Kiss of Judas

My worst year of teaching started out as one of my best. After a decade of teaching, I had learned how to start a school year with high expectations, and it showed. Students started work even before the bell rang, I had issued only three demerits, grades looked good, and every day brought some magic. Then the principal asked me to stop by.

“Would you take a student teacher?” he asked.

And I did.

Jason watched me teach the first week.

“Not a problem,” he said, “I can do this.”

Well then, I thought. But my uneasiness with Jason grew. He didn’t ask questions or check student records or stay a minute longer than required each afternoon. I gave Jason more to do, and he did some of it, barely. Giving responsibility to Jason was like spooning food to a baby; it kept coming right back.

He tuned me out when I tried to talk with him. But he joked with the kids. And they liked him well enough . . . until I left my classes in his care for the required three weeks.

When I came back, they didn’t like him anymore. He didn’t like them, either. And I didn’t like him or them.

For the rest of that year, I tried to get my classes back. I called parents, talked with students, changed seats, offered rewards, taught with vigor. But the magic never came back.

One evening I thought it had. Four students showed up on my front porch. Just walking by, they said, and thought they’d stop. They thanked me for being their teacher, gave me hugs, and said they’d be on their way.

Bewildered, I closed the door, afraid to hope. Then I walked by a mirror and saw that, on top of my shoulder, one of them had pressed a menstrual pad.

Perhaps this kiss of Judas helped. I’m not sure. The general unruliness lost its edge.

And I’m not sure I handled this right. What I did was nothing . . . nothing, at all. I didn’t report to the office. I didn’t call parents. I didn’t talk to the four students, although they watched me with new eyes the rest of the year.

What I did was slog through to June with my head high. Then I started with fresh students in the fall, glad to begin strong with this batch and then let go later.

Start as a Scrooge and end as a Santa, I tell first-year teachers. The other way is no fun, at all.

Eyes-On Thinking

I had long known that roughly 65 percent of my students were visual learners. Still, for way too many years, I asked them to think mostly about words, not images. It was Kaylene who finally pointed the way for me. With Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” spread before us, we had discussed how Frost shows two different paths, each path representing a different decision. By placing these paths beside each other, Frost shows you can’t have it both ways.

“This is juxtaposition,” I told the class. ”Two unlike things or ideas bumped right up against each other.”

But Kaylene, who probably had half her mind on that night’s volleyball game, still looked mystified.

Stumped on how to help Kaylene, I paused. And in that instant, I noticed the Van Gogh poster I had hung on the wall.

“Look at Starry Night, Kaylene,” I said. “You see how the big sky comes right down to the earth? Why did Van Gogh bump them right up against each other like that?”

Kaylene edged up in her seat.

“I get it,” she said. “That wild sky smacks that puny town right into place.”

“And that’s a juxtaposition,” I said.

“Get with your talking partner,” I told the class. “Find other ways Van Gogh painted opposite things together to make each one stand out more.”

Van Gogh kept helping me teach. We found hyperbole in Starry Night with Van Gogh’s exaggerated brushstrokes, foreshadowing in the creepy cyprus that looms over the drowsy town, and tone in his rough bold painting style. Van Gogh made ideas visible. We could see them up there on the wall. Seeing Van Gogh’s ideas, helped visual learners like Kaylene to take these concepts back into literature.

Talking about art, I could tell, helped students externalize their thoughts, become more confident in their thinking. And even the students seemed to notice. One day I found a gift box on my desk. I lifted out a replica of Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker.

Rodin shows in this sculpture how hard thinking really is. Rodin’s thinker knits his brow, distends his nostrils, compresses his lips, and clenches his fists. Taped to the sculpture was a note: Thanks, Mrs. Swartz, for helping us think.

Feed Box Time

Every once in a while my grandpa would pause in the middle of chores. He’d still have silage to haul and grain to scoop. He’d still have hay to pitch into the feeding alley. But he’d sto­­p the work and get a little pleasure out of what he was doing—just sit there in his bib overalls on the feed box with me and watch the jerseys.

