Kid #23 – Smacking A Parent

The twenty third-kid I hated hit his mother repeatedly in front of the entire playground.

The mother just stood there taking it. She had such little self-esteem and self-respect left that she allowed this seven year old boy to continue hitting her again and again. Sure he was seven and doing little damage, but it was concerning she allowed him to do this without reprimand or consequence.

She stood there, looking completely unsure what to do.

The classroom teacher needed to intervene. The teacher guided the boy to a bench and sat down with him and started going through the reasons he shouldn’t hit his mother. The mother also sat with them silently allowing the teacher to do all the talking.

It concerned me how little authority the mother had over her own child.

It also concerned me that teachers are having to fill such gaps in parenting.

What was more concerning was a bigger-picture problem where mothers are disenabled by their male counterparts within their own families.

There’s the old catchphrase, “Wait until your father gets home!” used by mothers throughout the decades.

But in the old days, this phrase was used as a final stage in a long series of sanctions. Normally the mother had complete control over the situation and wanted to add the cherry on top of the guilt that was the discipline pie implemented in her home.

However, in some families I’ve witnessed situations where the women are seen and not heard.

Often in these families the mother has told me, “I don’t know what to do. My child doesn’t listen to me. They only listen to their father and he won’t be home for a couple of weeks.”

I ask myself, What will happen in the meantime? Are we all expected to withstand the belligerence of your offspring, while Daddy’s off abroad wheeling and dealing?

The answer I come up with is ‘No’. Children are very in the moment. They don’t need hierarchal systems. You must establish your own relationship with a child and the respect will operate within that framework.

If a child respects your boundaries for behaviour and achievement, then they will respond accordingly. If you have disempowered yourself by always referring them to third parties, they won’t be interested in what you ask of them.

More at fault of course are the men who have devalued their wives and daughters.

One father I dealt with had a wife who always looked very sheepish and began every sentence with, “My husband was wondering ….” or “My husband would like our daughter to …” or “My husband wishes to…” She was always very pale and nervous looking, speaking quietly and continually appearing sleep-deprived.

When I finally met with the father, I was surprised to find him a most amicable character. But soon enough it became evident where his values lay. He would speak about how successful his sons were academically and that he liked to see them pushed. But his daughter, whom I taught, he said was not as gifted and he was simply content to know she was happy at school and would have the skills to be able to look after herself and family when she was older.

It sounded like he was planning to raise a 1950’s housewife.

Turns out his daughter was quite intelligent. More intelligent than her brothers. Definitely more intelligent than her misogynistic father.

But then these are the sort of fathers who lead to such incidents as what I witnessed in the playground that day. A mother, who had no means by which to discipline her own child. A mother, whose own father had presumably taught her to be subservient to the whims of men. She’d married a man who then asked her to look after the household and left her to solely look after the kids; probably to return to a chaotic home, demanding why the children’s behaviour was so out of line.

It was no wonder the child had such little respect to start laying into his mother publicly. His mother was a metaphoric punching bag for the father, so now the child had brought the metaphor to life.

In a generation where hitting your children is frowned upon, perhaps the balance had shifted the wrong way. If his mother had given him the odd smack, perhaps he’d have known his place. But then again, her inability to control came from the father’s own misplaced family values.

Either way if I ever met this child again, I doubt I’d join him for a round of ‘Whack-a-Mum’.

Kid #21 – You can guide a kid to textbooks, but you can’t make them think

The twenty-first kid I hated had a real ‘make me!’ attitude.

By ‘make me!’, I am referring to the following sorts of interactions:

Teacher/Parent/Adult/Authority figure: Please, can you tuck your shirt in?

Kid: Make me!

Or

Teacher/Parent/Adult/Authority figure: Please, can you sit down?

Kid: Make me!

And so on and so forth.

For argument’s sake, let’s say kid number 21 was called ‘Tarquin’. He had become so notorious around the school for his defiance that students and staff alike would say, “Have you met Tarquin yet?”, “Is Tarquin in your class?” or “Such and such student couldn’t be worse than Tarquin”.

Who was this child? And did I really want to meet him?

I was covering classes in this school for a number of months. The school was situated in an area of London prone to a certain amount of gang warfare. The gangs were usually made up of vulnerable teenagers and misguided young adults involving themselves in forcing young female members to be involved in various sexual acts, general theft and a bit of knife crime.

