I got myself into a potentially awkward situation on Friday. DC was in my room after school working on a narrative he was behind on. He wasn’t happy about being there – it was Friday, after all, and he just wanted to leave – but he’d agreed to do it and I wasn’t going to let him out of it. He yanked his binder off the shelf, tossed it on the desk, and flopped onto the seat, throwing the kind of attitude that only a teenager can really do effectively.
I ignored him.
His best friend came in to also catch up on some work and sat down at a different table group. DC leaned his head on his hand and sighed loudly. He rolled his pencil back and forth across the desk.
I ignored him and sat down with his friend, Oh Yes (so named because he says that remarkably frequently in a remarkably sweet way), to go over what he needed to do.
Another student came in to say that Ms. Reading had donuts, so I went over to see if she had any left. She had two, and I asked if she’d mind giving them to DC and Oh Yes, because my room was chock full of sulkiness and I thought the donuts might help dissipate some of it. She was down, so we went back to my room.
“Hey, guys, I have these two donuts left and I thought you might want them.” When she offered them the treats, Oh Yes was all over it. DC shook his head. Ms. Reading and I exchanged looks – I shrugged. “Here, DC, I’m going to leave it anyway. I sure don’t need it so maybe you’ll do me a favor and take it.” Not a word. “Are you okay?” He nodded, and that’s when I saw a tear drip off the end of his nose.
Ms. Reading left, and I asked Oh Yes to go get a drink of water for a minute. He understood and scurried out of there.
This was the fourth time I’d seen DC cry. First time had been right at the beginning of the year; I’d had all kids who hadn’t done their homework two days in a row call home to tell their parents. They’d been warned it was coming and I wanted to start the year off with the message that homework matters and if I assign it, you damn well better do it. He’d been maybe the third one in his class without it, so I started dialing numbers. Finally his dad answered. When DC told him why he was calling, his dad started yelling so loudly that kids across the room dropped their pencils in fright. I grabbed the phone from DC, sent him out of the room, told dad it wasn’t a huge deal but next time he needed to get it done, and sent DC to the counselor after he washed his face and collected himself. It was awful.
The second time was after he and I talked to another teacher about his grades one day. She was clearly irritated at how little work he’d turned in, which I understand, and he was clearly completely intimidated by the situation. I tried to defuse it a bit, but his eyes were awfully full and the tears spilled over as soon as we walked out of the room. That time I reminded him he was a good kid and gave him a few minutes to get it back together. He seemed okay pretty quickly.
The third time was a day that I’d snapped at him, maybe two months ago. Honestly, now I don’t even remember what I said; I was tired and frustrated with the day and with him, and I didn’t think about HOW I was saying WHAT I was saying, and it hurt him. I apologized right away, but it didn’t do any good, and I spent the night feeling terrible. The next day I apologized again – this time I explained where I was coming from, I talked about how I’d misinterpreted the situation, I told him how sad I was that I’d hurt him and how bad I felt about that, and I said that it was important to apologize to people we care about when we hurt them, so that’s what I was doing. He didn’t say much at the time, just listened and nodded and said we were cool when I asked, but that day he stood with me and joked around while I was doing hall duty, and I knew it was okay.
This time, I remembered how upset he was the time before and so I approached him carefully. I figured he was mad that I wouldn’t let him leave – I didn’t think I’d handled it cruelly or thoughtlessly, but it didn’t matter what I thought, it mattered what he thought.
“Can we talk for a sec?”
“You seem really upset. What’s going on?”
“Something I did?”
Shook his head no.
That surprised me, but okay, great. “So….then what is it?”
“DC, you seem really upset and I’d like to help if I can. Honestly, you’re kind of freaking me out right now. What’s going on? Is it something to do with school?”
“My class? Reading? Social studies? Science?”
I got a quick shake no on everything till science, then he nodded. DC doesn’t do well at science. He doesn’t like it, he’s in a class that gets in trouble a lot, he doesn’t do his work…it’s not a great scene. He’s passing right now, albeit barely.
“Science. Did you get in trouble today?”
Head shake no.
“Did you get yelled at? Are you missing more work? Are you failing again?”
Nos on all.
“Honey, I want to help you, but you have to talk to me. What’s going on with science?”
He took a deep shuddery breath and wiped some tears away. “When Ms. Science yells at me, she makes me feel so bad about myself. I feel like she thinks I’m worthless. She acts like I’m dumb and useless.” His voice was low and flat.
“Oh, DC. I’m so sorry. That’s a crappy way to feel.”
He nodded and blew his nose.
“Why are you thinking about this now?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know...I just started thinking about it.”
I handed him some more tissues and thought for a second. How could I help him? “Okay. The way I see it, you have two options. The first choice is to just ignore it. You have a month left of school. Get through the next four weeks and then you never have to worry about it again. The other choice is to talk to her about it. It’d probably be kind of hard to do, but that way you stood up for yourself. That’s what I’d probably do, but it’s up to you.”
All was quiet except for sniffling.
“What do you think? Do you want to talk to her? I can help you if you want.”
He whispered, “I don’t want to be there.”
Oh. “You want me to talk to her.”
Um. “DC…I don’t think I can do that. First of all, teachers respect it more when a kid is part of the conversation. I know I do. But also, as much as I care about you and as much as I want to help you with stuff, I’m not your parent. I’m your teacher. There are things that I just can’t do. So I can do it WITH you, but I can’t do it on my own. I’m sorry.”
He said he’d think about what he wanted to do, and then he got to work on his essay. A few more used tissues filled the trash, but he was fine by the time he left, and we left it at that.
He wasn’t at school today, so I don’t know what he decided. If we do end up having the conversation, it might be uncomfortable – I like and respect Ms. Science very much, but my heart broke a little bit seeing how distraught DC was over the situation, and if he does decide to talk to her, I don’t see the conversation going well. Because remember time two of tears? That was Ms. Science. They just don’t connect. And I will feel caught between advocating for my student and not upsetting my colleague.
I’ll touch base with him tomorrow and we’ll see where we are at that point. Hopefully I can manage the balancing act that will be required should he decide to go forward. If not, well, only a month left, right?