A Bright Spot

It reminded me so much of the middle school I’d taught at when my mother was ill, for so many reasons.

First of all, everything looked different than it had in the city.  I had a brand new classroom, with brand new desks, a closet which held brand new calculators and textbooks.  There was a dry erase board mounted to the wall, a computer and a closed circuit TV which could be connected to the computer for large lesson displays.  There was a library of CDs with computerized encyclopedias, math lessons and games for student use.  I had everything I needed, even some things I wasn’t sure I would ever use.

But too, it felt the same because I was similarly pushing out the drama and difficulty at home to focus on my work.  I didn’t tell a soul what had happened at home; that my husband and I had a huge fight yesterday, that the police had been called, and that he’d spent last night in the cabin of his boat and I’d changed the locks on our shared home.  I was out to prove myself to these people and I hardly knew them; I certainly wasn’t going to talk about my home life in this, the first day of school.  No, I pushed it all out of my head.  I had to focus.  I had no idea what to expect from my students, who as eighth graders promised to be a challenge.

I worked through the advisory period (in my school days we used to call it homeroom) with my first day of school philosophy:  start out tough, and you can ease up later.  Once you lose a group of students’ respect, it is much harder to gain it back than to ease up the reins of control.  With middle grade students it is easy to joke around and try and have the “I’m your friend first” mentality, but my experience had told me that this was a recipe for trouble later on.   In the city, the sheer numbers of students and the general lack of respect for school, adults and authority had made it impossible to be anything but hard and tough in order to manage my classroom without it spiraling into chaos.  The combination of pushing out the thoughts of what had happened yesterday and my worry at losing control of older students on day one gave me the manner of a tiny, blond drill sargent.

But everything I knew and was used to practicing as a teacher were not the same here.  Immediately in homeroom I found myself dumbfounded by the fact that I gave an instruction and it was followed without question.   The students were silently filling in their information cards as I’d instructed them to do; I walked slowly up and down the rows of desks to be sure no one was pretending to be on task but really writing notes or daydreaming.  But they weren’t.  They were all doing what I’d asked.

I kept looking for the cracks in the wall:  the inevitable tiny flick a student would give to a neighbor to incite a distraction, the passing of gas that would lead to ten minutes of pulling the kids back on track, the sarcastic comment after I gave an instruction to the students.  But it didn’t happen.  The students quietly came up to my desk with their completed cards one by one, and pulled out books and magazines for the rest of the advisory period to read until the bell rang for first period.

I could feel myself soften by the second period, when students filed in and dutifully participated in the team building activity I’d created in order to gain their respect and feel ownership of their studies.  By the sixth period, I was laughing with the students after they’d completed their tasks.   I could hardly believe the day was over; it had flown by in a flurry of activity and anticipation.  The exhaustion I normally felt the end of a school day was no where to be found; I was exhilarated and couldn’t wait for tomorrow to come to see what else my new students could do and how they would respond to my lessons.

“Wow, you really keep those kids in line,” my coworker Julie said as we stood together in the hallway watching the students at their lockers pack up for the buses.  “I never heard a peep out of your room today.”

I looked at her and laughed.  “Honestly, these eighth graders are easier to work with than the first graders I taught four years ago.  They actually listen and believe you’re in charge instead of questioning you at every turn.”

Julie laughed.  “It’s not that they are necessarily easier.  They would question you if they thought they could get away with it.  It’s clear that they respect you.”  She paused, and smiled.   “I think we’re gonna have a lot of fun this year.”

I smiled brightly at her, the stress I’d been feeling this morning completely erased from my mind.  So this was what it was like to love your job, to want to come to work, to be able to focus on your work so completely that nothing else could distract you.  “I think you’re right, ” I answered brightly.

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