My gut feeling was the majority of students in the school were not part of such gangs, but some of those who weren’t continuing beyond Year 10 were probably on the cusp of joining such groups. The school was very active in bringing to the attention of students, the pitfalls of gang culture. Ex-gang members were often brought in as guest speakers; extra-curricular clubs and activities were organised as distractions; and the issue of knife crime was debated as a topic in English classes, using the institutionalised racism of the Stephen Lawrence case as a backdrop (albeit some of the children seemed more interested in the knife side of ‘knife crime’ and less concerned about the crime).

One film studies class was even making a mockumentary about the 2011 London riots, documenting a gang who had resorted to raiding stationery shops for highlighters.

With such a demographic and a number of already lippy students, I was prepared for the worst upon meeting the twenty first kid. Would he be part of such a gang? Is that why he was so well-known?

Apprehensive at every turn, when covering year nine classes, I expected the child to storm in at any moment. Then one day covering a woodwork class it happened…

In stormed ‘Tarquin’. He did not fit the gangster mould at all. I was expecting a much more vicious and streetwise child from a struggling background. Instead he appeared to be a well-spoken middle-class lad born into a good home. So initially I relaxed.

However, he had turned up five minutes late to class and seemed rather unapologetic. I should have been more cautious.

When asked to sit down in a seat, he declared that he was fine and continued to wander around the room. He began picking up tools; saws, chisels and other sharp construction implements, which I had been explicitly instructed to make sure students did not handle. The students were only supposed to work on their written booklet explaining how they were going to construct their wooden pencil box for next lesson.

The rest of the year nines seemed to be enjoying the show. Here was their class-clown ready to spoil the day. He was no Krusty, but if it meant they didn’t need to complete their written element of work, they’d settle for his second rate cousin.

The child continued to ignore me completely, despite every polite attempt to get his attention and encourage him to sit in a chair. There is nothing ruder or more defiant than being ignored completely by a student. Yet there is also an element of knowing with such a child. They’ve realised the limitations of the adults to ‘make’ them do things. Beyond my words I had nothing. I could call a senior staff member in, and soon enough I did, but he treated them the same way. It would have been easier if he’d smashed a window or something, because then we’d have been able to call the police who may have been able to force him to do something. Something like sitting in a cell, instead of the chair I’d originally asked him to rest upon.

But even force with not lead to learning.

And there-in lay the dilemma when later in the lesson he was asked to do his work and responded with, “make me!”.

There is in fact no way to make someone learn. They can only be cajoled, encouraged, persuaded and threatened with consequence, to complete a task.

Instead this child was happy to enjoy his minute status as a celebrity. He wandered the room greeting all his pals, as though he was some sort of politician working a room. He sat at his table like a chairman of an important board meeting, leading discussions in everything but the topic at hand. When the lesson finally ended he swanned (or perhaps even minced) out of the room with an air of contempt towards those he had just spent time with; he obviously had more important places to be.

It’s hard to know with some of these children whether the bravado comes from a place of insecurity or, as stated early, the knowledge that rules can be pushed to their limit (or even ignored) to get what you want.

The problem with this character was he’d only realised half the picture. He knew there were limited short term consequences to his blatant disregard for authority. He was reaping the rewards of his popularity within the safety net of his school environment. But left out to float in the ocean of the real world, he’d be swallowed up by the shark that is society and torn limb from limb like an malnourished walrus – I feel this is an apt metaphor considering his body type.

Luckily I only taught that class until the end of the week and moved to another part of the school, where again the name Tarquin became merely a quasi-outlaw rumoured about in the corridors. A god among pupils and fool among teachers. His destiny was tied up in failure due the size of his ego and belt strap.

So although the child may have suffered from some social autism, if we met again I doubt I’d invite him in for coffee. He’d have to ‘make me!’.

A teacher’s worst nightmare

There is a re-occurring dream haunting my sleep. I’ve been having it for seven years. I’ve also been a teacher for seven years. Here’s the dream (which I’m sure is not a reflection of my psychological state; I just overheat under the doona/duvet):

Everything is normal. I’m normally going about my daily business, when suddenly there I am in front of a class full of children. Some faces I don’t recognise, some I do. The ones I recognise are not nice kids. They are usually the kids I hated. But everyone is getting on with their work. So its ok, considering the class is filled with 32 children – two kiddies over the standard recommendation of 30 children.

There I stand before the students opening my mouth with nothing coming out. Also I tend to not be wearing shoes for some reason (having no clothes at all would be too clichéd). I struggle to reach my feet to put on the shoes which appear in my hand. And when I finally speak, I’ve forgotten what I needed to talk about.

I regress into my early attempts as a teacher to be relatable. I try to tell a joke, do a funny voice, or smile. The children appreciate this. They laugh a bit. I become insecure. Are they laughing at the joke? Or are they laughing at me? After all, I’m standing there bare-footed trying to be buddies with them.

