“There’s no eating in this room,” I say, two minutes into my third class of the day, my most challenging.
“But I didn’t get to eat my lunch,” says Ray, as he takes another bite from the burger.
“Well, you had an hour to have lunch, and now it’s over. There is no eating here.”
“What’s the big deal?” he protests. “You want me to go eat outside?”
I know that if I say another word, the conversation will escalate into a confrontation that will derail the lesson I have planned. I look at him and shrug to say, do what you gotta do; I have to teach.
“Yo, why you gotta be such a…”
I stare at him to stop the word bitch from completing his sentence, mostly because he is a nice kid, usually deferential and kind. I don’t want to write him up for having what must be a bad day, and not writing up an incident involving a student cursing at me in class would be a suicide. He doesn’t finish the sentence, but a few people hum, “ooh.”
He grabs the paper bag and soda, gets up, pushes the chair in with a kick, and storms out. The door, which students know I prefer to leave open, slams shut behind him.
“So where were we?” I say, as I walk to the door and prop it open because there are no windows and twenty-something bodies in the room.
When I was a student in Soviet Armenia, we stood up when an adult entered the room and remained standing—shoulders down, chins up—until we were told it was alright to take a seat. Gym class involved lining up in a straight-line formation, from smallest to tallest, and taking marching orders from the teacher with the whistle, at least until it was time to play dodge ball. I was always the first in line.
Eleven years of schooling in my native country don’t yield a single memory of a student being disrespectful, defying or questioning a teacher. I don’t remember anyone teaching me this at home. Nor do I remember anyone in school explicitly instructing that we should conduct ourselves like pious soldiers. There was just never any other way to be. The teacher played the flute, and we danced. No one even dreamed of requesting a different melody. This changed when the nation stood on its feet with fists in the air, demanding freedom from Soviet tyranny. School became our frontier to fight for a break from old ways, so students began to question and defy. But this is a story for another time.
When my mother and I arrived in New York, I was sixteen, due to begin tenth grade. Largely because of the tireless efforts of my American aunt, I was accepted into a private school for girls on the Upper East Side. My mother worked as a cashier at Barnes and Noble and I waited tables at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, blocks away from our one-bedroom apartment on Broadway. The school offered me a full scholarship for three years, and taught me to respond to literature and ideas, instead of regurgitating passages, formulas, and facts. We teased teachers in private, especially the economics teacher, who threw his arms up in the air as he spoke, and happened to sweat profusely. We would describe the sweat patterns, like children trying to make out objects from the shapes of clouds. We would laugh loudly, as we smoked cigarettes and fed pigeons on the promenade during lunch. But disruption and misconduct had no place in the classroom. The rigor and expectations were such that there wasn’t a moment to waste.
During my seven-week teacher training at City College, the summer my life took a turn onto a teacher’s path I had never even known was there, a seventy-something-year-old retired teacher of fifty years taught our cohort that we could have the most thoughtful, measured, meaningful lessons, but that if we didn’t command the respect of the students, these would be as good as trash. When we practiced our teacher looks and classroom management strategies through roles plays, he often pointed out that despite my small stature, I would have no problem managing a classroom full of inner city kids. “Something about you makes you look seven feet tall,” he said on a coffee break once. Mr. G told us not to smile until Christmas, to do everything we had promised or threatened we would do, and to always greet students at the door, and compliment them. “Divide and conquer,” he would say. “Get a kid on your good side, and she’ll never give you a hard time.”
The first six years of my teaching unfolded in immigrant communities in the South Bronx, appropriately at two schools that served only recently arrived immigrants, mostly from West Africa and the Caribbean. Although there were some who raged and sassed, most students were deeply deferential, looking to teachers as guides along the journey to the American Dream, which they were told by their families began with education. Most of our students’ parents had never completed, and sometimes even attended, school in their respective native countries. Our students had come from places where authority is never questioned, and where adults command respect simply by virtue of having lived longer. Although my experiences in Armenia and as an immigrant in New York were very different from my students’ lives, we shared the feeling of living in an adoptive home and the commitment to grasp the opportunities it offers. I never struggled with classroom management. The students knew my expectations, and even though occasionally, some did disrupt the learning process because of whatever trauma was making it impossible for them not to, overall, my classroom was always a place where students worked hard, laughed a lot, and felt safe.
My sixth year left me tired of working with unreasonable, incompetent administrators and wishing to spend some time teaching English to native language speakers. I went in search of a new school, and was invited to join a team of what had immediately seemed a close-knit community of happy, intelligent administrators, creative, committed educators, and transfer students, most of whom were older than the students I had previously taught. I set up my classroom and stood at the door waiting for students to walk in with a smile, welcome me to their school, sit down, and be ready to learn.
A few weeks later, one student sat in the room, uneasy, squirming in his chair, like he wasn’t sure if he should stay or leave. “Where is everyone else?” I asked him, and he nodded in the direction of the reception area outside my classroom. I walked out and saw a crowd, my third period students, huddled outside of the principal’s office. The receptionist was on the phone trying to reach him and telling them to stop this nonsense and go into the classroom. I didn’t understand what was happening until the principal came downstairs and the students told him they were protesting my class. He asked them to go into my classroom, told them what they had done was unacceptable, that he is someone who gives students a voice, and listens to them, and that staging a walk-out was not the way our community solved problems.
“She’s mad disrespectful.”
“She’s sarcastic all the time.”
“She talks to us bad.”
“Give me an example of something she said that was disrespectful or bad,” the principal said.
No one answered. He gave students an opportunity to air their grievances, asked me if I would like to respond, commended me for handling the confrontation with grace, and told the students that if they had any issues in the future, with me or any other teacher, they were to go to him, and let him handle things. Twenty minutes later, he was gone and I stood in front of students who had torn me into pieces moments before. I wanted to take my bag and walk out. No, I wanted to scream at them. No, I wanted to lecture them about respect and accountability, ask how dare they, how could they.
“So, where were we? Someone remind me where we had stopped yesterday,” I said. Ray said we were on page 31.
I had come into the school expecting the respect I had always given to my own teachers and the deference I had received from my students in the past. I had taken for granted that I would be respected because I was an adult, a teacher. When this wasn’t given, I had lost my voice and my ways in the classroom. The wall between us had grown taller brick by brick until we could no longer see each other, until all we could do was speak to each other over it, both sides misheard and misunderstood. Things changed because they had to. Toward the end of the year, not a single brick remained between us. Even with the occasional burger and phone incident, we were in this thing together, struggling, overcoming, and growing because of each other’s efforts. On the day of graduation, I was embraced and thanked with a warmth teenagers aren’t apt at faking.
All along, they had had the respect to give. But they had needed to know what I had to offer because, as it should be, respect could only manifest itself in the presence of trust. They weren’t going to respect me for having walked the earth a decade or two longer than they had, especially because albeit shorter, their journeys have taken them onto roads far more difficult than the ones I have ever had to walk. Many of their lives have been affected so adversely by the adults in their families and communities who have often caused them tremendous suffering, that the idea that they should obey or accept without questioning is laughable. They survive this world only when they discriminate between those who demand things from them for the sake of keeping them in line, and those who hold them to expectations of greatness. They needed to see who I was as a teacher, what and how I was able to teach. Such are their lives that they have no reason to trust anyone until they receive something tangible for which to exchange their scarce trust. It may be a simple truth that one cannot take being respected for granted, but for me it has been a revelation of the kind that is bound to transform my way of being.
Still, there is no eating in my classroom, not while we’re learning.