The bad kid is a key, I’ve found, to reach the rest of the class. Cinda was the bad kid in her class. She led the seventh grade in demerits, detentions, and suspensions. She daily stretched the patience of her classmates. And mine.
What distressed me most was that Cinda’s antics interfered with learning. For example, one day in the middle of a literature, circle, she slammed into class late. Waving a note from the office, she began her tirade about the dress code even before she reached her seat.
We all lost our focus on Jackson’s “The Lottery” as she groused about nothing being wrong with holey jeans and this country not being free like everyone said and why should some guy sitting in an office intrude on her territory by telling her what to wear.
Cinda, though, annoyed others by encroaching into their spaces—clicking her pen after Jared ask her to stop, helping herself to Kali’s paper, reading Jon’s journal entry over his shoulder, and belching to annoy everyone.
Cinda was hard for me to love. When I pulled up my stool beside her desk, her body odor made me gulp, as did her breath, which was fouled by cigarette smoke.
But what bothered us all the most was Cinda’s temper. It didn’t take much for it to erupt—a wrong look, a misspoken word, or someone in her way. And students, liked to ignite it.
One day Cinda was absent. And I took the risk of honesty with the class.
“I care about Cinda,” I told them. “And I need your help.”
And then I talked to the class about Cinda and how, though I couldn’t give specifics, she faced challenges. I told the class that because of those challenges, I wanted to give Cinda extra support. And I invited them to join me.
“If we would all be good to Cinda,” I said, she’d find it easier to be good.”
Not accustomed to talk like this from a teacher, the class grew unusually quiet. A few kids were nodding, so I went on.
“Think of Cinda’s temper as a fire,” I suggested. “If you throw sticks on a fire, it grows. But what if we starved the fire?”
I hadn’t planned to say more. But as we all sat there in silence—the class looking at me and me at them—I found I needed to say more.
“And this is how much I care about each of you,” I said. “I want to lift you up, to help bear your burdens.”
It was a sacred moment, there at London Middle School.
When Cinda came back to school, the moments didn’t seem so sacred. Still, the dynamics had altered, I could tell.
Students now saw meaning when I squeezed Cinda’s shoulder as I passed her desk and when I praised her for an insightful comment. They noticed each other doing good—lending Cinda the pencil she was always forgetting and ignoring a snarky comment she made. When I held Cinda to a standard, they knew I did it for love, not for my convenience. Sometimes they still threw sticks into the fire, but not as often. And Cinda was still bad, but softening.
But what changed most is that the class felt my care for them, not only for Cinda. They knew that how I treated Cinda revealed how I felt about each of them.
And this is the key Cinda showed me—that I could spread love to the whole class by caring for one.