Let me tell you a story.
Tyrone is a tough kid. He’s built like a 10th grader, if short, packs a hard punch, was spotted this weekend on the block sporting blood on his pants like a war trophy, from when he fucked up a kid outside of program. I say fucked up instead of beat up, because the advocates all say in hushed tones that he does a lot more than just beat up kids. That said, he’s improved by miles since he started in the program. When I had to deal with him on trips, he (plus Shaun and another boy, Kevin) were the Terrible Trio, pulling the hair of museum docents, stealing, throwing things, and so on.
I heard he was good all day today—engaging in activities, helping teachers, being polite to advocates. Enter Richard, a new kid to the program, who gets picked on a lot, doesn’t back down, doesn’t quite fit in. He’s a button-pusher. Two days after he started, Shaun already wanted to beat him up, and so did some of the girls. At lunch, when only a coordinator was present—the same coordinator who noticed the blood on my eye—Richard apparently spat in Tyrone’s face. I don’t know what prompted this, if it was a specific incident that had occurred a split-second before or if it had been building all day. Whatever the case, Tyrone sat there for a moment, smiling, then wiped the spit from his face and stood up with his fists cycling the air like a cartoon boxer. Richard stood too. He was teary-eyed and about to erupt. And then Tyrone punched him in the face just as the coordinator grabbed Richard. Richard almost hit her with a broom and banged her hand repeatedly against a windowsill in his efforts to get free. In a gesture completely different from how he was even last year, Tyrone let staff members hold him back. Later he told the coordinator, “I stopped because you got in the way and I didn’t want to hurt you.”
Richard is no longer a part of the program, for having attacked both the coordinator and the director and made some nasty verbal remarks. Tyrone has been suspended for a week. Which is a damn shame, since his good behavior today is essentially going unrewarded, but obviously this behavior isn’t tolerated, and disciplinary action is necessary above all else.
I wasn’t here for any of this. What I was here for was the moment when the coordinator, and three other top staff members, disciplined the rest of the 9th grade by canceling their field trip tomorrow, because being a community means that if one kid falls, they all fall. Therefore they all reap the consequences. This was met with instant resentment. Now I have to go in early tomorrow and help occupy them, and there’s no doubt they are going to be on their worst behavior.
I know little about discipline but I can’t think you win kids over by punishing them, seemingly unjustly, when as far as they’re concerned they were perfectly behaved. When I came in at 1:00, we split the time between independent reading (which could have been better but was decent, maybe 12 out of 15 kids actually read at least a page) and then I took them to the computer lab for writing, and miracle of miracles, they actually wrote. I was wearing my scorpion necklace—a real scorpion embedded in resin, maybe the length of your index finger—and managed to bond with some of the kids over it. One girl who was surly on Wednesday thought the necklace was “gnarly” and “dumb cool” and wanted to talk jewelry with me. One boy was like “Ewww” but clearly respected me on some level after looking closely at it. I also managed to win a few of them over on the basis of being a video gamer and a comic book reader. They actually wrote sentences. One girl wrote a half-page. Two kids wrote seven sentences each. I affirmed their good work every time I circled the room. They were happy and productive. I could have cried.
And yet I’m sitting here drinking because much of this has just been undermined by the disciplinary action taken today. I do think it is important to teach community and collective accountability. They should not get away with disrespecting their peers. But if none of the kids saw it happening, or knew what was going on until after it happened, why punish them? We call it “discipline” so it sounds less harsh, but the kids still see it as punishment. “It isn’t fair,” they complain. They’re animated with righteousness. As DeVon pointed out, “You didn’t punish us collectively when me and Shaun supposedly ‘fought’ last week.” That was the fight that injured me, but I agree with him wholeheartedly. We’re sending mixed messages, and guess what? They aren’t stupid. They know it.
I do agree that play-fighting and real fighting are on different levels, but punishing the whole group by taking away their field trip, and taking demeaning, meaningless actions like calling them “8th grade” instead of “9th grade” because they “aren’t ready for 9th grade yet,” erodes their good feeling about their own progress and their respect for us. They don’t care what we call them. Kids were snickering and shrugging as the coordinator said this. If they already care so little about the system that they disrespect authority all the time, why would they respect it any more when they’re being disciplined for what they feel is no good reason?
It seems to me that this is like cutting off your nose to spite your face: we want to show them that we’re in control, therefore we take something away from them without demonstrating that we see their good behavior. A pat on the back for a job well done isn’t going to do it with these kids. They need tangibles, like candy, ice cream, free time with their electronics, field trips. Reinforcement of good behavior is what makes it stick. Unfair gestures like this are just going to make them sour, and I can’t blame them. At the same time, I can’t blame the staff members taking these actions. Something has to be done, and it’s more than likely that the director or someone else further up the ladder who decided it. They make the call, but we’re the ones who have to live with it.
Tomorrow I go in early to help fill the hours that should have been taken up by the trip. I keep imagining the situation and what I would have done if I were there, and I don’t know. The coordinator talked about fight or flight making her separate them, but if I took a hit, my chronic pain syndrome would make it debilitating. I hurt enough from just standing all day. Of course I’m never supposed to be in a position where I have to separate them but last week clearly proved that it happens.
I realize I’m reaching them. I still feel inadequate. I’m hoping that tomorrow will be different, and remembering this feeling from last summer, spending every night drained at home hoping against hope for a perfect next day. It never happens, but I recognize it gets better. The kids saw that I came back. They let me talk to them. They actually listened for 10 whole minutes. They worked. They let me read their work, praise them, pat their shoulders; they talked a little to me. It’s not exactly perfection. But it’s progress. I just hope that the disciplinary actions—punishment, really—taken today don’t cause them to regress.
This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.