I really wish I could give names and locations but once you read what I’m about to say, I’m sure you’ll understand why I didn’t. I visited an elementary school recently (which shall remained unnamed) and was working with groups of 6th graders on getting them comfortable standing before people and speaking. My aim has never really been to create perfect orators or storytellers. I think it’s important that everyone acquires some level of comfort in speaking before others as a form of personal growth.
My approach is more interpersonal than academic and I’ve yet to have an entire class that didn’t accomplish my exercises, except until recently. So, I’m in this 6th grade class and I’ve got the energy right where I need it to be to accomplish 100% participation when I get to a young man who has his head down. He is refusing to make eye contact with me. Eye contact is an important part of my workshop and, without it, I’m partially powerless to communicate effectively. This is something that I also let the children know. Before you ask I will tell you; no the boy isn’t on the spectrum and not part of a culture that views eye contact from someone younger as disrespectful. That out of the way, now let me explain what happened.
I don’t like to single anyone out in front of the other students and so I took his desire not to make eye contact with me as a sort of plea to be left alone. When his turn came to go up in front of the class, he looked up and said rather abruptly, “I don’t want to do it!”
This was a first for me. I’ve been doing this workshop for about 3 years and I’ve “always” managed to get 100% participation. I asked him if he’d like me to move on past him, allow someone else to go and then return to him. He said no. I released my “100% participation driven ego” and let him know that it was alright, that I wouldn’t force him to do anything that he felt uncomfortable doing. It was definitely a blow to my sense of accomplishment but there was something about this kid that I didn’t want to disturb. It was in his eyes when he did finally manage to look up. I actually felt a sadness for him.
As I start to move on to the next student, the teacher, who has been sitting quietly at the back of the class, jumps out of her chair and starts shouting. I was actually shocked at what came out of her mouth.
She began yelling at the young man and said, “I you aren’t too afraid to sell drugs to other kids on this campus then you shouldn’t be afraid to get up in front of this class for the few seconds that Baba is asking you to do it!”
After berating him for only a few seconds longer (which really felt like hours) she turned to me and said, “Ok Baba, sorry to interrupt, you can have the class back now.”
I mean really!
I stood there dumbfounded! How do you segue from that back into the tone and rhythm of normalcy that was our initial pacing? I hate to admit it but I stood there thinking, “Kids in elementary school have money to buy drugs?” Yeah, that was my first thought. You know how you can’t help but draw a reference to your own experience? When I was in elementary school, if we had any money at all, it went straight into keeping the dental profession employed though purchasing and eating as much candy as we could stuff into our mouths. Drugs?
I know I looked like some sort of mannequin standing at the front of that class. I can’t even tell you how I pulled it together. Actually I’m not sure I did. I left that class and went to my car. I sat in my car for a long while. A really long while. Have you ever been struck by a reality that you, intellectually, think you know? I mean I’m not naive or anything but there was something about this moment that tore at me.
Drugs and children selling drugs in elementary school and we are arguing over budgetary issues and firing teachers. If this is where we are today, where will we be tomorrow after we’ve debated and destroyed the one place our nation’s children should feel safe if not at home?
I know I’m ranting a bit here, but this incident hit me hard and I might as well still be sitting in my car in that schools parking lot deep in thought.
How do we deal this issues such as this?