Saturday, November 08, 2008

A New Day

I had a few weeks about a month ago where I was seriously considering whether or not I was cut out to be a high school teacher in Baltimore City. I just wasn't sure I had the patience to put up with it all. Then something clicked and I learned to just start laughing at the things that were driving me nuts before. When they make fun of me, I laugh with them because let's face it, I do sound ridiculous when I get upset with them for making too much noise. They're not trying to disrespect me, I just sound ridiculous. My voice cracks and my face turns red. I'm learning to laugh a lot more, at myself and at my students. Here's a small sampling of the things that have made me laugh over the last few weeks:

1. Last week, I was in the middle of class when I looked over to see one of my students in the back corner of the room lifting his shirt up to his shoulders and putting scotch tape on his nipples. I stood there in momentary shock thinking to myself "This is not one of those scenarios I imagined myself encountering when I first thought about becoming a teacher". Not knowing how else to respond, I simply said "I'm really not interested in seeing you put tape over your nipples man", which elicited a fair amount of laughter from the rest of the class.

2. This week, I was reviewing action and linking verbs with my class and I was writing examples of action verbs on the chalk board while students were shouting them out. I heard one of my students utter the action verb "fuck" under his breath, thinking he was very smart. It doesn't take much time as a teacher before you learn the voices of all of your students. Without even turning around, I told that student to step out in the hall. After I got the rest of the class working, I went out to talk to this little gem (who I actually really do love, he's just a total goofball). It took him a minute of hard thinking before he realized that his smart remark wasn't as quiet as he thought. As he was walking back in the classroom, he said "Man, I can't believe Mr. Diehl heard that shit", to which I responded "I'm still standing right here". Again, he got a surprised look on his face and apologized before assuming his seat.

I love my kids, I really do. But man do they drive me crazy somedays. I have one student who mutters under his breath every day how much he hates my class and thinks I'm a boring and ridiculous teacher. Every assignment is stupid, and I constantly hear "fuck this shit" at the beginning of class before he decides to put his head down on his desk. Nearly every class period, however, he comes around within ten minutes and often becomes a key participant in the activity for the day. He drives me nuts, I can't tell you how many times I've felt like punching him in the face; but I love him to death.

As I continue to adjust to this new culture, I'm finding myself doing things I never thought I would do--but they work. Last week, I hit a kid in the face with a paper wad because he wasn't working. After it hit him, he looked up at me and said "What was that for", to which I responded "You're pissing me off". He worked hard the rest of the period. The next day another student was goofing off in class so I smacked him upside the head, lightly and playfully of course, and said "What's the matter with you?". Sometimes they just need that little reminder so they realized they're acting like a fool and need to get back on track. In my student teaching, I was grilled with the mantra "never touch students". I touch my kids every day, be it an encouraging pat on the back or a smack upside the head. Why? Because they need it, in more ways than one.

I was helping one of my students with his project last week, I wish I had a picture of him to post. If you met him on the street, you'd probably run the other way but he's one of the sweetest "gentle giants" I've ever met. He failed my class first quarter because he spent too much time goofing off and I thought he just didn't care. But the other day he told me that English was his best class. In my head, I thought "What? You don't do anything and you can barely read!" But he's coming to school every day, and he's trying, for which I am very grateful. He is one of my students who would be headed down a dangerous path were he not coming to school every day.

Two weeks ago, I bought a book for another of my gang-banging students who failed first quarter. He almost never reads when he's supposed to so when he asked for a specific book, I went out and bought it that night. When I brought it to him the next day, I nearly started weeping when I saw the look on his face as I gave him the book. That image is burned into my mind and keeps me going, even when I feel like opening fire on my fifth period class.

So, I'm surviving, and I'm hopeful about the future. This is the first year in a new school and a new place. It can only get better from here. And I'm excited that for the first time I can tell my students that they can be anything in life and truly mean it. My reasons for voting for Obama in this election had little to do with his race or persona, it was a complicated decision. A decision that apparently makes me an evil and simple-minded liberal, according to some who have known me in past lives. That being said, the fact that he is the first black president is an incredible inspiration to the people of this city. I wish that some of the people from my past life could come and spend a day with my kids in the city. I don't know how anyone could be the same. While my students still have the world working against them, it is clear that we have made incredible progress and they can do anything if they want it badly enough. I can't wait to see each and every one of them walk across the stage in four years. I have a suspicion they will all call me a cry baby on that day.


Jordana said...

I am indescribably proud of you.

Jeff said...

Awesome man...I am glad that you are adjusting. It sounds like quite the wonderful, frustrating, and crazy adventure. It is inspiring and I am glad that those students have someone with the character, depth, and life that you have to be an example for them!

Anonymous said...


You inspire me, man. I am certain that you are the reason why many of your students will not choose the wrong path. Your students need what you have to give, Colter. You are making a difference in their reality. You may never know exactly how you affect their lives but every kindness, every act of respect will bear fruit one day, because they are learning that they matter in this world. They matter to you. Make sure you always take good care of yourself so can continue giving ... I am VERY proud of you.

zach harrison said...

I would love to throw wadded paper into kids faces! That would be great! Also the inspiring, great role model part is neat too... I really liked how you were relate all this to Obama's presidency. One small correction though, you only called yourself an, "Evil and simple minded liberal," you forgot "baby killing." And that's the best insult they've got against us liberals.

Erin said...

You inspire me...thanks for reminding me that working with the kids that are easy to write off is worth it. Those kids are so lucky to have someone like you believing in them, not to mention, supporting them (and every other minority group out there) politically. I wish we could hash out first-year professional struggles over some great coffee! Miss you guys...

Tracey said...

Wow can I relate to ALL of this.
You should see some of the interactions when pregnancy hormones are added to the mix! I told one student last week, who has a 30% in the class, to leave the room as he was drawing all over his arm rather than taking notes on the assignment. I added, "Why are you here? Why don't you just drop out?" -- yeah, it was a real 'teacher of the year' moment. I talked to them all later... "I can't care more than you; it's making me crazy. I am here to help." blah, blah, blah.

They make us crazy because we want more for them than they do (at least at that moment). It's a difficult reality to reconcile.