J was a girl in my sixth grade math and science class last year, perhaps the most popular sixth grader in the school. All the girls wanted to be her. All the boys wanted to be her boyfriend, even though as sixth graders they had very little idea what that might even look like, much less how to go about getting her attention. She was very smart. Mature. Confident. All the right clothes. To seal the deal, during the second week of school she pulverized a seventh grade girl who was teasing her on the yard to let everyone know she was not to be trifled with.
A reputation like this needs to be cultivated in the classroom as well, and for J this came in the form of extreme eye rolls at peers and teachers and a tendency to shout students down for daring to look at her the wrong way, whether or not I was teaching a lesson.
I had to nip this in the bud. Students at my school are used to yelling at each other at will. This makes it harder for me to teach them how to interact with civility, but not impossible. I brought her out into the hallway and explained (again) my expectations for how we talk to each other in class, even if someone is getting on your nerves. I told her I thought she was a leader, a lady, and that I expected her to set an example for others.
This put J between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, she had a reputation to uphold. Adjusting her behavior to be more respectful in my classroom would be seen by her peers as a sign of weakness. The alternative, however, was sitting with me in lunch detention and phone calls to her mother. So what did J do? She gave me what I asked for, kind of. J adopted the most exaggerated, insincere, milk-toast version of what she imagined I thought a lady should act like. Perfect manners, perfect posture, Stepford smiles. Her best white-person accent (I imagine most white teachers of classes with majority black or brown students know what I’m talking about here). She was Doris Day having tea at the tennis club. “Yes, Mr. Young. You know, I never thought of it that way before. I can’t imagine how I could have made mistake like that. I would love to pass those papers back for you.”
J and I had reached an unspoken compromise. I got her to stop acting up in class while she got to save face by openly mocking not only my requests for gender and classroom conformity, but even my race. This new behavior was considered even more subversive by her peers; there were stifled giggles all around the room every time J and I interacted. They loved it. She was still getting attention from them, the kind she wanted, and I got a more peaceful classroom. I decided I could live with that. I pretended that I had no idea what J was doing and that she was pulling one over on me. Win-win.
I couldn’t have imagined in the beginning how long the act could go on for. Weeks, then months. A perfectly polite, insincere J who might have thought that I was a moron but was one of my best math and science students. The other students found it less and less funny and eventually stopped reacting to it. Apparently the act wasn’t funny in other classrooms, probably because I was J’s only white teacher and there wouldn’t have been any point. In those classrooms she was still shouting at other students, shouting at the teachers and regularly getting suspended. Some students even found it necessary to warn me, “You think J’s really good but she’s not. She just acts like that in here.” To be sure, I had discipline problems of my own but J was never one of them.
Somewhere along the line the act became less of an act. J still carried herself with impeccable manners. But her heart wasn’t in the white accent anymore. Our conversations were less about making fun of me and more about the math and science, more about the learning. From time to time I could see her get irritated with another student, but then take a breath and calm herself down. More than once, on those days where it seemed as though the entire class was sprung, J was the only student sitting still and ready to move on with the lesson, impatiently looking at everyone as if they were unruly children. A lot of times these withering looks from J were enough to shame the class into getting their act together.
Somehow, a relationship based on mutual respect had developed. I don’t know how I managed to earn that respect. Maybe it was because she felt like she was learning math and science. Maybe it was because she knew she could enter my room without a look of dread that she was seeing on the faces of other teachers. Maybe she appreciated my high expectations of her behavior, however awkward my initial requests were. Whatever it was, she became one of my best students. Good grades, good test scores, amazing attitude.
It makes me think of so many students that I’ve worked with over the years. As teachers, we’re supposed to love all our students unconditionally. But some of them make it so hard. Some of them you’d rather throttle and you can’t imagine ever being able to like this kid, let alone love them. You’ll endure them. But you can’t let them feel that or it’s over. They’ll make a you’re life a living hell and they certainly won’t learn anything. So you fake it. You smile at them. You ask them how their day is going. You force them to come to tutoring. You tell them you’re disappointed when they screw up and that you expect better. You tell them you believe in them. And somehow, always, it starts to stick. They start to believe it and open up to you and give you reasons to love them. And by the end of the year you don’t want to let them go.