The New Kid

In a nutshell: my district offers a fellowship grant each year for six teachers to spend a (paid) week writing about teaching over the summer.

smallermargaret_2I am never fully certain how to describe the experience to other teachers, who have heard that I was honored with the “Margaret Metzger Fellowship” this year. Is this a teaching award? What does it mean? Most of them have never heard of Margaret Metzger (1945-2013), a former English teacher at our high school. The local education foundation describes the work thusly: The Margaret Metzger Fellowship will create grants to support the continuation of Margaret’s work: thinking about the classroom, writing about teaching, and furthering the art of educating young people. In this time of frequent testing, Margaret’s belief in education as transformative and rigorous is more important than ever. 

So, yes, the district gave me a $1000 stipend to meet with my cohort of fellows and our fearless mentor — an English teacher at the high school who worked with Margaret — to write, and write, and reflect, and share our experiences within the world of education.  We had only a few days to workshop everything, and even with the time constraints it felt like a transformative experience. It’s an incredible privilege that my district even offers something like this, and that it our leaders so vocally (and financially) support teachers reflecting through writing.

My cohort of six came from several different schools in our district, and represented various grade levels and departments, spanning the whole K-12 continuum. Almost none of us knew one another in advance of our first session, but we managed to bond quickly. We pushed and encouraged one another throughout the week. Our pieces were all remarkably different and remarkably the same: they somehow joined at an intersection of love for our students, our content, and our profession. Many of us wrote about trying to make empathetic connections during challenging times. A third grade teacher wrote about connecting with a disaffected boy who had just lost his father. A high school foreign language teacher wrote about how an unexpected and unexpectedly hilarious event that took place just outside the windows of her classroom united a challenging group. An English teacher wrote about November 9th, 2016: how she approached going into her classroom the day after America elected Trump.

I wrote about Billy.

Last Friday, we shared our pieces for an audience of fellow teachers, parents, administrators, and other people from around town who were curious about what it is that we do. (I am nine months pregnant, and so I was banking on this baby getting me out of speaking in public, but no such luck.) It seems only appropriate that I share my piece here, too. Like many of you out there, I am always highly critical of my own work, and especially critical of this essay. It’s not at all what I set out to write… but perhaps that makes it all the more interesting?

I should also acknowledge my endless gratitude to my mentor for this fellowship, John Andrews.

The New Kid

Billy was in his seat – at his desk! – for the first time all year. I watched him firm his grip around a pencil, slowly and methodically like a python constricting its prey. It was his very first attempt to write something on a piece of paper as a fourth grader. My breath caught in my throat.

This tiny boy with the spirit of an explosive leprechaun had arrived in my classroom a week earlier: the new kid. Billy came to my school to participate in the intensive behavior needs program, but, unfortunately, he arrived several days before his special education paperwork, and the phone number given for his parents had been disconnected. Our behavior needs teacher had quit on the first day, wreaking general havoc across the school. And so I was left alone to teach the boy with untamable bedhead and the bone structure of a sparrow. I felt well-armed with my liberal sensibilities and knack for connecting with students; I was also far, far out of my realm of experience.  

I was 22. It was September – the very beginning of the very beginning of my teaching career. My principal, who had hired me based on faith and a résumé padded with volunteer positions, encouraged me to “use my professional judgment” for almost everything, from curriculum to classroom management.  I had real freedom — the kind wizened teachers reminisce about in the pre-No Child Left Behind era. Part of me relished it. I bragged about it to friends, many of whom had been hired by schools that more closely resembled 1984. This freedom came at a great cost: I was alone — even when I was in desperate need of support. These moments were far more frequent than I could let my treading-water-self acknowledge.

Billy must have felt like he was treading water, too. He had to learn new rules and expectations and faces, all while dealing with… well, whatever his mysterious cognitive and psychological profile was.

Upon his arrival, Billy immediately charmed me with his impish grin and his peculiar verbal tics. When he wanted to go to the water fountain, instead of using our class signal he would tug on my clothes and explain that he was “a bit parched… a bit parched.” We both smiled. Later, like Dr. Jekyll morphing into Mr. Hyde, he would respond to a request to pick up a book by furiously hurling several pairs of scissors in the direction of two studious girls. I froze. This hadn’t happened in my internships. I do not even remember what I did to stop the situation — scream? Run towards the girls? Pull Billy away? — but I do remember that my decision was born out of pure adrenaline. Fight or flight.

Afterwards, I reworked my classroom supply routines to impede access to scissors, and allowed fear to root in me. I am sure the students could tell; ten-year-olds can smell fear like dogs.

Watching Billy with a pencil in hand was a new sensation. He wasn’t throwing paper at his neighbors. He wasn’t maniacally spinning around the rug area screaming, “I’m a whirling dervish!” as he crashed into dismayed classmates. He wasn’t swearing or running or rolling. He was writing. He looked like a student.

I let my shoulders relax, for perhaps the first time all day. My upper back ached with tension; it was draining to be in self-preservation mode all the time. I guarded my status as a first year teacher jealously, like a state secret, and went home each day exhausted to the marrow. 99% of my energy went to projecting confidence. Throughout my teacher training, I had received praise for my insights about students. My cooperating teacher invited me to every parent-teacher conference. “You just know the kids so well,” she gushed. I believed first and foremost in listening to and learning from students holistically. I remembered how my own fifth grade teacher had done this so expertly, and how inspired my 10-year-old self felt to learn and grow at exponential rates. It’s why I chose teaching.