A child stands up and yells something. It’s indecipherable, as with many things in dreams. That being said, many children are indecipherable when they yell things in reality. I panic because he’s standing on classroom furniture. If my boss comes in they’ll wonder what’s going on. They’ll discover I’m a fraud who forgot to put his shoes on, cracks jokes with his students and has mistaken the school desks for climbing frames.

Luckily no one enters. But the children are still laughing. It is slowly becoming more manic. I lift up some textbooks to handout. They are too heavy. They feel like lead. I grab a pile of worksheets. They are also heavy, but more like a pile of aluminium sheets than lead. So I manage to lift one worksheet at a time to circulate them around the class.

No one is paying attention to what I’m doing. They walk around the room like zombie hyenas, unable to stop laughing. Perhaps if I get all these worksheets distributed they’ll start working. Yet, handing out one sheet at a time is completely inefficient. Five sheets in, I realise it will be the end of class before I’ve even finished placing all 32 worksheets on the desks.

I’m stuck with the remaining 27 sheets at the back of the room. I can’t make my way towards the whiteboard. There’s a young girl showboating at the front of the room, drawing obscene images on the board in permanent marker, strutting up and down the carpet space.

I begin asking the students to ‘calm their farms’. They get louder and louder. I get louder and louder to be heard. The chaos feels as though it will spill out of the classroom. I’ll be discovered as a failure. I won’t be allowed to teach again.

I shout more and more. They refuse to listen. The laughter turns to jeering.

The walls of the room begin shifting. The windows narrow, there are sofas on the side of the room, a television appears at the side broadcasting an episode of The Simpsons; I’m at home in my flat. But so are the children. They’ve infiltrated my personal sanctuary. I’m repulsed.

I look out the window for sweet relief. There it is a garden full of green ferns and limestone wall terraces. There’s a swing and a cubby house. Sand begins to cascade from the wall. This is the backyard of my parents from my childhood. Am I relapsing into the security blanket of my own youth? Why is the wall crumbling?

The phone rings. Someone close to me (relative/friend/whoever) has died in a horrible plane accident.

This is terrible. It’s the kids’ fault. They kept me here; away from what was important; away from people who cared; away from life.

Then black.

Kid #19 – Dealing with broken dreams

The nineteenth kid I hated had aspirations of becoming the next Steven Spielberg by sulking.

I was teaching in a sixth form college in South London, covering some media classes. Some of the students were excellent in their production skills. Others were killing time. Their interest in cinema generally did not extend to the silver screen, but dwelt somewhere between Misfits and a Twisties commercial.

The kid I hated would arrive to class late, put his feet up on the furniture, answer his phone in the middle of class, talk to his friend as soon as you tried to tell the class something and for the most part had an expression so sour you’d have assumed he’d eaten a mouthful of turned raspberries. However, unlike his apathetic counter parts he did want to make films. This was part of the problem. He spent the majority of his time away from the classroom constructing ideas and hair-brained schemes for re-imagining the special effects and Shakespearean acting he had seen in Marvel superhero films (an obsession directly caused by the course’s subject material, which included the film Spiderman 2).

Sometimes when you have a sulking teenager, you begin to think it’s something you’ve done that caused the sulking. Every time I asked for the kid’s attention he appeared to become more sullen. The mere presence of me seemed to weigh down upon him like a lead trumpet.

I soon came to realise these feelings were just my own paranoia.

I spotted him in the corridor and down by the bus stop a few times. He was equally depressive then, which made me realise he was in a perpetual state of affliction. Seemingly the world had dealt him an unfair hand and if he didn’t spar against the global population of the planet singlehandedly, he’d never become the filmmaking legend he wished to be. He was a more angst-ridden version of Dawson from Dawson’s Creek, but without the girlfriends.

Then when I finally saw his finished products, I was more than underwhelmed. One featured an escaped serial killer, who looked more like a well-shaven hipster sporting a felt-tip drawn scar under his left eye. The mise en scène was less film noir and more like the cinematographer forgot to turn the light on.

Considering schools these days are normally working with equipment one hundred times better than what I used in my final year of university (less than ten years ago), it’s disappointing when you see something that looks like it’s been recorded by an ancient relative on a handy-cam in the mid-eighties. What this student produced couldn’t even be passed off as an avant-garde David Lynch recording.

