The Sanctity of the Classroom
In each case, I told him his work was garbage and insisted that he re-write the paper.
He came to see me after class one day, red in the face and coldy furious. You can't make me rewrite this. This is creative writing class. I'm being creative," he told me, his face seething with adolescent tension and hatred.
I had had a lot of experience at that point with the testosterone poisoning that can come in the teen years, and I knew Chris to be a generally good kid but with some mood swings -- probably exacerbated by his geekiness and shyness. He was most definitely not one of the popular kids, but he did have a buddy, Justin, with whom he spent the class snorting and snuffling around over their superior wit and intelligence. Justin was a "fat kid" in a school full of preppy clones, and genuinely funny. He could be disrespectful and disruptive, but had none of Chris's hostile edge.
I told Chris that he could be creative all he wanted, but within the parameters of the assignment. He was there to learn, I told him, not to just spew his violent fantasies onto the paper and then expect me to take them seriously as academic work. I told him I was disturbed by the content of his paper and that I felt it was a violation of appropriate student-teacher boundaries. Furthermore, he knew it.
I told him to straighten up and fly right or I'd send this paper home and see what his parents had to say about his"creative" writing.
Chris muttered some inarticulate complaint under his breath, grabbed his paper from my hand and left. He resubmitted a new paper the next day. He was, above all, a competitive student and his desire to get into a good college overrode his need to rebel against the tyrannies of Miss W.
If my memory is correct, we went back and forth with this nonsense a few times before he finally decided to behave himself and take the assignments seriously.
This was before Columbine. It never occurred to me that this kid would ever harm anybody; that sort of thing was beyond our teacherly imagination in 1990. I had gone to suburban Minnesota from Proviso East High School in Maywood, Illinois -- a school that was truly dangerous and where violence was a daily fact of life. I was concerned for Chris, but I trusted that he'd outgrow whatever demons were plaguing him.
English teachers are privy to some of our student's deepest wishes and most secret fears. I still treasure some of the confidences shared with me by my students. I remember M., who was in love with her step-brother and who included that plot detail in a marvelous short story she wrote for my class. When I called her in after class to ask her if her story was based in truth, she dissolved in tears. She was a painfully lovely young lady and I loved her. I still think of her.
I remember J., whose parents were so caught up in their careers they almost never saw their daughter, who mourned their neglect terribly and begged for their time. I remember B., who "thought" she might have been raped at a school party one weekend but who refused to report her assailant, also one of my students. I could get her to say no more. She never sought counseling or reported it.
I remember T., who was gay and felt he couldn't tell anyone. I hope T. has come out by now, and that he's happy.
I remember J., who had been beaten so badly as a child that his back was a mess of raised scars. After I saw his back and heard the stories of his childhood, I understood why reading and writing -- and even speaking -- was so hard for him. I think of him often, too.
I remember N. -- so sweet, so ambitious, who came to school early to run track and whose breath was so bad from malnutrition that her track coach brought her breakfast every day. It may have been her only meal.
I remember T. and S., handsome twins whose parents so badly wanted them to get out of Bellwood that they hired me to tutor them. They were absolute gentlemen even in their teens. I wish them well.
I remember so many of them.
I remember the classroom as a sacred place. I was blessed to be there with them.
Our classrooms should be sanctuaries. If it takes total gun control to assure that this can be the case, then I'm for total gun control.
Whatever it takes.