Most of the writing I’ve done about teaching over the past 18 years has fallen into two categories. The first category is funny stories from my first year of teaching — a year that was much more tragic than funny, but maybe the stories make it seem like it was the other way. The other category is advice about how to be a better teacher — often by arguing against what TFA seems to advise.
After my fourth year of teaching in Houston, I left teaching for a year to write ‘my story’ while it was still fresh in my mind. I wanted to write the new ‘Up The Down Staircase.’ Wanting to write the most important part first, I wrote this story ‘My Fuse’ about the moment that I changed and became someone who can manage a class.
Getting published is hard, and I wasn’t able to get interest in my teaching memoir. The only publisher who wanted it said that if I can turn my stories somehow into a how-to-book about classroom management, they would publish it, and that grew into what is now ‘Reluctant Disciplinarian.’ It was a compromise for me, and since it was meant to focus on the classroom management aspect, the only part of this story that made it into that book was the first quarter of it. Except for the fact that I sent it to the Houston newsletter for a ‘guest column’ even though I had already left Houston, this hasn’t been read by very many people, even though it’s a an essay that means a lot to me. So here it is, a ‘lost’ essay written in 1996, a few months after my four years in Houston.
At the cluster meeting, we planned the annual field trip. Since it was intended as a reward for the students who had behaved all year, we determined which students would be banned from the trip before we even discussed the trip’s destination. We also had to decide which one of us would stay behind to baby-sit that group for the entire day. I suggested that we choose the teacher before making the list of students: If it was me staying behind, my list would be quite different.
Whether in a room, or on a field trip, I could not spend a full day with Jose Garcia. The day before, with twenty minutes left in my fourth period class, the fire bell sounded. As I screamed to maintain control of my class among the twenty-five hundred other students on the field, I learned that it was a real fire. Mr. Alaniz’ office was destroyed, though the fire had been quickly extinguished. The police and fire departments searched the building for clues of a possible arson. With only a few minutes left in the period, we were permitted back into the building. For me, the fire was a mixed blessing: I had dodged my fourth period class. With such a motive, I was probably a suspect.
Moments before the lunch bell rang, there was an announcement. “Fourth period will be extended for a few minutes. Keep all students in the rooms.” This meant I could not send anyone to the office. Rather than attempt to teach a lesson, I told my class they could talk quietly as long as they stayed in their seats. Some sport I was: For the entire year they had been out of their seats and screaming while they were instructed to sit silently. Now I was going to permit them to whisper.
Gabriel and Jose started a paper war. This prompted other students, innocent bystanders, to start screaming. I was trapped with them, so I’d have to use my only remaining weapon, my voice. I yelled for the class to settle down. “Since you’ve abused the privilege of talking quietly, there will be no talking for the rest of the time.” When I turned my head, Jose flicked a paper ball at Karina.
“No throwing paper or talking.” I screamed, “Just sit there and wait for the bell.” My internal clock was signaling my body that it was time for my planning period. I’d normally be on the teacher’s lounge couch, sleeping by then. Jose tested me again, knowing he had office immunity. He whispered something to Karina. “Did you hear what I said? I want complete silence.” One breath later, he turned around, whispering something to Tony.
Suddenly, like the way small animals are known to detect on-coming earthquakes, everyone got silent and stared at me, waiting. Nostrils flaring, eyes squinting, I stared back at the quiet room. I approached Jose’s desk, ready to scream, but realized I didn’t have the energy to do it. If I screamed as intensely as I felt, I would collapse. That didn’t stop me. I started screaming directly into his eardrum. As my legs buckled, I rested my elbows on his shoulders, and hugged his giant head like a teddy bear. With my head also resting on his shoulder, I continued to scream as loudly as possible. By the end of my tirade, Jose was supporting my entire weight as I clutched on to him, finishing my admonishment. I staggered back to the front of the class and said, “I don’t even know what I’ll do next.” Fortunately, nobody wanted to find out. A minute later a bell sounded to dismiss the class.
Mr. Williams volunteered to stay behind, so I quickly offered to make a list of students prohibited from the trip. As a cluster, we pared my thirty name list down to twenty. The trip would be to tour The University of Houston, followed by a picnic lunch in a local park.
On the morning of the trip, I delivered the videos to Mr. Williams to occupy some of his all-day session with Jose and the rest. So they wouldn’t have too much fun, staying back, I rented several academy award winners including Robert Redford’s political comedy, “The Candidate.” The rest of us loaded the buses for The University of Houston. Inside the bus, over the windshield, there was a printed sign of bus rules. Most were standard: no food, no drinks, no standing. The final rule, “Behave as you would in the classroom”, worried me most. Fortunately, they ignored that one, and the ride was peaceful.
On campus, the students enjoyed the tour of the library and the computer lab. They were well behaved, for a group of one hundred and twenty sixth graders, experiencing higher education for the first time. I led my group of forty up the escalator toward our next tour site. When I reached the top, I heard a commotion below. I looked back and discovered they had not followed me up the escalator. My students were, instead, packed onto the down escalator, running up. They climbed at a rate that allowed them to merely maintatin their positions, neither ascending or descending. Enjoying the ride, with big smiles, they screamed excitedly.
In the late 1960s, there was a book about a first year teacher called, “Up the Down Staircase.” The title was taken from an administrative note on why a student was detained in the office. He had been caught going up the, school designated, down staircase. But the quote was also symbolic of the teacher’s struggle, occasionally breaking conventions to reach her students, fighting the system of bureaucratic logic.
Twenty-five years later, my students faced a more dubious challenge. They spent their lives struggling up a down escalator. On the down staircase, at least, you could stop and rest. Their task was certainly more formidable than what other kids faced on the down staircase, the up staircase, or even the up escalator. As a teacher, I also learned the perils of going up the down escalator. Besides being more difficult, it is more dangerous. For when you slip on the down escalator, you fall more quickly, as both gravity and inertia conspire against you.
Facing such a spectacle, I’d normally react by screaming. But as my face muscles braced for the release, something happened inside my head. Of necessity, my brain somehow re configured itself. Along the neural path that connects my decision center to my screaming center, my brain installed the equivalent of an electrical fuse. Just as an electrical fuse protects a device from electrical surges, by blowing when too intense a current passes through it, my emotional fuse would protect me from intense emotional currents.
As they charged up the down escalator, my new fuse blew. Instead of feeling the anger directly, I experienced it indirectly– the way a driver feels when, on the dashboard, the ‘overheat’ light illuminates. Yes, the driver feels bad that something is wrong with the car, but he does not feel as though he, himself, is suffering a temperature of three hundred degrees. I was aware that something bad was happening, but I just didn’t feel the instinctive urge to scream I’d always felt before. On that escalator they couldn’t reach me physically or emotionally. My blown fuse successfully prevented the emotional current from completing its journey. I stood there, silently, and they eventually got bored and stopped.
Adjusting to my new mental schemata, I completed the campus tour disoriented. A student, noticing something different, asked, “Why do you look so sad?” He must have misread my expression. I wasn’t sad, I was happy because I knew the fuse would protect me from screaming ever again. I was so happy about this, I felt I should be smiling. But, for some reason, I couldn’t do that either.