You can find plenty to disgust you in a middle school classroom. There are the good kids, of course, those who bring delight, who come to school fully-fed, well-groomed, and with generations of support behind them. And there are the survivors, who for some inexplicable reason have learned to live above the fray of their turbulent lives. But then, there are the kids who haven’t, who are still mucking around in the wreckages of their lives.
These kids drag their messes right into the classroom with them. They are grungy kids living in slovenly houses, hotheads who have been knocked around themselves, withdrawn kids whose inner demons call louder than any teacher’s voice, and poor little rich kids trying to erase the neglect of their parents by flaunting their deep pockets.
These kids stink and fight and emit bodily sounds into the magic moments of a class and look down their noses at others and bully. And my first impulse toward them was usually disgust.
But I learned early on that disgust didn’t fit into a student-teacher relationship. And when I finally managed to move from disgust to pity, I felt Herculean.
Only pity didn’t work either. My pity sent them the message that they were powerless, that they were different, that their problems made them the “other.” Instead of giving them a way out, my pity seemed to humiliate them. And they felt like a lost cause.
What worked was counterintuitive.
It was respect. When I held these damaged students in regard, they could learn from me. I tried to think of the courage it takes to walk into class with tatty sneakers and sit next to someone with Nike Kyrie shoes. I appreciated the valiant effort a kid took to stay awake in class—a kid who I later discovered had stayed up half the night hearing his dad beat up his mom. I looked for cracks of kindness in a bully. I noticed a kid from the lake who usually flaunted her wealth offering a pencil to a kid from the other side of the tracks.
And when I looked at these students in this way—remembering how hard they worked to survive, watching for the creative ways they found to exist in broken places, celebrating their grit, and acknowledging their sparks against dreary backdrops of their lives—something happened. Disgust seemed to fade away.