and editorials, as well as samples of their artwork – that they read silently for twenty minutes without even being asked. When someone finally spoke, it was only to ask if he could read one of the stories aloud.
On another occasion, when I sensed that the level of aggression and frustration in the room was about to boil over, I had the students compose a class poem about things that made them angry, with each student contributing one line. Kiko’s was: “It makes me mad when Mr. Michie talks too much and gives too much reading and doesn’t want to have fun, like games.” Another contribution, this one not so curiously anonymous, read: “I get angry when Hector picks on some people.” Eventually we even made it back to the Civil Rights movement and “Marthin” Luther King, culminating our study with a colorful butcher-paper wall mural.
But overall, my first foray into after-school teaching was an unqualified disaster. Helping the kids in 309 to view themselves as smart, talented, and capable individuals – not as “the slow class”- had been my primary goal, but my success was meager. Years of low expectations and marginalization, I realized, would take more than ten weeks to remedy.
Toward the end of the year, Armando and I were discussing his project on maps and mapmaking when he suddenly changed the subject. “I wish you could be our teacher next year,” he said, “in seventh-grade.”
“Maybe I can,” I said. “I might have some seventh-grade groups next year.”
Armando thought about it. “Don’t pick me,” he said.
I thought I had misunderstood him. “Don’t pick you?” I asked.
“No, I mean, I want to be in your class,” he explained delicately, tracing Interstate 40 through Tennessee on the map with his finger. “I just don’t wanna be dumb next year.”