The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Monday, January 24, 2005

"Miss, why did you say Sammy hit you? He never hit you. You lied about it."

A month ago, a terrified thirteen year old boy whom I don't know ran into my classroom. One look at him and I knew why he was there: Witness. Adult. Protection.

I swiftly stood between him and the door. A boy whom I later learn is called Sammy stormed into the room, all furious steam and maddening colour rush, gesticulating wildly and aggressively. He began to do what's known locally as getting in the other boy's face.
It's all hot air and gesture, rapid swinging jabbing forefingers striking down towards a face but not making contact. It's what's known around here as 'fronting' someone. Carefully targeted aggression, designed to intimidate, but also a way out of a fight.

I can't take the risk: one response from victim, one word that inflames ego or ire of aggressor, and those hands could make contact. I insinuated myself between the boys. Stand in the way.

Tom, first boy in, turns his face away, protests, refuses to give up eye contact to Sammy's growled assertions that he has hit him in the mouth, has cut his lip and drawn blood. I looked quickly at Sam's lip. It's unmarked, and it takes little time to understand from which direction the bullying is occurring.

Raising my hands palms outward before me, I repeated in a low tone "leave the room now."

I know exactly how much force the law permits me to use. Children are perennially convinced that teachers are not allowed to touch them. Not true. If I perceive danger, I am allowed to use reasonable force to restrain.
I intend not to admit such force into my classroom.

Standing, legs apart, palms facing Sammy, I repeated it. "Leave the room now."
Calm, controlled, low, emphatic. Take one step forward.

My intention is to walk, step by step, towards the door, with Sammy in front of me. The consequences of his bullying or touching me are far worse - bizarrely - than if he bullies or beats Tom.

Sammy did not respond, stood his ground. Leant around me to jab his finger at Tom and continue to shout imprecations.
His eyes and head were about the height of my upperarms. I made sure my palms were consistent with the level of his chest. The noise as he screamed what he's going to do to the other boy, was riotous, thought-deafening. My low tone is the only way to undercut the high pitch, to resonate at a level below the rage. "Do you see how close you are to me?"
He didn't respond.
"Leave the room, now." I moved forward another step.

Sammy shoved forward into me, pushing me backwards a step.

There's an invisible barrier around teachers, even in schools where violence against staff is commonplace (as all my schools have been). A crackle of electricity tells everyone in the room when the barrier has been crossed.

"You have just pushed me," I informed him in the same low, measured tone. "Leave. The. Room. Now." I paused, move forward another step. Made contact. My hands were on his chest. He sprang back: "Don't you touch me! You're not allowed to touch me!"

Now he's admitted that contact has been made. That's quotable, when I inevitably have to write this up and pretend it's unusual. I stood stock still. "I am standing here, with my hands raised, telling you to leave the room. If you run into my hands, you push me . Leave the room. Now."
Sammy was practically clinging onto me, trying to twist past me to get to Tom. He's screaming about what he will do to Tom, how he will beat him. Who will be waiting for him on the way home. How many boys will be after him.

I kept walking, and enunciating. Till Sammy was backed up to the door. His friends were stock still, in the doorway, too shocked by the situation to enter. Sammy, still screaming, suddenly gave in and left.

Following him into the corridor, I shouted in urgent tones to another teacher - who turns out not to be a teacher, but a schoool visitor: could she stand beside me? Two adults are a hardier force to be reckoned with than one.

Sammy erupted down the corridor amongst his shouting, brawling pack of boys - but in the other direction. Explaining to the visitor that I simply needed her to stand beside me for one minute, I thanked her, and tried to offer an apology: it's not always like this.
I had no idea who the poor woman was, but right now I need to find out what just happened. Sammy has stormed off down the stairs.

I shut the door behind him.

Turned to see Tom, frozen in an attitude of defeat over the table, face reddened; eyes red, damp, impotently angry.

Sammy exploded into the room for another try: shouting, cursing, raving. I repeated my previous mantra, repeated my previous raised palm walk, repeated it all until he's out of the door.
His last scream around my waist was "sorry Tom!" As if this somehow absolves him, a legal technicality that confers less seriousness on his attack.

I slammed the door on Sammy, locked it shut. Tempting a third attack is too risky.

Tom tells me he's been a school refuser for two months, and this is his first day back. That a third boy had started the row, who hadn't come into the room. That it's always like this, day after day after day.
That he's a young boxer, that the other boys know this, know he's learnt sufficient self control not to respond, make a game of trying to provoke him, trying to make him lose it and hit them, hard.
It's happened, once, and he had knocked the other boy from his feet in one blow. Tells me how much that had scared him, that they could make him forget himself like that.

Sammy is hauled over the coals by the authorities, eventually. I have to write three pages of report, corroborate Tom's evidence, draw two diagrams of students' positioning during the attack, have two meetings to repeat my assertions, defend myself against Sam when he decides to accuse me of trumping up fictionalised assaults in the corridor, demolish three faked witness statements that 'see' me beat Sam and lie to save my own skin.
He eventually confesses the truth, is suspended for some time, and his parents decide perhaps boarding school is a better option. These last facts are private, not the business of the school at large, or of Tom.

It's three more weeks before Sammy's pals stop accosting me in the corridor, in the street, on the road home, to ask why I've framed Sammy when they were all witnesses. To be on the safe side, I try not to make it too noticeable which is my car; the school doesn't have a great track record of following through crimes against property.

Tom's accusations are taken seriously. He continues to attend school. He, a stranger, never speaks to me again.

In exactly this way, those five quiet minutes after another Thursday morning class mutate, turn swiftly into moments that change people's lives.