Wednesday was my first day with the rising 9th grade (the students who have just completed 8th grade) at the nonprofit organization where I teach full-time during summer academics. I have them for 2 hours Mondays and Wednesdays for essay writing. It’s their last class for the day. I have all 16 kids in one group, which presumably would be similar to last summer, where I had 2 classes of 15 kids each, though each class was 1½ hours instead of 2.
These kids are angry. They are hot. The air conditioning in the school is often broken or barely effective, and the past couple of days have peaked at 102 degrees. The last time I worked with this group, during ELA prep in afterschool program, DeVon threw a metal folding chair at me, or at least in my direction. I’m still not sure how it just barely clipped my shoulder, when I was too startled to really move all that much. I’d chaperoned this group on field trips before too, and witnessed Shaun shaking hands with the skeletons at the Bodies Exhibit. My first class with them was on a 101 degree day, for 3 hours, from 1:00 to 4:00. I know some of them by face but I haven’t earned their respect yet. They don’t know me as someone who will stick around, or someone who gives a damn. Mainly, all they’ve seen of me is that I can’t command their attention in the classroom and I can’t project my voice enough to drown them out.
So I wasn’t entirely surprised when, after I was left alone in the room with them, DeVon and Shaun, who are friends, started play-fighting.
While it’s usually not malicious, when unchecked, play-fighting can escalate into real fighting, and even if it doesn’t, it’s still disruptive and isn’t tolerated in or out of the classroom. DeVon and Shaun literally took it out into the hall, DeVon armed with another student’s walking cane, and I had a split-second of indecision—a single punch could mean debilitating pain for days due to a chronic pain condition—before I followed them, got between them and urged them to break it up and go back into the classroom. They were still play-fighting, and while they didn’t immediately listen to me, I managed to get Shaun inside. DeVon was following me in when Shaun hurled something, probably a pen cap, at DeVon who was behind me.
The object popped me just above the corner of my eye, right on my eyelid. Not a huge impact, but for a moment my vision stung, and then I heard the class go, “Ohhhhhhhh!”—the universal stand-in for “Holy shit, he’s gonna get it now”—and I realized that showing weakness would not only mean that the play-fight would continue but also that I’d lose the students’ respect forever. So I kept going, tried to get them to break it up, failed. Then one of the advocates came back from lunch and broke up the fight. And I managed to continue my lesson.
I realized I was bleeding about five minutes later, when it started trickling into my eye. My glasses hid it for the most part. I kept brushing it away with my thumb, tried to play it off like I had something in my eye, and managed to hide it until the end of class, when the education coordinator came up and I told her we needed to fill out an incident report and she looked more closely at my eye and saw the skin had been torn off. Not a big wound, and not too deep, but broad enough that my whole eye area felt tender all day yesterday. Of course, this isn’t the point. It’s the psychological ramifications of it that are more lasting. As a teacher, I’m supposed to maintain a safe classroom environment, and I couldn’t even protect myself, let alone break up a play-fight.
Some people would probably say that isn’t the point either, that just because they were play-fighting and hadn’t meant to hurt me doesn’t make it okay. If they had respected my authority the way they respect those who have the real power (coordinators, directors) then I wouldn’t have been injured, however slightly. Whatever the case, I now hold the dubious honor of being the first incident report for the summer, injured on the second day. Kids have made subtle and pointed threats toward me before, but this is the first time one of them, though accidentally, made me bleed.
I’ll be returning to this classroom on Monday, when both DeVon and Shaun will be back from suspension. I stressed that I knew they were play-fighting, but I don’t know how they’ll view me now. They must be wondering if I “snitched” on them when the education coordinator came in, or if I demanded that they be punished for their behavior. I’m so anxious I could vomit. I wish they gave instructors basic training on how to deal with situations like this. I wish I had better control of my classroom. I wish I was the kind of teacher kids could look at and immediately know I could be trusted, that I was on their side. But that’s not what this is about either.
I’ve talked to a few people about the incident, and so far I’ve been met with “You have the patience of a saint,” or “I couldn’t do it, I don’t know how you can,” or “I would have walked out and quit right then and there.” Last summer, when a real fight broke out in my classroom, I thought about quitting. I almost cried in front of the kids. Two girls noticed and had to talk me down. I think the kids were surprised when I was back the next day. Yesterday I made myself downplay it all until I got home, got in the shower, and the stream of water on the wound made the entire left side of my face sting like hell. Then I put my head against the wall and allowed myself to cry for 10 minutes. I thought about the seniors I worked with all last year, helping to get them to college. I think about how young these 9th graders are, how little they know about the world outside their communities, how even if they never notice it, they do absorb things from class, how important it is to prove to them that people are willing to stick it out for them no matter what.
I’m not a saint. I’m not even patient. I am selfish, I have to fight the impulse to be lazy, I miss the little peace-of-mind I had before the shootout happened, before Wednesday’s incident happened. To be brutally honest, I’m torn between enjoying the feeling of being a sort of martyr—the first one hurt on the first day of summer program—and wanting to downplay it, to pretend I am not emotionally scarred by this or the shootout or anything at all. I dread going back. Not having control. Worrying about every little thing that could happen. It gets in the way of my ability to teach them. It makes me feel sorry for myself, which I hate. It makes me sick. But at the same time I know that, whatever the reasons, selfish or selfless, I’ll show up bright and early on Monday, swallowing my nausea, lesson plan in hand, and force myself to face them again. And again on Wednesday. And again the Monday after that. Rinse and repeat.
Why do I do it? Why do any of us do it? Maybe it’s all of the above. Maybe it’s partly the pressure of needing a job that keeps me from quitting. Maybe it’s the fact that I know that quitting over an injury means broadcasting defeat to all the kids I’ve worked with here, and my pride won’t allow me to live with a bruised ego. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m trying to survive something, because I wasn’t there to survive Black July. Maybe it’s my war-fix. The closest I can get to no-man’s-land, standing on a corner that marks the boundary between two crews who have been banging all year.
I realize that what happened on Wednesday isn’t about any of this. I don’t know what it’s about, or I’m currently unable to put it into words. I’m lucky DeVon let me take the cane from him. Lucky that Shaun didn’t try to punch me in the face. Lucky, really lucky, that I wasn’t directly hit in my open eye.
So why do I do it? Is it worth it? I don’t know. At the university level I know I am making a difference. With the high school kids, I know I am making a difference. But it shouldn’t be about visible gratitude, or being able to perceive the improvement in their work. I am doing something for these rising 9th graders. I don’t think I’ll ever see evidence of it, certainly not gratitude, but I don’t want to think I’m doing this to feed my own ego. Call it a crisis of faith. Like many of us, I’m sure, I want to know that I’m doing the right thing. That I wasn’t bleeding for nothing, and won’t be, if it ever happens again.