I’m actually writing this on February 25, but it concerns yesterday’s Long Day. I’d put a TM after that, but it would be overkill. I got up at 5am to do tai chi as usual, followed by a full day of teaching and all that entails.
Back on Wednesday, my dean came to me and said he was getting some troubling reports from teachers and department heads. He said that he was concerned that our school’s curriculum goals weren’t really being addressed. At the time I was outraged, but upon reflection I’ve sort of been able to see his point, and the point of his reporters. I’ve decided to make several overhauls of my program for the spring, including turning over much more control of class lectures and presentation to the students, as well as designing much more flexible assignments and assessment strategies.
In any case, on Friday, after several days of angst-filled distress, I went back to the dean and said I felt like his approach to me hadn’t really been handled in the best way. The dean was solid, a lot more solid than I can recall him being. He emphasized my dedication to the school, my force and strength as a role model and a leader, and as an intellectual beacon to the students; he reiterated the need for me to make a few changes in my classroom style. He approached it in a way that felt much safer, and much more direct, than the roundabout and therefore less-safe methods he’d employed on Wednesday. Amazing that a direct communication is much more safe than a roundabout method, even if it carries a higher degree of risk. That bears thinking on.
Then came the rest of the day, which went OK. Then we left for our fencing match. Transporting fifth, sixth and seventh graders is really hard. the hour drive out was pretty easy, but after an hour and a half of fencing, they had gotten their nervous systems up and running. One of the moms brought cookies, and oatmeal, sugar and chocolate in their digestive tracts made them even more hyper. Add a dose of Wendy’s fries, burgers and frosty’s, and you’ve got a recipe for a perfect storm in a short school bus. The drive home was perilously close to open riot. I had to stop the bus three times on the drive home, just to get everyone calmed down. The first time was “please stop punching people over the seat in front of or behind you, or across the aisle.” The second time was, “please call people by their chosen nicknames, rather than the nicknames they find provocative and insulting.” The third time was, “violence against your classmates will not win you any friends.”
On getting home, I did a check around the dorm, talked to lovelips for fifteen minutes, and then crashed on the couch for a 20-minute nap. I awoke to shouting in the common room at the other end of the hall, which seemed to be more than simple cheering for the Olympics. Sure enough, it was a full-blown argument descending into name-calling, with “retard” and “dickhead” figuring prominently. This was followed by a pushing match, which I broke up before it escalated.
Afterward I touched base with the two students. The one using the term ‘retard’ is very strong, and he was the one I’d had to restrain. We had a good talk about the power of words, and he agreed that he’d been out of line, and that pushing could have too easily led to something he’d regret later. He also agreed that 1) he’d touch base with the student he’d pushed and 2) that he didn’t really think this other kid was a retard, and he’d apologize. Huge progress there. Talking with the other student, the one pushed, went in a similar fashion. He didn’t really think the other guy was a ‘dickhead’, and he felt like he owed the other kid an apology, and there was room for communication rather than fighting. He also acknowledged how perilously close they’d come to fighting over things they didn’t really mean, and that scared him. Huge progress there, too.
Sat down after that for two minutes, then the phone rang. Father of a student. Wants to talk to his son, who’s not answering his phone. I go get son, who talks to dad, using terms like, “you don’t understand,” and “You’re not listening to me,” and “It’s not like that at all,” and “yeah, well, fuck you, I didn’t want to come home for Spring Break anyway,” and “you’ll have to find someplace for me to go because I don’t want to see you.” Phone slammed down.
Me, as kid exits, stomping out, “Want to talk about it?” “Fuck, no.”
It was late at this point, I was tired, I wanted to go to bed. Instead, I grabbed Xenophon’s Persian Expedition, and started reading about the betrayal of Tissaphernes, and the slaughter of the Greek generals and principal commanders, sitting on the floor of my office. About ten minutes into the description of the five individual commanders, kid comes back. He sat down opposite me, and stared at me a while. I didn’t say anything — Steven Covey at work. Give the other person a chance to open up.
After a while, he did. We had a nice long chat, with me asking mostly questions, and hearing what was really on his mind. I was constantly reminded throughout the conversation how many of my students come from damaged families — some through divorce, others through death, others through reliance on the nuclear family alone, and perhaps some based on abuse, and a good many on simple miscommunication. As I often say, “no one can miscommunicate like family!” We (I say we, but really it was he) came up with a plan that made him less unhappy, that (should) get his dad to back off, and that helped resolve some of the issues with miscommunication in his family. The conversation lasted more than an hour, and I had to keep resisting the urge to tell personal stories. I just kept up a stream of questions, mostly, that helped the kid resolve what he was thinking about.
A heavy communication day, by any standards, but apparently one well-worth-it, on a lot of different levels. It’s a good thing that nap grabbed me for 20 minutes around 8:45pm, though, because otherwise I’d be a wreck today.