ON MARCH 10 I was working as a high school-level substitute teacher in Arlington's Woodlawn. The class I was teaching was no different from all the others I had taught -- it was talkative and unruly, and tested my patience.
As I tried to take attendance a student walked directly in front of me and loudly initiated a conversation with another student. I then made a mistake; I told the interrupting student to "shut up" rather than responding to his blatant rudeness with a polite "Excuse me, I'm trying to take attendance". (School administrators prefer that teachers respond politely to troublemakers, in the same way that Gandhi instructed his followers to peacefully march into the bayonets of British soldiers. A willingness to endure any insult is one of the few requirements for holding a job as a substitute teacher.)
The 16-year-old student -- we'll call him Joe -- was clearly amazed that a mere substitute teacher would demand silence. He turned, looked me straight in the face, and called me a word which this newspaper prefers not to print. The word is a common seven-letter profanity. The word itself is not important. What is important is that, in front of an assembled class, a student called a teacher an obscenity.
Now I'm no shrinking violet -- I've been called worse names before -- but never before had a student talked to me like we were drunks in a barroom brawl. I was momentarily in shock -- students simply do not call teachers obscenities, I thought.
"You're out of here" I said. (I had assumed that he was enrolled in my class; actually he had just wandered in to ask another student for money). He did not move. I put my hands on his shoulders to make it clear to him that he was going to leave the class. (Where he should never have been in the first place.) The kid, of medium height but bulky build, was not going to be pushed around. He faced off to me, putting his hands against my chest. Not only did Joe have no intention of leaving, he was still determined to ask his friend for money.
At this point I decided that not only was Joe going to leave the room, he was also going to the office to receive some sort of punishment. Once we had wrestled each other out of the room and into the hall, I attempted to wrestle him in the direction of the office. He made it clear to me that, short of my knocking him unconscious and throwing him over my shoulder, there was no way he was going to the office.
I sized the situation up: Joe was much shorter than me, but also much bulkier -- I wasn't really sure I could take him if it came to that. (I also wasn't used to making this sort of assessment, as I'm not in the habit of brawling with students.) I bluffed -- I told him he was going to the office, willing or not. But he knew the rules: "You touch me and you'll never work here again," he threatened. (Students these days may not be able to read or write, but they are fully cognizant of their protections under the legal system.)
Eventually, through a combination of cajolery and threats, but without ever striking, or even pushing the student, I managed to get him to the office. There we were referred to the head teacher, Mary McBride. In the manner of a parent refereeing a dispute between two children, she asked me to explain my side of the story and the student to explain his.
I told her what had happened. I also told her that I had no intention of debating the student regarding the relative merits of our actions. First of all, I had a class to return to. (When I did return all but a few students had left.) Second, I believe school administrators should support teachers, rather than serving as mediators between teachers and students. I left the head teacher telling her that I was not going to tolerate students calling teachers obscenities, and asking her to inform me as to what disciplinary action was going to be taken against the student.
At the end of the day the head teacher came down to my room to see me. She told me that I "may have violated some guidelines" regarding the touching of students, and that the principal wanted to see me. Suddenly I was the one in trouble for breaking rules.
The principal, Ray Anderson, informed me that he also happened to be an attorney. Then he told me that Arlington has a strict policy against touching students, except in self-defense or in order to break up a fight between students. He asked me to tell him what happened. He seemed particularly interested in who had touched who first, and what form the touching had taken. (By this point it was clear to me that students in Arlington occupy roughly the same position as cattle in Hindu societies.)
I told Anderson that I had gripped the student's shoulder firmly, but without malice. He then told me that a teacher could be terminated for violating the "touching" guidelines. He wanted to be sure that I had not thrown the boy against a wall (I don't think I could have even if I had wanted to) or employed some other wicked tactic. The principal didn't seem equally upset that the kid had disrupted a class, insulted me, and put his hands on me.
Later I went to see the head teacher again. She informed me that the first thing administrators think of in cases like this is the possibility that the school will be sued by the student. She too seemed to regard the actions of the student as a mere trifle. According to her, the reason I had such a problem with the student was that he didn't know me. In other words, some personal bond with the student was necessary to prevent him from walking into my class, disrupting it, insulting me, and refusing to leave. The idea that students should obey a teacher simply because he or she is a legitimate authority figure seems to be totally alien to both administrators and students, and probably to most teachers as well.
If you doubt the degree to which teachers have lost authority note the action taken against Joe: a two-day, in-school suspension, with the proviso that he could attend testing or any class if a teacher requested his presence.
If he could come to school, take tests, and attend classes, you might wonder exactly what he was forbidden to do. So do I. Bear in mind that this punishment was for a student with a history of disciplinary problems who showed no contriteness after the event.
These days the fact that a student called a teacher an obscenity is probably not going to shock too many people. Nor is the fact that the student appeared ready and willing to go one-on-one with a teacher. After all, everybody has heard much worse stories about students in inner-city schools. But this event occurred in a school attended overwhelmingly by bright, white, upper-middle-class kids (all of those involved in this story are white suburbanites.)
March 10 was just another peaceful day in the suburbs, and the event seemed to disturb no one but myself. The truly notable quality in this story is that it represents not the exception, but the norm. Joe is a problem student, but his attitude is exactly the same as most other Arlington public school secondary students. Joe is a leader in the sense that he was just slightly more expressive than most students.