These types of students are why it’s difficult for me to teach media. I don’t profess to be any sort of Stanley Kubrick myself. So it’s not particularly the incompetence that bothers me. After all it’s my job to educate and fill the gaps in learning. But the apathy and slapdash construction of the student cinematic ‘farse’terpieces is sometimes so frustrating I want to wrench them from the editing suite shouting, “Just let me do it!”. This in itself is a bad approach, which is why for the most part I’ve decided it best to avoid teaching media classes for now. And for the pupils producing perfect moving pictures, I tend to become jealous of their potential and end off wallowing in my own self-pity regarding my broken dreams of cinematic success. So my decision to steer clear of such classes remains.

So although my former media student may have snapped out of his pubescent mood, if we met again in Hollywood I doubt I’d fork out the cash to watch his productions at the cinema; I’d wait for their DVD release – and then borrow a copy for free from the public library.

Kid #14 – The Wizard in the Hallway

The fourteenth kid I hated yelled “expelliarmus!” at me from the corridor. Not to be outdone I yelled “alohomora!” which only unlocked a filing cabinet. So then I yelled “crucio!” which unleashed intense pain on my victim. I later double checked the spell in my spell book (and on Wikipedia) to realise using this spell leads to a life sentence in Azkaban prison. But I don’t think anyone saw me.

These are the trials and tribulations of being a white middle class male who wears black rimmed spectacles. I don’t have a scar on my forehead, but I do have a scar on my chin from when I fell on a limestone wall in Pre Primary. When I first started teaching, students would question my age, claiming I looked as though I’d gone straight from Year 12 into the classroom as a teacher; without having been to University in between. Being told you look younger than you are may be a compliment in any other circumstance, but when you’re trying to wrangle teenagers, you want them to at least think you’ve got ten years more life experience than them. A wise colleague once told me to grow a beard as a method for stretching the age gap. It worked for a while, but by the time my beard had grown properly it was 2010, and Daniel Radcliffe was already collecting the Deathly Hallows while sporting his own grubby stubble. Thus my attempts to distance myself from this fictional prodigy wizard had backfired and I was one golden snitch away from becoming Harry Potter himself.

It became an ongoing whisper in every new classroom I entered. “He looks like Harry Potter”; “OMG it’s Harry Potter”; “Harry Potter”.

Had it not been my supposed resemblance to Harry Potter, it would presumably have been something else the children would cause me grief over. Students are always looking for something. I remember when we were students it would be everything from mimicking our teachers’ accents and nervous ticks, to critiquing their choice of fashion or poking fun at the volume of hair on their chest. Teenagers find a way to be cruel no matter the attempts to neutralise.

Despite being an adult, when a teenager pokes fun at you to your face or from a distance, you revert to similar defences you had as a child. Mine was usually to ignore the bullies. As an adult you tell yourself that children don’t mean anything personally and they’re just bored or trying to distract you.

This works for a while until you begin to take it personally. Like the time a student asked why the tongues of my shoes were sitting over the bottom of my trouser legs, instead of vice versa. There’s nothing worse than getting fashion advice from fashionable teenagers. Even if your fashion is fashionable those judging staring all-knowing eyes of the youth will cut through your soul, because they are fashion. The attempts to ‘ignore the bully’ turn to anger. Their remarks are met with “Be quiet and get on with your work”.

Other times you may fight their abuse with logic, “Well if you’ve seen the latest Russell and Bromley range you’ll know they’re worn in this way”. This of course will be met with, “Russell Who?”, a smirk and a snigger.

Trying to make a game of it lasts for a short while. Embracing the Harry Potter persona by raising my pen as a wand often garnered some attention and cooperation. The unknowing nature of the intellectually challenged students, meant that they saw me as unpredictable. They questioned whether the fountain pens in my top drawer really could leave them with a mutilated limb or a head replaced by that of an animal. However, soon enough the intrigue turns to disappointment and they realised the only sparks flying from the nib of the wand pen would be congealed lumps of blue ink.

The last resort worked the best. I got contact lenses (A different pair of less rounded brown framed glasses did not work – apparently all glasses look like Harry Potter glasses on a short haired male in his early twenties). Removing the glasses altogether did nothing for me in the school where I was already working. The kiddily-winks saw straight through it. But entering new schools in the years to follow meant they would know me only as the short-haired white middle-class male who did not resemble Daniel Radcliffe in the slightest. They of course found a new feature to pick upon. I think it was my vague resemblance to a famous footballer I’d never heard of. Probably the weedy one who never goes to the gym and watches American sitcom DVD boxsets.

There is no winning.

In regards to the child who cast his spell through the doorway of my Year 11 English classroom, I never saw him again after that. He was not one of my students. But the fits of hysterics, he sent my students into, haunt me every time I wear my spectacles upon my face.

So although he was probably joking as he lumbered down the hallway that fateful day, if we met again I doubt I’d offer him any of my chocolate frogs.