Grandpa and I both liked their doe-like faces and the light-colored bands around their muzzles. They were curious animals, Grandpa told me. They wanted to be in the know about everything, nosing an out-of-place bucket and exploring with eyes that seemed to see even behind them. We’d watch them switch their tails and grasp with their tongues and chomp their silage, mouths moving side to side.

Grandpa didn’t sit long. Soon, he’d shove off the feed box to fork straw for bedding and shovel manure into the spreader. But I could tell those moments on the feed box gave Grandpa some mettle.

Sometimes my middle school classroom reminded me of Grandpa’s barn. Students filed in and found seats, like cows finding stanchions. And when teaching chores—attendance slips, make-up work, announcements, sports eligibility reports, e-mails, calls from the office, and assigning homework—made me forget why I was there, I needed some feed box time. ­­

So I’d perch on the front of my desk and watch: eyes racing across pages and eyes staring out windows; hair spiked and draped over faces and falling down backs. I’d see Kali, whose mom just moved out, slumped in her seat; Matias, who missed his R­­italin dose, jiggling and thrumming and darting his eyes; Jayla, who had just been crowned Jr. Miss Ohio, primping in her compact mirror.  I’d see grown-size bodies crammed into desks and still-short legs dangling toward the floor. These were mine—these crazy, smelly, wonderful, fragile, bombastic, beautiful students.

My feed box time over, I took up teaching again.

Five Reasons to Hope for a Hyperactive Student

In my first years of teaching, I’d see ADHD on a student’s chart and sigh. But I came to like what these kids did for me and my classes. Take Matt Johns, for example. On the way into class, he always pulled something from the fidget basket on my desk—a stress ball or pipe cleaners or putty.

All during class his eyes darted around the room, keeping time with the pen he drummed on his knee and the shoe he tapped on the floor. The back corner seat worked best for Matt. There he could squirm or stand or even pace a little during class without bothering his steadier classmates. So what did Matt bring to my classroom besides a buzz in the corner?

  1. Surprise—I never knew what Matt would uncover next. His mind traveled fast and ranged far. He’d ask questions like, “What would happen if a tornado interrupted a forest fire?” or “If Thomas Edison lived today, what would he invent?” His new ideas livened dialogue and made it cool to offer comments. With Matt in class, we had no lulls in class discussion.
  2. Persistence—Matt had plenty to push past. By the time he reached me in sixth period, he had usually accumulated a string of setbacks: forgetting his math homework, misplacing his notebook, spilling the ink from the pen he dissected over his shirt, and getting a detention for talking too much in class. His report card showed C-‘s, not because he couldn’t think well enough for an A, but because he couldn’t remember to bring the homework that could help him get an A. But he kept picking himself up, jutting his chin back up again. Having already discovered that perfection is boring, he embraced his exciting life.
  3. Passion—When Matt cared about something his emotion was infectious. Nothing I could say would get students to care so much about Rosa Parks and her cause as Matt clenching his fists and imploring the class. “Think about it!” he’d say. “How would you feel if you worked all day and your legs ached and because of the way you looked you couldn’t drink water at certain fountains or sit in the good seats in the theater and now you had to give up your seat in the bus?”
  4. Teamwork—When Matt had an idea for a group project, he’d pose it with enough enthusiasm to launch the undertaking. Then, having made his contribution, he’d watch his more methodical group mates complete the project. And they were glad to take over. Matt, they knew, wouldn’t do things in the normal order. He might, after all, start in the middle, jump to the top, then to the bottom, and back to the middle. This collaboration worked, and I knew that in Matt’s class at least one group wouldn’t dither around wasting time. They’d just do it.
  5. Energy—By the time Matt bounced into my sixth period, my energy was usually waning. But high energy is contagious; and Matt’s animated entrances gave me new gumption. Matt brought me a focus for sixth period. If my adrenaline could match his and I could keep him engaged, the rest of the students got sucked right in to the lesson.

