A classroom of 30 students, and I, were involved in a speaking-listening exercise. It was quite simple actually. I randomly chose students to present a fable, or summarize a fable, to the class. Whenever a speaker approached the front of the room, everyone present was required to physically position themselves as “focused” listeners.
We had been working on this assignment “in-class” for a couple of weeks. There was one particular young man who I’d recognized had a ton of potential, but his outward behavior betrayed the true character I knew he carried within.
I decided to call on this young man to start off our exercises. He mumbled to himself, groaned and then, begrudgingly, made his way out of his seat and to the front of the room.
Did I mention that the school was hosting a special “Family Day”?
Well, as fate would bequeath its most nefarious aspects to me, this would be the day of one of my most harrowing ordeals in a classroom.
Parents and a few teachers lined the walls of the room. Young scholars were situated comfortably at their desks.
As the young man was approaching the front of the class he blurted out in my direction, “I don’t know what to do, I don’t remember anything.” There were the usual, uncontrollable chuckles from his peers.
I responded with, “Life doesn’t always allow us to excuse ourselves from whatever we want.” Teachers and parents all nodded affirming nods in my direction.
When he got to the front of the class he just stood there. He stood there for more than 1 minute not saying a word.
I knew this young man to be more than capable. In fact, I even knew how prepared he was to deliver this assignment (I, and another teacher, had gone above and beyond to prepare him). None of this information rested in the hearts and minds of the parents and other teachers who sat, uncomfortably, in the room watching the young man stare at his feet at a minute 30 seconds.
I guess what I should interject at this point is that I believed in this child and allowing him to sit down felt to me as though I would be compromising the truth of the potential I saw in him. Sometimes you’ve just got to go with your gut.
“I don’t know what to do,” he announced out.
“Yes you do,” I responded calmly, “take your time and begin whenever you are ready.”
The tension was sucking the air out of the room. He had been standing up there for 3 minutes, although it felt like an eternity. He twisted nervously, fumbled with his hands, but solidly held his ground.
I whispered to myself in the quiet recesses of my mind, “I believe in you.” It was a spontaneous mantra that I kept orbiting in my head. Each time he would look up from his feet and make eye contact with me, I would nod my head in a supportive manner while repeating the mantra to myself.
It felt like time was grinding to a complete and painstaking halt.
5 minutes had eroded and the room was now flooded with a level of angst and discomfort that was unsettling. Children were whispering under their breaths trying to help, or motivate him, parents were beginning to glare in my direction. The couple of teachers who were present seemed unsure, but still trusting in me.
At 7 minutes it seemed my world was about to collapse in on me. My intuition told me to believe in this child. Intellectually, I knew that he been permitted to avoid challenges such as this by skillfully manipulating the sanctity of instructional time. Deep down inside of me I knew he was more than capable of handling the task at hand. I began to feel as though maybe I believed in him more than he believed in himself.
9 minutes and the outwardly silent room was screeching with inaudible screams demanding that I allow this child to sit down.
The acidic juices in my belly were churning and my heart had, somehow, found its way into my throat. My own level of discomfort was beginning to feed on me but something in me refused to compromise. I so deeply believed in this child that I felt willing to put everything on the line, the entire class time if necessary.
I know how important expectations are. When we raise the bar of expectations on our students, they have no choice but to push in the ascendant direction towards learning. We talk excessively about rigor, but it is extremely challenging to actually engage in it.
I could feel the spontaneous mob growing in opposition of me. I was about to lose control of the classroom. A mutiny was afoot and I could not compromise my belief in this child to stop it.
At 10 minutes it happened.
Our young, reluctant scholar opened his mouth and began to speak. Not only did he speak, but he lifted his head up from staring at the ground, looked me directly in my eyes and delivered the words of his assignment.
An involuntary smile erupted across my face as my heart began slowing making its way back down into the cavity of my chest. The pressure enveloping my head that had been making way for a full-blown migraine eased up and away. A deep, collective sigh flooded the room.
When he completed his presentation, the entire room erupted into the loudest, most thunderous applause I’d ever heard in a classroom.
As we were passing one another when he was heading back to his seat, I leaned over and whispered, “I knew you could do it.” It was then that he let loose a large, wonderful smile.