A Place at the Table

At the art museum where I lead tours, I like to gather students in front of Supper, the larger-than-life oil painting by Joseph Hirsch.

“What’s unusual in this painting?” I ask.

Hirsch_Supper_pg

And the answer comes easily. The people seem poor, but the table seems rich.

“How can you tell the people are poor?” I ask. And they point out the tattered jackets, the scuffed shoes, and the desperate shoveling in of food. Some students mention bad manners, like elbows on the table.

About the rich table, they notice the wine in the goblets, the crisp table cloth, claw feet on the table, velvet on the chairs, and the chandelier overhead.

“What if I told you,” I ask students, “that Hirsch painted Supper at the same time President Johnson declared his War on Poverty? And during the Civil Rights Movement?

Most students can put it together. Everyone belongs at the table, they tell me.

Occasionally, I see a student counting and then the realization dawning. Twelve people are at the table, they say, like in The Last Supper painting.

We notice some techniques Hirsch uses—the dark, rough brushstrokes on the men and the lighter and finer brushing of the table and food, the way Hirsch pulls the eye from one pop of red to another—the velvet, a sauce, and the wine. Hirsch uses this rich color for emphasis.

And we end with a discussion on theme. How can you invite people to the table, I ask them. Most often, their minds go to literal tables—in their school cafeterias.

“We see kids sitting alone at school,” they say. “We could invite them to sit with us.”

If those moments in front of Supper make this one thing happen, our stop there is valuable. My hope, though, is that their understandings of table will broaden.

The Bad Kid Key

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.

My Double Identity

When a student in my classroom didn’t match my teaching style, I often thought back–way back–to my year in sixth grade. That year I had two identities, one for Miss Bordeaux and one for Mrs. Watts. In the morning with Miss Bordeaux I was a good kid. Miss Bordeaux wore starched white blouses and dark skirts and ordered her world and ours. She played soft classical music when she first woke up each morning, she told us. Then just before she left for school, she switched to marching music. She continued this beat at school, stepping us through her class. In Miss Bordeaux’s room, the air felt fresh, like someone had opened a window.

Most of my classmates didn’t like the way Miss Bordeaux went ballistic if you said ain’t, or if you came to school with dirty nails or if you didn’t sit up straight. They especially hated that Miss Bordeaux made us write papers, long ones with a thesis and supporting points. She filled our papers with lots of red edits and suggestions.

I loved to read her markings. Her red pen showed my wordiness and left my writing bare and beautiful. Sometimes I noticed her watching me as I read those red marks, nodding her head. Miss Bordeaux always seemed to find the good in me, even when I messed up.

But over lunch, I seemed to change. Most students were glad for the switch to Mrs. Watts in the afternoon, but with Mrs. Watts, I felt scatterbrained. I daydreamed, lost pencils, and forgot assignments. All this exasperated Mrs. Watts, and she watched for my flightiness. One day, for example, when I left my books at home once again, Mrs. Watts assigned me to write 500 times “I will not forget my books.” I fought the tedium by writing all the “I”’s, then all the “will”s, then ten complete sentences. And on and on.

The next day, I took these 500 sentences to Mrs. Watts who tore them into shreds in front of me. And, pointing to the boots I had left at school the afternoon before, gave me another assignment:  “I will not forget my boots,” written 500 times. As I wrote, all I could think was that the two sets of sentences were different by only one letter. And that I’d never use this punishment when I was a teacher.

I fit, it seemed, with Miss Bordeaux, not with Mrs. Watts. And decades later when I taught sixth grade, I found in my classroom students who didn’t match my teaching style. With those students, especially, I took special care to find the good in them.

What To Do With a Smart Kid

I worked with lots of smart students in my decades of teaching. I found them in middle school classes, in prison classrooms, and in the gifted pull-out program where I taught.

Some of these students were school smart. They pulled A’s on every test, wrote essays in correct form, and produced blue-ribbon science fair projects. But sometimes I worried about these school-smart kids. They invested so much time writing correct answers and competing for class standings that they lacked time and energy and courage for creative work.

But other students didn’t do any of this. They focused on outside-the-box thinking. They felt no compulsion to please teachers or establish a stellar academic career. Jumping through scholastic hoops held no appeal for them.

High I.Q.s, I learned early in my career, do not always result in gifted behavior.

“What can we do?” parents often asked—sometimes because they could sense their children were stifled under academia, sometimes because their children were failing. Both sets of parents worried because they felt their children weren’t reaching full potential.

My best tool for talking with these parents was Renzulli’s Three-Ring Concept of Giftedness.Three-Ring ModelRenzulli interlocks three traits: above-average ability, creativity, and task commitment. Gifted students, of course, have above-average ability. But they often have developed only one of the other traits. To be highly productive people, according to Renzulli, these students need to learn to bring each of the three traits into play.

School-smart gifted students—the ones with all A’s—are found in the overlap between above-average ability and task commitment. But they haven’t developed their creativity. They need to be encouraged to take risks in thinking, to be curious and adventuresome and mentally playful.

The outside-the-box gifted students—the original thinkers—are located in the overlap between above-average ability and creativity. But they haven’t developed task-commitment. They need to be encouraged to persevere and endure, to work with determination and dedicated practice.

