I had been working at Chestnut Middle School in Springfield, Massachusetts for nine years, and had been teaching for almost thirty. Here was a class of 26 children in a special program where all day long they had two teachers on them all the time— except when they rotated through the arts and special classes. I was to teach them DRAMA, every day, all by myself. This was everybody’s Class from Hell.
My worst day began when the 14 year old sixth grader beaned the 15 year old sixth grader on the head with a pencil eraser, and the 15 year old got up to slam the 14 year old in the face. When I told him to sit back down, he muttered something in Spanish. Everyone laughed as Jesus, my barometer for decency, looked uncomfortable.
“What did he say?” I asked Jesus.
“Will I get in trouble for saying it?”.
“Not you.” I assured him. “He.”
I pointed to the offender.
“Well…” Jesus was uncomfortable. His family went to church four times a week.
“He said, ‘If you don’t like what I do, you can put your finger up the ass.’”
The unsanitary suggestion got my abuser a removal from Mrs. Council and a suspension from school. After he was gone, I lumbered on with my lesson like my 1982 Ford, towing those students up a slippery hill, day in and day out.
The most powerful child in that class, undoubtedly, was Betsy. She was intimidación encarnada.
I had lent one of her teachers a set of keys to the supply room. Mr. Davila sends them back with Betsy. I am in my room at my desk opposite the door.
Betsy takes one step into the room, holds up the keys and says, “Here are your keys.” She stops right there.
She’s making me come over to her to get the keys.
I stand up from behind my desk.
“O.K. Betsy,” I say, “How about meeting me half way?”
She drops them to the floor, turns around, leaves. She’s gone.
It was a long way down to the floor to pick those keys up.
The angry part of me wanted to grab the kid by the front of the neck and squeeze hard with both hands. Fortunately, those unsociable impulses were mitigated by the evolution of a mind capable of using institutional authority.
Do I want this little bitch in for a detention?
What do I tell Mrs. Council?
Suddenly, my emotional turmoil completely dissolves into a chuckle.
I am getting a kick out of the kid’s sheer CHUTZPAH.
Accepting the humility of the moment became a blessing for me.
There I am laughing out loud.
How did this come to be?
I would more than likely have kept this conflict alive within myself for the rest of the day. I would more than likely have kept fighting that kid in my mind all the way to the Berkshires. While Betsy, herself, was long at home watching TV and eating french fries, I would more than likely have been struggling with her for the rest of the night.
Instead, my heart miraculously opened to Betsy.
I was set free.
God was present in that set of keys on the floor and moved me from anger to humor. A gift of Grace had been given, like a free sample from the Spiritual world.
The very next day both Davila and Reese arrived with their class tightly in tow, fifteen minutes late. On most days either one of them might have come. Today, it took both men to escort the two lines of their students into my room. The teachers had just read these kids the Riot Act. As Mr. Reese was turning the group over to me, he touched the obligatory talking points about lunchtime detentions, written punishments and the calling of parents. Mr. Davila translated, adding his own menacing flourishes in Spanish.
Now after a class like this had given BOTH their regular teachers a hard time, it would have been prudent for any teacher in my situation to give the students an assignment which was both concrete and passive— like reading controlled passages and answering questions. Like penmanship practice. Like ten pages of arithmetic problems.
Instead, defying common sense and standard Classroom Management practice, I decided to continue with Tongue Twister practice.
I had started teaching the class two- word tongue twisters to build up their confidence in speaking English. “Toy Boat. Toy Boat. Toy Boat.” “Unique New York. Unique New York. Unique New York.”
I had just begun, “Yellow Yo- Yos. Yellow Yo- Yos. Yellow Yo- Yos.”
That Tongue Twister was especially good for a kid like Jesus. He would transpose a “J” for the letter “Y” and pronounce it, “Jell-O Jo-jos. Jell-O Jo-jos.” In this way we could improve his spoken English, playfully.
Of course, the class lunkheads like my unsanitary finger friend and his cronies and, to a lesser extent, Betsy and her entourage, all made fun of the kids like Jesus who would at least try to say “Yellow Yo-Yos” three times without messing up.
There I was at it again with the whole class.
“I’ll say it and then you say it.”
Their response was feeble.
So I said my part even more enthusiastically.
Only a few timid voices would respond. The lunkheads dared not make fools out of themselves and the prima donnas, of course, were just too cool.
But I persisted.
Compelled by my uncanny persistence and by the hypnotic rhythm of repetition, we finally got to the point where most of the kids were saying it. Betsy’s voice had became more and more prominent as the momentum picked up. She brought along the recalcitrant girls.
Thumbkin and two of his buddies now shifted from a mode of disinterest into active sabotage.
I was insisting that the kids recite their vigorous chorus of “Yellow Yo- Yos” three times and then cut immediately to silence. Everyone was now doing it but the Unholy Three. Rather than remaining silent at the finale, they would cough, laugh, make stupid remarks, or whistle.
I knew there was a limit to just how many more times I could keep this class on task.
This was a Test, far more significant than the MCAS. When these Drama students achieved the standard for Coherence I set for them, I could then make them into an acting ensemble. They could get to do a play.
For a moment I thought of expelling the Three Stooges from the classroom, but where would I put them?
I took a deep breath for one more try.
I said, “Yello Yo- Yos. Yello Yo- Yos. Yellow Yo- Yos.”
The class repeated, “Yellow Yo- Yos. Yellow Yo- Yos. Yellow Yo- Yos.”
Then Moe, Larry and Curly did their act.
This time, without skipping a beat, Betsy catapults up, shows the boys her fist and insists, “Will you get it right!”
We pause. I take another breath.
I say, “Yello Yo- Yos. Yello Yo- Yos. Yellow Yo- Yos.”
The class repeats, “Yellow Yo- Yos. Yellow Yo- Yos. Yellow Yo- Yos.”
There is absolute silence.
Then cheers and high fives.
Jesus announces, “We did it!”
In the end, they were a successful Drama class because the students were able to perform a play, to project their voices well on the stage, and to cooperate in achieving a collective goal. Barely.
Betsy turned out to like acting. No surprise. Consider her winning scene with the keys.
I had created a part for her which I considered the greatest writing for an actress since Yip Harburg penned “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for Judy Garland.
Betsy played the title role in “Sistuh Rabbit and the Dummy Trap.” My play was an adaptation of the Uncle Remus story, “B’rer Rabbit and the Tar Baby.”
Betsy’s character was a show-off rabbit who got under the skin of all her neighbors. Because she was so clever, she outwitted everybody all of the time.
(Everybody knew that Betsy was playing herself.)
Her “mortal enemy” was B’rer Fox with his entourage of “Cronies.”
Betsy and I actually got Mr. Finger and his pals to play “The Cronies.”
Their part consisted of stomping across the stage declaring, in menacing voices, “We’re gonna get her! We’re gonna get her! We’re gonna get her!” Then they had to stand still (without grabbing their crotches or picking their noses) while B’rer Fox made his speech boasting about “getting that pesky rabbit once and for all!”
Unlike in the movies, the Class from Hell did not suddenly become all warm and fuzzy because they put on a play. I never stopped struggling with them.
I did right by them, but our time together was not joyful.
The fact that they were successful at all was an act of God— and Betsy.