People often think people like Matt don’t pay attention. Actually, they pay attention to lots of things, all at once. Life, for Matt, was rich and multilayered, like Christmas morning every day. At the beginning of every sixth period, I’d close my eyes and open them again, trying to see what Matt could see. And, because of Matt, I was a better teacher.

Living Where You Teach

It’s messy to live where you teach. By the time I had taught two generations in the district where I lived, my students were everywhere—parsing out pills at the pharmacy, running mammogram machines at the hospital, and always checking me out at Walmart.

I often felt too introverted for this. I’d sometimes leave town to buy medicine and nightclothes. And I felt embarrassed when students I’d see the next day in second period walked by my garden when my hands were covered with dirt or found me in the hardware store buying more paint with a splattered shirt.

But I gradually came to see that my students learned better and their parents connected with me more because they saw me as human. I heard questions about report cards in the grocery store and comments at the gas pump about why the proposed school tax failed at the polls. I got used to a student saying, just as class began, “Hey, Mrs. Swartz! I saw you and your husband eating ice cream cones last night. You were walking down Main Street.”

All this helped, for example, when we read The Outsiders. S.E. Hinton’s novel shows a divided town, an economically struggling East Side and a wealthy West Side. When the gangs from these sectors battle, no one wins. My students and I discussed the themes of The Outsiders one afternoon in a muggy classroom where the swing out windows caught heat radiating up from the asphalt instead of a breeze and where the stench of middle-school bodies just come from gym hung in the still air.

“What about our town?” I asked. And the word “our” made a difference. I understood, the students knew, about Dog Hill and Choctaw, about the town kids and the lake kids, about the North End and the South End. I cared about the school tax failing, not only because I was a teacher, but also because this was my home.

The longer I taught in my hometown, the more I saw benefits not only for the students, but for me, as well. One evening at Walmart, for example, I had the battery of my watch changed in the jewelry department.

“I’ll pay at the checkout counter,” I told the jewelry clerk, “after I pick up some cardstock.”

But they didn’t have the color I wanted, so I left the store.

Half way to my car, I heard someone calling, “Ma’am? Ma’am?”

Not thinking they meant me, I kept my brisk pace across the chilly parking lot.

Then I heard feet running and a new voice.

“Mrs. Swartz!”

Kelly Taylor, from seventh period English class two years before and now wearing a Walmart badge, was out of breath.

“I told security I’d come get you” she said. “I told them that you don’t steal, that you’re just absent-minded sometimes.”

I walked with her back to checkout to pay for my watch battery, plenty glad to have run into a student at Walmart.

With Regrets

I wish I had a second chance with Alex Cole. He was one of my first middle schoolers almost thirty years ago, when I didn’t know much about teaching. Looking back I see my mistakes, the biggest being that I didn’t like Alex Cole.

If he were my student now, I’d make myself learn to like him. I’d work at it until I could see that his hair tufted on his head like the straw in the windrow piles behind my grandpa’s combine. I’d keep looking at his face until I could find strength behind stubbornness when he set his jaw and spirit behind temper when his eyes blazed.

But I didn’t do this with Alex Cole. Instead, in an effort to help him be good, I collected evidence of his badness. I chastised his tone, filched the notes he passed, marked his tardiness, assigned detentions for defiance, and called his parents with complaints. When the school year ended, I was relieved I wouldn’t see Alex Cole again. And I didn’t, not for my whole teaching career.

A few days after I retired from teaching I took a walk and heard someone call, “Mrs. Swartz?”

A man pulled his greasy hands from a truck engine and said, “I’m Alex Cole.” As we chatted, he was friendlier than I deserved.

“Do you have kids?” I asked.

He pulled open his shirt to show me three kids, their portraits tattooed on his chest.

I planned to stop by Alex Cole’s yard on another walk, to maybe apologize for being a bad teacher. But I didn’t get a chance.

Two days later just as I drove by his house on an errand, two SWAT vans and three police cruisers pulled up in front. In my rear view mirror, I saw officers surround Alex’s house. The next day I read in the paper about drug dealing and the shoot-out. I sat there in sadness.

I wished I had liked Alex Cole when he was in seventh grade.