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Monday, December 27, 2004

Power Struggles

I took two sick days within one week. One had nothing to do with illness, the other one did. Regardless of the reason, I spent more time without 11-13 year-olds within a work week than I’d become sadly accustomed to. Sometimes all you need is a little space from a situation to recognize its beauty – distance makes the heart grow fonder? College cafeterias make your mom’s meatloaf taste exceptional. Regardless, I was hopeful that a day in bed with a fever would catalyze some sort of epiphany concerning my job: specifically that I’d return to work refreshed, rejuvenated and ready to teach.

The next morning I slept through my alarm. Skip breakfast? Forgo making lunch? Let my chlorine damaged hair dry on its own? Nah – I resolved to drive fast. But then the ditto machine didn’t work (teachers were not allowed to use a modern-day copy machine), the sub hadn’t erased the boards and the kids were early. I convinced myself, with a marginal amount of strain, though, to stay calm, I was an invincible, super-human teacher for America. I would recover from my morning’s frustrations, and reach all of my students in an effort to maintain the program’s creed: “One day all children will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” But then, in between second and third period, while there was momentary silence, I briefly reflected on the searing absence of any fever-induced career-related epiphany, and tugged at the end of my dried-out hair – yes, I was awake. This wasn’t a nightmare.

The eighth grade class entered my room resembling a herd of undomesticated, temperamental beasts. Kenny, bigger than his peers, wearing baggy jeans and untied boots, came in last and destroyed the small amount of hope I’d had in his absence. Within the first ten minutes of class, rather than give my students the “excellent education” I was there to provide; rather than observe my twenty-seven eighth graders diligently working on the “drill”, I listened to Kenny offend approximately 90% of the glass. He told Lauren to eat another donut, threw Argent’s hat across the room, made fun of Amanda’s thong, and told me – the teacher – that my head resembled a mop. I contemplated, for a moment, which battle to pick, and opted for the least offensive:

“Kenny, do your drill. Take your hat off – school policy.”

Kenny responded immediately, “Don’t tell me what to do, woman. You look like a pilgrim with those shoes on.”

This, naturally, made me think about my shoes. What type of shoes did pilgrims wear, anyway? One of the 896 reasons why I shouldn’t teach – aside from being apparently paranoid about my shoes - was my inability to avoid power struggles with adolescents. I needed to take solace in the victory of the grade book – Kenny would, inevitably, fail my class and should – based on his academic prowess, fail the entire eighth grade. Even this, however, didn’t appease my need for decisive victory,

“I will tell you what to do, Kenny, because six months into the school year you still can’t figure it out on your own. And next time I want your opinion on my outfit I’ll give it to you.” My eyes bore into Kenny’s and I tried to sound very mean and very threatening. Really, though, the retort sucked; I merely ensured that this issue (starting with my pilgrim shoes and my mop-like hair) would not be dropped. Twenty-seven anxious pairs of eyes turned to Kenny, anxious to see where the confrontation would lead. I attempted to ignore him, to go over the drill, and to redirect everyone’s attention to the board and my sure-to-be scintillating lesson.

Kenny, surprisingly, wouldn’t let it go. I decided to send him to the office. I calmly asked him to pack up his things (I failed to notice that he was still wearing his backpack), and scoured the area for referrals (I was out of them). I found an index card, wrote a hasty note to the disciplinarian documenting Kenny’s lack of respect, and enjoyed a few seconds of silence while the other students watched me furiously write. Just as I finished my scathing index card, I looked up. Kenny was looking at me with a cold, calculating stare. He cleared his throat to ensure that everyone’s attention was directed to him and said:

“Are you done with that yet? Why don’t you walk it over here?”

I rolled my stinging eyes nonchalantly and said, “Because, Kenny, I don’t want to waste my energy on you.”

I knew though – just as the rest of the class did and just as Kenny did – that he had won.