Monday was a bad day.
Prior to a couple of weeks ago, I was the teacher of 6 great classes and 1 class of jerks. I’ve mentioned the jerks a couple of times so far. I also teach a class of cuddly 2 year olds, a class of absolutely adorable 5 year olds, 2 classes of sweet and feisty 6-7 year olds, one class of sharp 7 year olds and one class of fun and dorky 9-11 year olds. Up until recently, Jerks = 1 and Awesomes = 6 has been the score.
It’s funny how the tide can change when dealing with youngsters. My class of former jerks are still jerks but we are actually getting along better these days. To my shock, I am now having problems with one of my classes of formerly angelic 6-7 year olds.
The problem crept up slowly. Our first 6 classes together were terrific. We laughed, we sang, they paid attention, they learned – even little Kokoro, my shyest, tiniest, saddest student. A couple of weeks ago I noticed that my boys became a wilder than usual during a game. I attributed this to the broken AC so I foolishly let it go. The week after was absolute chaos. I stared in shock as my formerly well-behaved boys ignored everything I said and raced about the room, yanking toys from the bin, stomping on cushions, shoving each other and disobeying every command. My entreaties of “Stop!” “Stand up!” and “Be kind!” did no good.
The two sweetly behaved girls glared angrily at the bad boys but said nothing. I felt as small and ineffectual as they did. By the time my students left, I was a broken and utterly confused woman. Who were these brats? Where were the smiling boys who crowded around me and played my games with exuberance and obedience?
It’s well known that 6 year-olds have the capacity to change temperaments swiftly, but I know the real root of the problem: me. I didn’t establish effective disciplinary procedures from Day One.
Due to my Liberal bleeding heart hippie tendencies, I’ve always been afraid to punish children. As an American growing up in the genesis of the PC era, I am especially afraid. I am afraid to shout at them (lawsuit!!), punish them (lawsuit and emotional scarring!), or embarrass them (emotional scarring and clock tower revenge!). In training, we were given a series of disciplinary methods to try – a version of the classic Time Out topping the list, followed by Kick Out – but as my kids were great from the start, I focused instead on making the kids laugh, hoping to inspire them to obey me out of love rather than fear.
I do know how important discipline is – my brother and I grew up with a kid named Jeremy who got away with everything because his parents pitied his weight problem. His parents’ inaction coupled with Jeremy’s personality produced a really lousy kid. Discipline and punishment are necessary, no doubt, but I am still terrified. One of my worst flaws is a tendency to swing between too much and too little – how can I find the right balance between ineffectual cries of “Please stop!” … and saying or doing something inherently damaging?
Yesterday, Lloyd, our trainer, came to school to offer suggestions for things I could do differently, which I greatly appreciated. His presence calmed me and class began as normal … until the boys began to get restless, sending shy little Kokoro into a tailspin of bad behavior that began with him laying across my materials and ended with him nearly cutting my finger with a pair of scissors during craft time. All of this, while the other boys ignored me and wrestled, making vocabulary lessons impossible.
Snapping, finally, I focused my efforts on Yuki, who was shouting and jumping and had ignored my request to “Sit down.” He stared at me silently, as though he didn’t understand (which he full well does, since he follows this command every week).
“Stand up, Yuki!” I said, with the intention of putting him into the corner. Again, he stared blankly. “Stand up!” I said. Another blank stare.
I began to lose my temper. “Yuki, stand up!” I said, gesturing with my hands. He didn’t budge.
“Stand up!” I shouted.
Yuki began to cry.
And all of this, with Lloyd watching. I was not only broken and ineffectual, I was now shrewish and embarrassed, too.
Class finished and my children left, most of them grim. Again – who were these children? My children used to leave my classroom shouting, “See you, Ribu!!,” bounding happily to their mothers. I sagged against the door frame and cleaned up the mess Kokoro had made by shredding his worksheet into the carpet while whimpering amid the howls of the boys and the glares of the girls.
As I picked the scraps of paper out of the carpet, I mulled, remembering Yuki’s face the second before he burst into tears. I didn’t want to be the cause of such a sad little face, ever! On the other hand, I remembered Jeremy’s smug face, too – the face of a creep who knew he could do no wrong in the eyes of his parents, even when it was blatantly obvious that he had done something bad. I absolutely did not want to have a hand in causing a face like that, either. And truth be told, Yuki did behave better after being made to cry.
So I finished cleaning the mess, still unsure of how to feel. I plodded into the teacher’s lounge. And there I saw a brown shopping bag with a note on it:
“Dear Ribu,” it said (Ribu written in katakana). “From Yoko.”
Yoko is one of my adult students – a lovely lady in her 60s who spends her days giving tours of temples in a beautiful kimono, which she sometimes wears to class. Something from Yoko? For me? Whatever could it be?
I opened the bag and saw a box containing a small, mint green fan and pair of wooden clogs designed to be worn with a yukata. Immediately, I understood: during our last class, I had told Yoko that I had just learned what a yukata was and that I couldn’t wait to wear one this summer.
“Be ready!” I had told her. “If the principal allows it, you will see me in a yukata!”
I rushed with the shopping bag to show the principal. “Look!” I cried, showing her the clogs and the fan. “When did Yoko leave this? This is so wonderful!”
“She left it last week,” said the principal. “She said that she found them for very cheap and that she thought you should have them. She also left a map of where you can buy a yukata.” Indeed, there was a little blue street map pinned to the shopping bag.
I was overwhelmed and extremely moved. Not only is the gift beautiful and thoughtful, but it couldn’t have come at a better time. Thank you so very, very much, Yoko; I will indeed be wearing a yukata this summer – hopefully half as beautifully you wear your kimono!!
So Monday was a good day.