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Tuesday, April 19, 2005


“You have three seconds to sit down. Three, two, one.”
“You don’t want to sit down? OK. I think maybe I need to go tell your teacher about this.”
“No. No!” A boy scrambling around, not knowing if he should block my progress or sit in line and hope I change my mind. I brush by him, avoiding his tear-brimmed eyes and inform his teacher that the boy was not listening to me. Though that teacher later informed me that I was not being a tattle-tale, I was left with the uncomfortable feeling that I was being just that.

One of the aspects of teaching kids I have yet to work out is where to draw the line between what should and should not be told to the teacher. Some cases are clear cut.
“Teacher, ----- is kicking ------.” Tell me that.
“Teacher, ----- is going poo-poo!” OK, this is something I don’t need to know.

What about the in-between situations, though? Our students are not allowed to speak Chinese at school, but do I need to have kids coming to me every five minutes to inform on the student who was speaking Chinese in the bathroom? What about when kids come up to tell me another child has been running, or has not used soap to wash their hands? My strategy of late has been to tell the child thank you for the information, give a stern look to the accused child, and then hope they both forget about it.

Discipline, I should say, is not a strong point of mine. In every evaluation I have been given in relation to my teaching performance, the results have been the same. Something along the lines of, your kids really react well to your teaching, you are energetic and cover a lot of information, but I notice that your kids lack in discipline. You might want to address that.
Easy enough to say, now let’s put it into action.

One day I was teaching a class (not preschool). The children were talking amongst themselves, not raising their hands to answer questions, putting their heads on their desks, and tipping back on their chairs. The last straw came when one boy threw a pencil across the room to another boy. In the moment before I started yelling, stormed to the back of the room to turn off the lights and suggested that perhaps I should just leave class and let them wait for their parents to pick them up, I had a vision of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and other movies in which out of control classes stomped on hapless teachers. I never thought it really happened. When I asked the boy if he would like to spend the rest of the class standing out in the hallway, he smiled and said yes.

It is a helpless feeling, when a class is out of your control. When I think of the times I have whined and pleaded with children, or threatened them with punishments that I cringe at the echoes I hear in my head. I cringe at the memories of kids laughing at me while I have my “serious” face on, trying to correct their behavior. If I ever need a reminder of just how ridiculous and weak-willed I am, I can review some of the greatest hits and am shortly seeking the cover of the nearest stone.

Once upon a time there was a girl I really, really liked. This was a long time ago in a land far, far away. Namely, Indiana. Anyway, for a few blissful months during our freshman year, we were inseparable. It was only near the end of those months together that we became physically involved. Shortly after our physical involvement began, our relationship ended. She just stopped calling and avoided me whenever possible. This was made especially painful by the fact that she gave me no real reasons for her disappearance and that we lived on a campus with less than 900 people. For two or three months I was reduced to a pathetic shell, wondering what I had done wrong, wondering what I could do to bring her back. This meant writing awful poetry, calling drunk at 2:00 AM, and even a tearful confession of love next to the school’s scenic reflecting pond.

It was the summer after our freshman year that she offered some explanation. We had sent each other a few letters, and I was beginning to believe again that perhaps we had a future. This belief was further buoyed by her confession letter, a letter in which she said – and here a close paraphrase:

“You always wondered why I left you and I could never give you an answer. The truth is I was too scared. I was terrified at how perfect it was. I thought of you as a husband, and as a father to my kids and it was all too perfect. I had to run.”

After an initial burst of pride, I began further considering the words. What an awful excuse. Who runs from something that they believe will bring them such happiness? What a bunch of B.S. Does this mean we might get back together?

We never did get back together, and though we talked every now and then we drifted apart. Actually, even when she wrote that letter, she was dating the man that she eventually married. It is, I suppose, a blessing that I suffered all that agony then - that we did not end up together. Had we, I would likely be practicing law in Cincinnati, locking myself in my office at night, asking myself over two highballs of gin how I might possibly escape.

Ever since I began teaching pre-school kids, I have found myself thinking about what kind of father I would really make. A perfect father? Does such a thing exist?

Kids learn by example, which is why I worry for my students sometimes. Is it any wonder they come to me to tell me about what other kids are doing when they see me telling other teachers about what their kids are doing? Are my students going to respect their teachers at big school next year, or behave properly when they have not yet learned that misbehavior has consequence? Are they going to deal with frustration by uttering exasperated sighs and contemplating threatening to walk out of the classroom?

When I think about fatherhood it is impossible to separate images of my future self from images of my own father. When I raise my voice at kids and wonder why they will not take me seriously, I think back to when I was a child and had a hard time taking my dad seriously when he yelled at me. When kids come to me with questions and I say, “Maybe you should ask Teacher Cindy,” I ask myself “Didn’t dad do that all the time when I was a kid?” When I think about my reactions – dramatic sighs, exaggerated slumped shoulders, looks intended to extract guilt, and thus compliance, I wonder – is this mine, or is this coming from dad?

Natalia and I have discussed the idea of kids more than once. There will be a lot of serious questions to consider if we ever have children. As our family would be spread across three continents, even the most basic issue of citizenship will be something to be brought into consideration.

When we talk about how best to raise a child, I think about different families I have spent time with in the past. I think about west coast families where the kids called their parents by their first names and could talk about everything. I think about Asian families where the kids are spoiled but face the prospect of very long school days from a very early age (and in many cases, the threat of physical punishment). I think of the families I saw when growing up, where it seemed like a whole lot of topics were off limits for discussion, where generations repeated the patterns set by those before them. Will it be possible to take the best aspects of each, and to avoid the worst? Is it possible to plan what type of father you will be? Or does everything just get thrown out of the window the first time the baby starts crying and just will not stop? Given the number of times I have had to scrap a lesson plan based on some unexpected breakdown, I suspect that this is the case.

In imagining me as a father, though, here is what I see:

A son or daughter who on the surface loves dad more because he never gets angry at them (this will be Natalia’s job – I suspect they would go to her when they have a really serious problem as well). A son or daughter whose friends always want to come over because “Whoa, your dad is so cool.” A son or daughter who is well-traveled, tri-lingual, and ready to face the world with the perspective of one who has seen it.

Perhaps more likely: A son or daughter embarrassed by a father who thinks the kids think he is cool but in reality is ridiculed because of his endless, pointless stories of travels past. A son or daughter who gets tired of going from Argentina to the U.S., and to wherever else the future might take Natalia and me, and rebels by…no, I don’t want to consider any kind of rebellion just yet.

I went to the park with some of my students on Saturday and my back is still sore from them jumping on top of me and making me run around. We went to the park as a class yesterday (we do every Monday morning), and I had to tell the kids I could not play because of the pain in my back. As I told them, I again heard echoes from my own childhood. I thought about fathers and fatherhood. My father and the father I want to be. I looked at the children playing around me, coming to me for hugs. I thought about having one of my own.

I have to admit, it was a terrifying thought.


Anonymous Natalia said...

I think each group of kids is unique. There are no set rules on how to react or how to control kids, as all of them are different and act differently according to where they are and who they are with. I believe setting clear limits to a bunch of kinds is important, but you have to do it from the start, otherwise, it is much more difficult to do it halfway, although not impossible. When one or two kids are much more problematic than others, I would suggest to talk to them outside class. Children usually understand when you reason with them.

I see you as a good dad, caring and loving but yes, you might need to train your patience when it comes to discipline kids. I'm sure it takes a lot of time to try to make your kid understand what is right and wrong, and why it is so. I hope you don't fall asleep halfway.

Terrifying or not, it's still a long way. Until then, enjoy.

2:20 PM  

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