First period is science class. We’re studying cell theory and the question on the whiteboard is, “How is the human body like a brick wall?” It’s an interesting question, one I ponder on many levels as I watch 26 tenth graders write feverishly, chew their pencils, furtively pass Doritos to their neighbors, or nod off into dreamland.
“Okay, who’s got an answer?”
Mr. Kohl, the science teacher, scans the room. Nicole, a skinny, freckled Dominican girl who is always ready to participate, raises her hand.
“The human body is like a brick wall because…”
The door opens. Rolando - a large, sleepy-eyed Jamaican boy - lumbers in, sits quietly and looks down at his shoes, trying to avoid my disapproving gaze.
I am a special education teacher. I spend my days with a group of students whose challenges range from ADHD to schizophrenia to hearing impairment. In science, math, history, and English, I work with their subject-area teachers to deliver the course content into their endlessly complicated brains.
Right now, I need to talk with Rolando. It’s been more than a week since he was on time and he’s falling behind. While the discussion of walls and bodies continues, I tap Rolando on the shoulder and nod towards the hallway. He follows me out.
“Why do you think I want to talk with you?”
He looks down, still avoiding my gaze. Rolando’s at least four inches taller than me and broad-shouldered as a grown man, yet he’s wearing the hangdog expression of a scolded toddler. It’s absurd.
“Because I’m late,” he mumbles.
It’s like pulling teeth, but I extract from him a few sentences on the importance of punctuality. He agrees to sacrifice his lunch period to make up some missing assignments and we head back inside, where the class is completing a worksheet on the history of cell theory.
The bell rings.
I file out with the students and head from science to global history. Here the students are examining samples of Renaissance painting. Laminated copies of Da Vinci and Carravaggio’s work circulate the room while students take notes.
Ten minutes into the period, Celia storms into the room. Celia is a Puerto Rican girl who suffers from severe ADHD. On her worst days, she can barely sit still. She’s rarely on time for class. Observing my frown, she informs me that she’s “not in the mood” and proceeds to her desk. I spend countless hours each week trying to help Celia learn and she’s waving me off like I’m her annoying younger brother. Again: absurd.
Seated now, Celia’s tapping her foot furiously as she scans the room. She is failing global history, so she can’t afford to be late. If I point this out to her, I risk a confrontation that could disrupt the entire lesson. I also risk damaging my relationship with a student who attaches very little value to her education. As a special education student, she’s been told, in myriad ways, for much of her life, that she cannot succeed. The last thing I want is to embarrass her.
When she turns my way, I give her a look of exaggerated, mock frustration. She smiles. I approach her, crouching down to diminish the distance between us, and as I begin to quietly explain today’s lesson, she remembers that I’m not simply an authority figure, I’m someone with whom she can reason.
Reason, more than anything, seems absent from these students’ lives. Their pubescent bodies and brains are in chaos. Almost all of them return each afternoon to communities mired in the chaos of poverty. Amidst this chaos, we demand of them astonishing mental gymnastics: geology, global history, drama, trigonometry, poetry.
Our schools are short on textbooks, so students cannot bring them home to study. We teachers rely heavily on our photocopiers, which break down frequently. Absurd.
When I return home, I turn on the television and watch pundits argue about whether I deserve my retirement benefits; I see politicians who are frustrated with my poor job performance; I hear the public officials responsible for setting educational policy blaming my colleagues and myself for our school system’s failures.
Most days, absurd does not seem a strong enough word.
Order precedes learning - this is a truism in education. When classrooms and schools are not safe and organized, students struggle to learn. Order also precedes teaching. The more chaotic our jobs become, the more we struggle to teach.
In this environment, we measure our success in minute increments: Rolando spends his lunch period completing a genetics lab; Celia finds me after class and apologizes for blowing me off. It may not sound like much, but it’s forward motion.
In a system spinning out of control, that should count for something.
William Johnson teaches special ed students at Leon M. Goldstein High School for the Sciences in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was one of three winners of our Teacher Essay Contest.
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