Now, I felt a renewed need for a teacher like that. My colleagues smiled in the hallway but avoided conversations with me — the bubbly, slightly unhinged new girl who liked to talk about education as social justice. On the surface, we had little in common. Nearly all of them were solidly into their careers. Most left school at the bell. By 3pm each day I found myself suddenly alone in my no-longer-bustling classroom, brimming with nervous energy. The night janitor became my therapist. He was the only one that would talk to me.

Most days, I scrambled like an understudy to prepare for my performance: figure out what to do during literacy block… make certain my diabetic student, Thomas, made it to his regular insulin checks… re-engage Alex and his group during a science investigation… So much happened in a single day… a single hour… a single minute. I felt like I barely had time to catch my breath dealing with typical classroom issues, so when Billy became physical, instead of listening to him or trying to understand, I removed other students from his vicinity. Problem temporarily solved. In retrospect, it makes sense that I did not see other students interact much with Billy during that week; I imagine they were playing off my projected fear. Maybe that is what led them to sometimes treat Billy less like a valued classmate and more like a wolf they had stumbled upon in the forest.

It went against everything I believed about education, and I didn’t know how to break the cycle.

But now, here Billy was, finally looking like he fit in with the rest of them, with his head bent and his left arm curled around his paper to shelter it from wandering eyes. Billy furrowed his brows as he drew the pencil to the top of the page.  From several tables away, while trying to help John Michael start his work, I watched Billy make heavy, deliberate lines. He pursed his lips. For the first time all year, he looked focused – and then:

“Noooooooooo!” Billy wailed as he rose from his chair. “Where is it?!”

The students at Billy’s table cluster looked rattled. Marc inched his desk away from the group, and Ashley looked on with wide eyes and stiff body. It was happening again. I rushed over.

“What’s going on, Billy? You’ve got this. You were off to a great start.”

“I can’t see my work! I am working so hard and I can’t even see it!”

I glanced down at his paper. I saw some rips — tokens of Billy’s frustration — but he was correct: no writing. Although I had watched him press the pencil to the paper for over a minute, there was no evidence of any written work. I was afraid of what he might do next. My shoulders tensed.

Then I looked down at the pencil clenched in his hand.

“Billy… are you writing with a white colored pencil?”

“Yes!” He snapped. “Of course!”

I took a deep breath. Something crumbled in me. My heart fell in sync with his: despite all of our hard work, our successes felt obscured, if not invisible.

“White colored pencil is hard to see on white paper,” I whispered.

“I can’t see anything! I hate this! I’m never doing math again!” His wild eyes darted around the table… looking for something to throw?

More deep breaths. What was probably 5 seconds felt like an eternity. I felt the heat of 27 pairs of eyes resting on me, waiting.

In those early, early teaching days, I barely listened to my own thoughts as I bulldozed through the day. I knew I needed to slow down; this time, I wanted to listen, like I used to do – like I assumed I always would do. I crouched next to Billy to meet his gaze.

“Why are you writing in white?”

“I want to.”

“Do you want to try a regular pencil?”

“No! No, no, no!”

I felt the situation swiftly moving away from me.

“You were doing such a great job. Is there anything else you want to use to write?”

Billy’s chest, which had been rising rapidly with agitated breaths, started to fall. “Well, red in my favorite, but you didn’t put a red pencil in the bin so I used my second favorite color: white.”

Cautiously, I stood up and returned to the art supply area of the room. Billy ran over when he saw me reach for a red colored pencil. He then returned to his desk, flipped over the crumpled paper, and started to draw on the back – in red. The rest of the students slowly returned to their work. Billy, though contained, no longer looked like the rest of them: he drummed his fingers polyrhythmically and jerked his head as he added detail to his drawing.

For Billy, math was over.

Billy and I continued to have a complicated relationship. He made me smile — genuinely, and often. At night, I relayed adoring stories about him, doting over his eccentricities to a rapt audience of family and friends. These stories helped me bury how frustrated I felt. Not every crisis could be averted with a red pencil, and, really, all students deserve a teacher who will be more proactive than reactive.

At the same time, I resented my own empathy for Billy. He represented something I disliked in myself: he was an outsider, alienated and new, trying to belong. Perhaps he, like me, felt too exhausted and proud to acknowledge his failures. Perhaps I, like him, would have responded to heavy-handed advice from an authority by throwing scissors. We all have our limits.

Now, more than a decade later, I have settled into a new professional home in Brookline. I no longer feel engaged in “survival mode” like I did in those early days with Billy and his classmates. I have a much broader repertoire of proactive strategies and productive responses. I am no longer the new kid.

Nevertheless, I still have days every now and again when I feel like I am writing with a white colored pencil — trying so hard that I leave rips and tears in the paper, but producing no symbols, no words, no evidence of the good. I’ve learned how to approach those days, and when I need to ask for help. Even experienced educators, who know how to use the system, need support.

Billy left our school the year after I had him in my class, moving to another special education placement alleged to be a “better fit.” I wonder what strategies, if any, he learned for calming himself down. I wonder if he learned how to ask for help. I wonder if he ever felt understood and known in his environment, or if he perpetually felt stuck in the cycle of being the new kid.


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