Grammar in November

It was November. The offenders were getting used to me and I was starting, just starting, to get used to them. My boss had proven right about some things like how much I could ask from a class in one period and how my techniques from the past would have to go. The latter would upset me more than anything because I knew I could teach my students more in an hour than I was. Our school culture, however, allowed them to dismiss me, and I was forced to adapt.

We seemed to have turned an imaginary corner somewhere along the way where they decided I could stay. My seventh hour class would stick to their agenda of making my life miserable. I confess, some nights I drove home gritting my teeth over them, wanting to drown the day in a glass of wine. But there was dinner to cook and baths to be given and bed time stories to read.

As I was saying, it was November, and I was having to reinvent myself as a teacher. I turned a desk around to face three of my students arranged in a sloppy semi-circle around me. Two were obscured from my view; one whom I trusted to ask questions, and one who, not surprisingly, was preoccupied with novice origami. Would this work? A few weeks earlier, when two were “in the hole”* and I had a class size of three, we four huddled around my table and plunged together into grammar like it was a steaming car engine. It wasn’t exactly shoulder-to-shoulder problem solving like men enjoy what with me on one side of the table, and three teenage boys on the other, but it seemed to lend the effect.

Someone said, “Hey, we should do it like this more often.” His classmate agreed. My origami student hunched over in an agreeable kind of way to acknowledge his consent. I reminded them that the three of them barely fit at the table, and we’d have to find room for two more. “Aww, forget about them.” Like a teacher can just forget two of her students!

Two weeks later, I decided to replicate the experience with all five. Now, though, I had two offenders reluctant to do any work, and three who were willing to humor me. The past week had seen me walking circles around the room trying to keep up with the scattered paces of all five. Both flock and shepherd were begging for the chaos to stop, so I brought one of my strays into the fold, and gave an open invitation to the second. Two of the harder workers separated on their own, but did alright together while I herded the others, one sentence at a time, down the page of grammar practice. Thus, we got the hang of compound sentences and compound predicates. I didn’t even hear Mr. R. tell me he was stupid, or the class was hard, or I was treating them like kids. He just worked until the last few seconds of class.

He may forget all about subjects and predicates by tomorrow, but I hope he remembers that he concentrated for twenty minutes puzzling out grammar with much success. For twenty minutes he could forget that he is largely alone in the world. For twenty minutes he could forget that he hasn’t seen his father since that night. It’s a night that haunts me even as my imagination refuses to wrap her head around the scene: boy meets dad on a silent street lit only by weak business lights and a distant street light. They meet a third party who owes the dad drug money. Something causes said offender to knock third party to the ground. Dad shoots the guy. Dad disappears (to Mexico, speculates the woman telling me this), never to be seen or heard of again. The most recent photograph his son has of Dad is cut out from the last newspaper article. So son is abandoned, interrogated, and incarcerated.

The first time I knew something was seriously missing in his life was when he requested a meeting. “Miss, I don’t believe in apologies, so this is hard for me to do: I’m sorry. I won’t act up in your class again.” I asked him in the conversation if he had any support. His head dropped and his voice changed, “No, I don’t have any support.” I told myself to wait for another time to find out what I had inadvertently drug up.

His case illuminated a lot for me. After that I was determined he would do well in my class even if we hated each other in the end; by golly he would do something “smart” on his own and acknowledge this fact. It was mid-December before we could tease each other, he could accept my praise and my confrontations, and we started to see some growth.

* When an offender is acting up, he or she gets sent to “The Hole” as punishment and for redirection from the Drill Instructors. It’s jail inside of jail. I imagine every teacher at one point in his or her career wishes they had a detention system with the teeth of The Hole.

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About hey miss

A teacher. A prison guard. I used to think that was like oil and water. Like lightening and metal. Some days it is. Some days it's magic.
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