The continuing story of how I came to be a teacher...
I make a lot of mistakes before Thanksgiving. A lot.
Many of them are small. I am new and while my education degree means I can teach, my only experiences are in posh little schools with no behavior problems. I have no strategies for a place like this. I am 21 years old and have a class of, well, a varying number of students, most with behavior problems. I use a lot of candy the first month and a half. Nothing about this is fair or right.
I get laryngitis twice. I scream a lot.
I try to join the union and fail. Lissa Vernon, the hard as nails 5th grade teacher on the second floor, keeps giving me the run-around. I don't understand what this is about.
I make some enemies. Mrs. Wilcox, the older female PE teacher, doesn't like me or Jody. She has banned Jody's class from PE for the rest of the semester, and since I eat lunch with Jody, she mumbles things behind my back when I bring my kids down for Mr. Rose. Mr. Rose likes me, but he's already applying for other districts. "This was a mistake," he admits. "I turned down a job at Ritenour."
My biggest mistakes, though, are with parents. Derek's dad shows up a lot, wanders into the building past the incompetent, but blessed, security guard, and comes up to my room. Beverly let him know where I was, since Derek had sat in her class for two years already and he knew the path there. I keep my door locked most of the time, due to the BD classrooms on my floor, but Derek's dad will kick the door to make it rattle until I answer it.
When I do, he's all dimples and smiles. "Hi there Mrs. Kennedy," he'll croon at me. "I love your hair." Stupid things like that. I am caught off guard by this the first time but not the second or the fifth or after that. There's no PA system and I can't get an emergency call down to the office. If he weren't always so drunk, I'd be more fearful for my safety. I make a connection with David Roy three doors down, who likes Henry because it's easier than the BD classrooms he's taught in elsewhere. He now escorts Derek's dad away when he sees him.
So the kicking at the door near Halloween alerts me that Derek's dad is back to flirt and cause trouble. But I'm wrong. It's a woman I don't know. I open the door, not afraid of her, stupidly not afraid of her.
"I'm here to see Derek."
"Who are you?"
"I'm Derek's mother," she says, her jaw hard, the dark cursive letter tattoo "N" pulsating on her neck. I turn around and Derek is nowhere to be found.
"He's under your desk Mrs. Kennedy," Regina tells me. Regina, along with Langston, is my favorite. Derek's mother pushes me out of her way and barrels her way over to my desk in the back of the room. Derek is indeed under my desk. The woman pulls him out by his collar, dragging him through the room out into the hall. She slams the door behind her, leaving the class sitting there quiet and terrified. I draw them all into the far corner for a story, not sure what I can do at this point. I have 19 students who are looking to me for protection, but I just let my worst kid out of my sight to go with someone...someone I can only assume is his mother.
Derek comes back in, alone, halfway through the story about a little old woman who isn't afraid of Halloween. I have Regina finish the story and I go over to him. He hides his face from me, buried in his arms on the desk.
"Shut up leave me alone bitch," is his response, not a surprise. I do as he asks, trying to figure out how to transition the rest of the class into something more useful. My plans for the day are kind of out the window, but I manage to put them into small groups (no one wants to be with Jeremy; Jazmin cries and pouts when she can't be with Jasmine; Hector and Trevaris get into a squabble that results in neither of them being in groups) and work on math with materials I made out of cardboard. I try to coax Derek to join us, but he won't look up.
Finally the afternoon passes and they go back to the cloakroom to gather their things to go home. Many of them have bookbags, which they carry to school empty and bring home empty. There are no papers to go home and books can't leave the room. Everyone in the room qualifies for free lunch. As Derek gets up to get his jacket, I see his face. There's a cut along his cheek from his ear halfway to the corner of his mouth. He yells at me not to look at him. I obey again.
I release them into the wild and take my purse directly to Nicole's room.
"What is Derek's story?" I ask. I have no student records. There is no continuity.
"His mom, wow, I think she's almost about to get out of prison, actually," she counts on her fingers. "Beverly said something about it last year, how she'd be back in November."
I describe her, but Nicole shakes her head. "Nah, I don't know. She's been in prison since he was a toddler. Crack cocaine."
I make a lot of mistakes those first few weeks. But many of them can't be helped. I will say this: Derek, after that day, never called me a bitch again. He didn't, in fact, have much to say. He fell into line. And I was so relieved that I found myself not caring why.