“Suddenly I was face to face with a swinging club…”
For some years I taught Art to teenagers who had been excluded from school. You have to be so careful with kids like these. Especially when they first arrive. They’re often hostile – brittle, ready to fly off the handle at the least imagined slight. The wrong word, even the wrong look and all hell breaks loose.
But some of the time you get it right.
Little by little you watch them relax. Begin to trust. There might be an unguarded smile. Or the off-hand offer of a few chips. Connection. Acknowledgement that, after all, we might inhabit the same planet.
You begin to hope that just maybe you’ve planted a tiny seed: the idea that there might be a gentler and happier alternative to their tribal warrior culture.
There was one young man, however, who was about to test the reality of my gentler way. Jack hadn’t been at the Teaching Unit long, and I was gratified to see him still absorbed in his artwork when the bell rang for lunch.
He was rolling a thick slab of clay. When I asked him what it was, he just shrugged. I knew better than to press him.
I told the classroom assistant to go ahead with the other kids – I had clearing up to do. Jack seemed calm and busy. I kept half an eye on him while I pottered round the art room, putting things away.
Suddenly I was face to face with Jack swinging a club. He’d wrapped his thick clay slab around a long wooden ruler. It looked heavy.
“I’m gonna bash you.”
Now I really don’t think I’d done anything to upset him. He’d just decided that it was time to call my bluff. Show me who was boss. I was obviously soft. An easy target. He wasn’t going to put up with this sappy woman telling him what to do.
I watched him. I was aware of the open door at my back. Far off sounds of kids at lunch. The office next door – was it empty or not? But mostly I was acutely aware of Jack. And that swinging club.
I watched his face and every tiny movement. How much of this was bravado? How far would he take this? I watched for the lunge towards me. Jack was watching me too.
Both of us – just watching and waiting to see what would happen.
After a long moment, the club came to rest in both his hands. He frowned with exasperation. “You just don’t… DO anything!” It was a groan of defeat. He wanted a reaction – shouting, crying or arguing would have been a sign of power over me. Instead he got watchful silence. He threw the club on the table. As he swung past me, headed for the door, he growled: “You’re hard, you are!”
Doing nothing can be so powerful, sometimes. I hadn’t tried to control the situation. I didn’t have any idea how Jack would react. I just felt steady within myself – not pushed out of shape by his threats. The feeling of calm remained with me all day. I knew I didn’t have to do anything about the incident – no telling the head teacher or filling in forms. This was between Jack and me. A tiny seed of mutual trust and respect had begun to grow.
Contributed to Zen Moments by the author, who has requested to remain anonymous.
Names have been changed to protect identities.
How Children Fail
by John Holt (1927 – 1985)
“Written in the mid-to-late Fifties, but still incredibly relevant today, “How Children Fail” has since become a cornerstone of educational theory.
Holt’s contentions are simple: Children are born learners. This is not even a particularly controversial observation; Piaget was showing that children are inclined to learn more about their world from day one. But there was little or nothing in the current educational system — designed for the training of factory-workers and desk jockeys, not thinkers and builders — that supported actual learning. Obviously, Holt has plenty to say about rote learning, which to him is mostly useless when dealing with things like mathematics, where creative approaches are not only needed but urgently desired. One of the best examples of this comes when he gives his class a number of math problems to solve and says, “You’ve never seen problems like these before, and I don’t care how you go about solving them, but try them out.” The class eagerly got to work and did some real learning… until Holt was leaned on by the administration to “pick up the pace”
. …the book is also a grand work of classroom sociology. The way kids interact with each other and their teachers, the way they do one thing and say another (and why) is dissected and shown up. And Holt also takes the time to show how parents do stupid things like use homework as punishment (a great way to kill a kid’s curiosity).
The most remarkable thing about the book is how after thirty years it is still relevant, timely, accurate, readable, and indispensible.” Serdar S. Yegulalp