The goal of parents and teachers is to help gifted students move toward the center—to help them use their intelligent minds to think in creative and in disciplined ways.

 

If I Hadn’t Given Up

When I left the prison to teach at a middle school, my inmate students gave me a charge.

“Mrs. Swartz,” they said to me. “Don’t give up on the bad kids in your class.”

This was a burdensome charge, I found. And one that became heavier by the decade, as more of my students appeared in the police reports of The Madison Press, the local paper that always found its spot on the teachers’ lounge lunch table.

We’d dine teacher-style, eating a sandwich with one hand, correcting papers with the other, and drinking caffeine, lots of it. Someone would riffle through the newspaper and then read the police reports to the rest of us

We were rarely surprised. These were our bad kids—the kids who had been without friends, some of them eerily quiet, some of them always in trouble. Some names appeared in the paper every few years. Each time I heard the name of one of my students, I felt I had failed the charge.

Todd Easton was one of these students. He sat in the back of my fifth period class and made no trouble. He didn’t do anything else, either—no homework, no classwork, no comments in class discussion. I tried with Todd for a while. Nothing worked.

One day after school, Todd came back to my room and gave me a gift, The Complete Works of Shakespeare. He handed it to me with two hands and looked right at me. Then he left. Inside he had written a short note with misspelled words.

I stood there, holding the book and feeling alarmed. If I had been teaching at the prison, I would have reported the gift. Inmates sometimes gifted prison employees they liked just before an uprising. But I wasn’t at a prison. This was a middle school.

I was back at my desk when I heard the sirens. On the street outside the school, Todd had attacked someone with a knife. A few years later, back from the detention center, he was in the paper again. And again. And then Todd killed himself.

I must have done few things right with Todd. After all, I have the Shakespeare book, still on my shelf. But I didn’t do everything I could have done for Todd. He was quiet there in the back of my class, and I had louder kids demanding attention. I didn’t meet with Todd’s parents. I didn’t ask Todd to eat lunch with me. I didn’t pair him with another student. I was too busy, too harassed with the urgent.

What haunts me is that Todd must have felt some connection with me. I might have had a chance—if I hadn’t given up.

After every knifing, every shooting, every police report, the charge is crushing. So, I’m grateful for grace. And I’m grateful for a new generation of teachers who keeps going back into their classrooms every day.

 

The Day I Snapped

With state mandates, district regulations, and high-stakes tests, it’s easy to forget the power of teachers. But teachers hold a frightening sway over the lives of students. One glance, one statement, or one act at a critical moment can shape a life—either diminish it or enlarge it.

One afternoon I ran out of patience with Challon. I had explained to the class how to write a thesis statement, but I knew Challon hadn’t been listening. She was too busy brooding. Her eyes were on the ceiling, her face was in a scowl, and her fingers drummed the desk.

I knew life at home was tough for Challon. So after the class was at work, I pulled my stool up to her desk. Challon, I decided, needed a personal orientation to thesis statements. But still Challon didn’t put forth the effort to track with me.

This was the last period of a fraught day: a fight in the hall, a new student, an interrupted lunch, and a general restlessness. And my head ached.

“Challon,” I snapped, “you exhaust me.”

I said those words with my eyes flashing and an edge to my tone. I said those words to relieve my stress, not to help Challon.

And this time, Challon tracked with me. Her face looked so reduced, like I had stripped her dignity. In four words I had undercut the relationship I had so deliberately been building with her.

The bell rang, and Challon escaped, leaving me in defeat. After teaching this long, I knew better. I knew that a hasty rebuke can sear the soul of a struggling student. And I could see by Challon’s face that I had misused the power of my words.

I graded several essays, fighting my guilt. But I knew exactly what I needed to do. Tomorrow I would say sorry to Challon—and say it humbly.

 

Small Gifts

In A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy, Thomas Buergenthal tells a story about a loaf of bread thrown to him on the Auschwitz Death Transport. As the open train moved slowly through Czechoslovakia stopping at town after town, Buergenthal weakened from hunger. Then he saw people standing on a bridge, waving and shouting. As the train was about to pass under the bridge, they threw loaves of bread down into the train.

I can imagine people on the bridges thinking that, in the context of Holocaust horror, throwing loaves of bread wasn’t much. But the loaf that ten-year-old Buergenthal caught probably saved his life.

As I read this story, I thought of how often I walked into schools where I taught tempted to stop trying. I’d see students who were high on drugs, angry because of racism, and hungry because food stamps hadn’t lasted the month. I’d see signs of neglect and abuse. I’d see depression and anger and fear. In the face of this need, my efforts seemed undersized.

What helped me most, was to think of bilateral approaches. For the long term, I tried to battle the causes of pain. Why, for example, were a disproportionate number of black students in our detentions? What culture in our school was facilitating the bully of special needs students in the hallway? Why were students hungry in the middle of an agricultural county? What could we do, I asked other teachers and administrators, to change the systems that caused all this? And in the classroom with students, I tried to teach with a social justice lens. But I couldn’t tackle all these big issues every day.

So, in the short term, in the daily rush, I learned that scattering the small helps. I learned that, if I didn’t have time for a fifteen minute talk, I could squeeze a shoulder. Smiles, compliments, and thumbs up signs are small gifts to toss through the air. But even paltry offerings can help students hold to hope.