I’m setting up my classroom for the new semester. It’s a lot like last year: open the blinds, new bulletin board, new books, clean, clean, clean. I’m not like last year. I don’t wear my shoulders around my ear lobes out of anxiety or jump at every shadow like it’s going to kill me. At personal defense training this morning the trainer, reminding us to use our common sense, demonstrated the paranoid person trying to maintain six feet of reactionary distance between himself and offenders at all times. Besides looking ridiculous, it’s impossible. I would know.
My journal goes silent my first week of teaching last year. In that silence I read my fear.The students were so curious they were polite that first week. I thought I had figured out who would be hard on me and who would ignore me once they got bored.
Then on the 26th, in messy scrawl, I vent.
Carefully, I arranged my room with all the security measures in mind: easy egress, access to the phone, computer faced away from students, barrier between me and them, everything stowed or locked away from thieving hands. I planned my procedures around their success such as the writing folders. Just like “on the bricks” my students didn’t do homework (in my humble opinion they should be been doing more), and if they did, it was more likely done by someone else in exchange for protection or a little extra food. Not wanting to fight this, I resolved to assign homework on only the rare occasion; instead, students would keep their work in a folder and write where I could see them. This way their stuff would be relatively safe and indisputably their own.
You can’t imagine how I deliberated with myself over these folders and my system, or how many conversations I had leading up to the start of the semester. In the end, I just gave it a try. Just when I thought it was going well, a folder came up missing. Fourth hour. Over lunch, I explained the whole situation to the principal. When he looked over my class roster, he told me it wasn’t surprising. This guy was always picked on, particularly by the others in class. He suggested that I assign one person to distribute the folders each period, so that it was more difficult to steal folders.
Fifth period rolled around and everyone quietly adapted to the new procedure, but they were like that. My seventh and eighth periods were a different story. I asked the last person in the room to pass out folders. He immediately argued and refused, which put me on the spot. Frustrated and scared, I passed out one piece of paper for the daily assignment. The folders hung in the files like so many sad elephants. My students took the opportunity to heckle me. “Hey, Miss,” one called out, “we don’t got to listen to you. You won’t last a month. The last one didn’t.” Laughter. I knew the story, I assure him, and yes I will make it. They’re snickering now, which does make me feel small, but it strengthens my resolve.
They were referring to the four people who had rotated through my position the last two years. During the interview it was explained that two of the women left because the job had always been a stepping stone back to the public school system, but the teacher my students remembered lasted all of two weeks. She hid in the boss’s office with a face drained of color, “I have a rapist in my class!” Yep. You might have future rapists sitting in your public classroom. I was fortunate to have taught really good students, but they weren’t all angels. At least here, I knew what I was getting and I could do something if they acted up. In my mind, every one of them had committed the worst crime possible because they were all capable of it. That way there would be no surprises.
I was exhausted by the time 8th hour stumbled in, and I thought it couldn’t get worse. (I handed out folders until I could come up with a solution.) As everyone began their “how-to” speeches “Martinez” began writing for his independent study class. Training from my previous school kicked in; I told him he can choose to change tasks or choose a chron (these are entries in an offender’s chronological report where we can report positive or bad behavior). Arguing that the essay will work for both classes, he found out I knew better. He took his time, but finally wrote down his topic: directions from his home town to a nearby city.
I tried to engage him in a conversation about Farmington, NM, having driven through it years before. Oops. He looked at me like I had suddenly turned into a frog. What had I said? It didn’t matter, he started playing games with his words. Everyone else in the room stared at their papers like it was the latest issue of Playboy, which confirmed that I was being manipulated. They do this so they can say they didn’t witness anything.
I won’t bore you with the details of our back-and-forth over the next three weeks. It’s enough to say that the rest of the class let Martinez test me until I had enough conversations logged in to drop his status (more on that later) for a month. We never came to like each other, but he left me alone after that.