Four Hundred Kids and Me

Before-school duty scared me. That’s when I was in the gym with hundreds of kids while they waited for homeroom. The first five minutes of the duty seemed manageable, but the buses kept coming, disgorging another seventy students each. Kids streamed into the gym, teasing and jabbing and thundering their ways up into the bleachers. Every single one of them, I thought, must have had Mountain Dew and cookies for breakfast.

I’d stand there watching. They’d group with their kind in the bleachers—geeks with algebra books open and notebooks out, athletes in team jerseys, skaters with dark clothes and streaked bangs, band kids with their instrument cases piled in front of them. And sprinkled among all these groups, loners tried to look as if they fit in.

As the minutes passed, they’d get louder, even when they didn’t mean to. Someone in one group would raise a voice to make a point. And the next group would turn up their volume in order to be heard. Then so would the group beside them. And all the voices multipled as they bounced around the hard surfaces of the gym.

I’d try not to look at my watch. But when I’d finally give in, sure I was half way through my thirty minutes, I’d find only ten minutes had passed.

As the bleachers crowded, the tension would rise. Someone stepped on someone’s book bag. Two kids who fought in the cafeteria yesterday accidentally sat too near each other. An argument broke out in the in the middle of the bleachers, and near the top a lunch drink spilled. On the eighth-grade hall side a group of kids were waving me to come over. They had a problem.

No wonder I had trouble sleeping the night before this monthly duty.

But gradually I discovered a few tactics that took the edge off before-school duty:

Set a tone. A smile helped. I high-fived and fist-bumped and said good-morning and, if I knew them, called out their names. How I started with students, what I did the second they first saw me impacted the next thirty minutes.

Keep an eye on the overall. Don’t wade into the bleachers. I learned this the hard way. In the bleachers my back was always turned toward some students. This provided the right opportunity to throw a banana or a punch or escape out the door. Instead, I stood far enough away from the bleachers so I could see everyone from one end of the bleachers to the other.

Co-opt students into service. If I could get the right students working for me, I found, my job became easier.

“You see that guy standing at the top of the bleachers under the school flag?” I’d say to the nearest loud mouth. Go tell him to sit down and then point to me.”

I’d watch as the loud mouth stomped up the bleacher stairs and yelled, “Sit down!”

When the startled kid looked my way, I’d send him a friendly wave and watched as he sat.

“You need more help,” the loud mouth would say when he returned triumphant, “just let me know!”

Intervene early. It’s easier to prevent trouble than to stop it. So I learned to listen for strident voices and watch for posturing stances.

“Go get that kid,” I’d tell one of my bouncers.”

This pulled students out of situations before they escalated out of control.

I never learned to like before-school duty in the gym. But these strategies helped.

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