Disclaimer: this blog post is a fond and funny teacher memory from my first years teaching in West Philadelphia. It comes from a school where the demographics were and are still Black American. Being a white woman, I am keenly aware of the fact that my experiences with these students for the two years that I taught gave me a sliver of insight into their reality. Just because I have some experience teaching in this dynamic does not make me an expert - it gives me some experience and just a little insight. In other words, I mean no disrespect to the community I served and taught (least of all these lively students I taught and came to love) in this post as I try to convey a fond memory.
It’s been a minute since I’ve taken to my keyboard in some recreational writing. Feeling motivated (and if I'm completely honest) having the time away from 35 energetic nine year olds, as I enjoy some much needed R&R, I’ve decided to stretch those creative writing muscles.
As I’ve talked and shared with many friends and family of this new chapter of mine, as I’ve embarked on teaching in a homeroom setting, the kind of stamina is quite different than what I’m use to; and the sheer class size has been quite a shock to me. After all, I’ve been a teacher for 7 years now; I ain't no wet behind the ears naive sap to the classroom. I am all too familiar with the demands; the dynamics and the duties of a teacher. Nevertheless there are some differences I have been intrigued to observe in the demographics of students I face now; the obvious being the way my students express themselves in the classroom. It has truly been a night and day difference.
It was the fall of 2011 and I found myself in my second year teaching in West Philadelphia. I was still new to the profession - no doubt about that - but I had a few tricks up my sleeve; I had some wisdom. The operative word being: some. In my role at the school I was an English Language Arts (ELA) teacher to all the middle school grades. I provided extra support to 6th and 7th grade students who struggled in reading and writing; and I was (for lack of better words) an honors ELA teacher to the 8th graders. Because I had the luxury of small class sizes, I waited after the first couple of weeks of school before making a seating chart. In this way, I could observe student dynamics. In other words, I watched very carefully who I should sit as far away from each other as possible - for their sake and for my sanity. It was the last day of my “trial period” and I definitely got some clarity about two of my 8th grade boys.
Fifteen 8th grade students strutted into my 3rd floor classroom with overhead notes on the screen, in the front of the room, waiting for them to copy said notes in their notebooks. Most of the students found a seat rather quickly, and without much fuss - except two outspoken boys named Zachary and Romel. Zachary snagged a desk that Romel apparently had his sights on. Romel approaches Zachary's space (puffed chest and all) and says, “Yo, you be sitting in my desk!” To which Zachary spits back with, “I don’t see yo name on it!” To which I reply to Romel: “Romel, there's an open desk right next to Zachary. Why don’t you grab that one?” I then start with my lecture, and all is well in the air….for about 5 minutes.
Cue Romel...“Ms. Quigs, I can’t see the board to write down all these notes, cuz SOMEBODY (as he swerves his head towards his challenger) be in my seat.” Cue another head turn and eye roll towards Zachary. You don’t think Zachary was about to take that line lying down do you? Nope!
With just as much aggression in his voice Zachary fires back, with his arms held out in good challenger fashion, “Say something else and I'm about to pop your head off!” To which I defuse the situation with my mantra for that class period: “boys, boys, boys, you’re in 8th grade, you don’t want Ms. Quigley to solve your problems for you.”
Another two minuets pass before Romel instigates again, with a similar overtly passive aggressive (if that makes sense) line about not being able to see the screen. And of course, Zachary is quick with a line that is equally as defensive and aggressive. This was a verbal showdown happening in my classroom, and my patience was thin for this kind of classroom banter. But I am a woman of chances (three to be exact) and we were at strike two at this point. So, I reply the same way: “boys, boys, boys, you’re in 8th grade, you don’t want Ms. Quigley to solve your problems for you.”
And yet, another two minuets pass and Romel just can’t seem to contain himself. “Oh, Ms. Quigs I wish I could see the screen, if only SOMEBODY hadn’t taken my seat!” I almost wondered at this point if his beef was about the seat, or more about not backing down from a verbal showdown. And in the same breath, Zachary, hallars back with another hostile line; “Say one more word, and see what happens!”
And that was strike three - and my patience was gone and done!
In a series of swift, silent and stealth motions I shocked these boys and they were rendered speechless - finally! With a stack of papers in my hand and an empty desk in front of me, I slam the stack of papers on the empty desk; this is followed by my high heel shoes click-clacking across my hardwood classroom floor, before I stop dead cold in front of Romel’s desk and say with a tense whisper: “get up.”
He finches his whole body in his shock and startled reaction before saying, “whaaat?”
“I didn’t stutter Romel, I said, get, up…”
With more hesitation then I have ever seen in him, he stood up with cautious and apprehensive eyes, (almost tremblingly) not knowing what was about to happen to him. And without a word, I slid his desk down the room before stopping directly in front of the overhead screen; and before doing the same to his chair. As I take a few steps back, I look at Romel, before looking at his desk that is literally front and center, and say, “have a seat.”
With confused and shocked eyes of what just happened, he takes his seat - front and center, and smack dab in front of the projector screen, as he now has no issue seeing what notes to take down. He had to cock his head all the way backward to see and transcribe his notes in his notebook. “I just solved your problem for you Romel - you’re welcome.”
In unison, the rest of his classmates, bury their faces in their arms in failed attempts to muffle their laughter from the sight they just witnessed. One of their biggest class clown instigators was just put in his place and silenced. My alter ego was dusting off my shoulder - certainly a proud classroom management moment for me.
Now the kicker to this moment was after the fact as the class period ended, and my students were changing classes. Three other students (neither Romel or Zachary) approach me to offer their praises to me.
With books in their hands, and raised eyebrows, they say with a sigh, “Ms. Quigs, we gotta tell ya something. We weren't sure ‘bout ya. Ya know, ya be white - no offense or nothin’ - but ya know? Anyhow, Ms. Quigley, ya got a lil ghetto in ya! Ya be like a vanilla Oreo - white on the outside, but there be a lil chocolate ghetto on ya inside!” I chucked with a grin as I corked my head to the side, “I’ll take that as a compliment I suppose - thank you.”
And I still (to this day) take that as a compliment.