Sunday, April 22, 2012

Tactless or Truthful? Classroom Interactions. Learning Curve.

The first time a kid commented on my appearance I was a little nonplussed.
I could not even imagine saying something to a teacher that was a personal observation.
Wait. I take that back.
When I was in kindergarten I followed a yard duty person because I had never seen a face like hers, like it had a map on it.
I didn't know that many old people.
I said, "How did your face get like that?"
All I remember feeling was wonder and a kind of awe.
Until she answered.
And then I was sad and ashamed, because I got yelled at and I had to stand in a corner and I was scared to death.
Things like that happen when you are five.
And then you are supposed to learn "tact."
And you are also supposed to be truthful.
This is a fine line to walk for just about anybody.
So here I am in a classroom with about forty kids who are labelled "at risk."
I learned early on that labels are not really helpful.
Anyway, one of my girls looks at me and says, "You didn't put any makeup on your right eye." Turns to a friend. "Damn, girl. That woman only did one eye."
My first response was dismay and chagrin, because I knew I had forgotten something, but no one in the carpool said a word. Not one adult said, "Hey, you only did one eye."
And now all the kids are looking at me and talking about my naked eye.
I tried to steer them back to poetry.
They would have none of it.
They wanted answers.
"How you leave the house and your face is not on?"
"Didn't your mama tell you?"
"You still live with your mama?"
"Shutup. Maybe she can't see."
A paper airplane flies by.
"I can see," I said.
I'm standing there in my Little House on the Prarie /Consummate Professional clothing that was required for student teachers, an utterly non-fetching sweater and skirt ensemble. I remember that I had on a pair of green pumps, and a green jade apple necklace, and nylons that had started to pool around my ankles.
I pulled a really tall stool into the center of the room and sat.
And waited.
It got kind of quiet. Still too loud for Management Purposes.
"Here's the deal," I said."You can ask me three questions. I may not answer if I don't think it's your business. And then we need to do this other stuff."
It's the first week of student teaching and I had a lot of learning to do.
I am keenly aware of my Naked Eye, and that mortification will get me nowhere.
"So how did you leave your house and your makeup wasn't done?"
"I don't know. I get busy in my head."
"It doesn't look that bad," said a kid. Hooray for the sympathy vote.
"Thanks," I said.
"Do you still live with your mama?"
Argument ensues. Doubt as to whether or not the whole class wants this to be a real question. I wait.
Consensus reached.
"No, I don't live with my mother."
Protests. This is not enough of an answer.
"Then you better ask a different kind of question."
"Do you really like this shit?" A kid waves the packet of poems.
Everyone is really quiet.Because even though they swear a lot, here was a swear word in a question to the adult.
When in doubt, go to Atticus Finch.
I gave the kid my Naked Eye. "Don't say 'shit' in class. And yeah, I like most poetry. I like it all except (and then I named a poem that I don't like)."
And I told them why I didn't like it.
And many of them listened and some of them didn't and a lot of them didn't care one way or the other and that's how I made it through one day.
And I stopped and looked in a mirror on my way to the carpool.
The eye with makeup looked all sad and stretched, like how my nylons felt.
My Naked Eye looked just fine.


  1. Wow! Tough audience!

    I wonder, was the real lesson in those last two lines?

  2. I am pale and blue-eyed, which is unusual where I teach. Comments I got in my first year of teaching, before the kids got used to me:

    --You look like a doll. You have doll legs.

    --Are those your real eyes?

    --Mrs. S, I'm gonna take your eyes.

    The last one is the weirdest, and my favorite, because I will always remember that student with the image that popped into my head immediately of her climbing up my fire escape late one night to come and get my eyes. She isn't in my classes anymore but I see her around, and I remind her of that. Now that she is a junior she can't believe she said it. My students also frequently express alarm at the color I turn (without exaggeration, the color of a ripe Macintosh apple) when I get overheated (our school installed air conditioners just last week, and we teach straight through June here in New York City.) If they have not had me before, they think I am suddenly very mad at something, which puts them on their best behavior for a little while. It's always interesting to me the things they notice and the totally honest questions I get from seventeen and eighteen-year-olds, who have really just never spent this much time around someone with my complexion. (Whoah, Mrs. S, did you know I can see the veins in your face?)

    1. This is one of my favorite comments in the history of the world. "I'm gonna take your eyes." Awesome. I have that vein issue, too, where I get stressed or I laugh really hard and BOOM the forehead vein pops out.
      Thanks for adding to the post!

  3. I am always apprehensive around children because I have in the past been asked questions about my appearance, but as much as I hate it, how else are they supposed to learn about differences, I think questions are important and would be more concerned if they didn't have any.

    1. Yes. I don't like it when they don't ask questions. I like them curious.

  4. I once went a whole day without anyone at work telling me I wore my jumper inside out. I thought I'd be the first to tell someone if they'd done what I just did, I'd much rather that.

    Oh but a class of kids - yikes! But what a great way to diffuse the situation though! Yay for your Naked Eye! Take care

    1. I know! Why don't adults just come out and say stuff that would be helpful? And I'm now very appreciative of my Naked Eye. Thanks, and take care!

  5. My favorite question is "why don't you have any hair?" Or "why did you lose your hair?"

    1. That's great. That makes me laugh. Hair questions abound in my room, too.