I had a little power struggle with a senior boy today that reminded me how simply being in the classroom can make someone act like a more awful version of himself.
The first flare-up happened during a class discussion when I asked this student – let’s call him Shane (why not) – to put away the work he was doing for another class. Shane, in the front row, treats me and the entire class to an extraordinary show of eye-rolling and grumbling as he slowly and noisily packs up his math binder or whatever it was. “But this is boring,” I hear him grumble. “I don’t want to do this.”
“Oh,” I say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t think it was boring. And anyway…” And then I think I made some indistinct gestures meant to get him to hurry up. My tone was probably a mix syrupy sweet sarcasm and stern patience.
With ten minutes left in class Shane asks to go to the bathroom. When I refuse, he resumes his show in front of the class. He’s standing by my desk and arguing that he should be allowed to go. I laugh. I can’t help it. As he stalks back to his desk he says, “It’s not funny. I really have to go.”
“I’ll explain to you later why it’s funny,” I say, for some reason.
He shoots back, “I’ll explain to you later when my mom files a complaint against you.”
Okay. This kind of thing used to really rile me up and get me nervous, but, happily, not so much anymore. I realize he should have left the classroom a long time ago, and he must have realized this too because he is packing up his bag to leave. “You’re leaving?” I ask. Yes. I write him a pass to the deans and tell him he can come talk to me later to discuss what happened. “Do you think you might do that?”
I see that the rest of the class is either watching with interest, pretending not to, or having their own conversations. I’m fine with that right now, so I step out into the hallway with Shane. And here is where everything changes. I explain the bathroom decision – how it’s the last ten minutes, and how he was being a jerk earlier, and I ask him if it seems reasonable to not allow him to leave. After his initial protests that all his other teachers just let him go whenever, and after some more reminders from me about his attitude, he concedes that my position makes sense.
“So what’s with all that attitude?” I ask.
“I’m just having a bad morning. It was a tough weekend.”
Ah, there it is. I tell him that’s fine, but that next time he should just ask to take a walk and I would think that totally fine and a mature thing to do. He’s looking at me and nodding – it’s as if the fog had cleared and he finally became his normal self again. He was in a low level rage in the classroom, behaving like a 7-year-old in a 17-year-old’s body. He knew the whole class was listening to him and his objective seemed to be to cut me down whenever he wasn’t sure what to say. But out here, merely on the other side of the door, in the empty hallway, he was allowed to listen to me, and he calmed down enough to realize what he was doing.
These things happen all the time, I know, but it always amazes me how powerful the move to the hallway can be. I’m reminded that students are always performing, always putting on airs and aware that they are being constantly scrutinized by their peers. And if we remove them from that stage for one minute, they can sometimes become themselves again.
Of course, Shane clearly wanted all of my attention – he was demanding it in the most immature way inside – and I ended up giving him exactly that by following him out into the hallway. That might positively reinforce this kind of behavior and it makes me feel bad for all the quietly mature students in the classroom with whom I did not have a one-on-one conversation today.
But it also made me think how impossible a situation the classroom can be. How are we supposed to get kids to be themselves when they are constantly on stage? How are they supposed to relax enough to be able to express confusion or be open to a new experience if they can be so stifled by the audience around them so as to act ten years younger than they are?