There’s this kid in my class—I’ll call him Frank—he doesn’t say much. Each day, I wait outside my classroom and greet each kid by name. Every time I say hello, Frank acts as though he has not heard me, stares at his phone, and passes by. I usually shake hands or bump fists, but Frank refuses. I’ve stopped extending my hand or fist so as not to annoy him, but I still nod and say hello to show him respect and teach him that this is how things are done.
In class, Frank sits alone at a table he pulls over near the wall. He doesn’t interact with me and usually has to be asked twice to do things. I ask gently and ask too if there is anything I can do to be of use to him. He doesn’t respond.
Yesterday Frank hadn’t gotten out pen and paper and I mentioned it quietly to him for a third time: “If you can, please put down today’s date so we can get ready to write.” Frank was busy on Snapchat but responded softly, “next time that motherfucker say anything, I bust him up.” I said, “you can leave now.” He went.
Later in the period, I stopped by the office. Frank was there. I stayed more than an arm’s-length away as I squatted so that I was below his level. I don’t want to be threatening or the victim of a right hook. I said, “I’ve been nothing but kind to you. I’ll continue to be kind. Do you know that you abuse me?”
Frank said nothing. Frank refused to engage, but he heard me. I’m sure he took it as a challenge. I don’t want to challenge him to a fight, but I do want to challenge him to hear someone criticize him without it becoming a fight. I bet that’s rare in his life. I waited a few seconds in case he wanted to talk, saw that he didn’t, thanked him, and went back to class.
Later yesterday, I asked the social worker to arrange a meeting for the three of us. Frank and I weren’t going to make progress without help. We had that meeting today. We didn’t make much progress.
I kept quiet, letting the social worker speak first. Frank got his phone out and busied himself with it. The social worker talked. Then I said, “I was hoping we could talk about how you and I get along. I feel I’ve been kind to you but you’re pretty abusive to me.” Frank said he don’t do nothing to me. “Maybe you could put your phone aside so we can talk.” Frank said he was listening. I felt myself getting frustrated. “I wonder if you were trying to tell me something and I had my head in my phone how that would go.” Frank said he didn’t give a fuck.
This isn’t unusual in my line of work. Still, it gets to me. In two decades I’ve run through most of the reactions to this sort of thing. Only two work well. The first is to nod and wait it out. When I’m at my best, I do just that. However, that also requires something of the kid. Today I wasn’t at my best and Frank wasn’t going to budge, so I got up and left. I told the social worker and Frank. “Please, excuse me” walked out, closed the door gently, and went back to class.
Frank and the social worker talked without me likely making more progress than if I had stayed. I returned to class feeling frustrated, apologized to the students for having been gone, and said, “if I seem frustrated tell me to get over it.” One shouted, “Get over it!” I smiled.
I don’t know that I’ve gotten over anything, but I’m not under much of anything either. It’s a thing that happened and I don’t yet understand it much. This is how it goes in schools. Things happen. We react or respond (maybe a little of both). Then more things happen and we don’t understand much of it right away. It reminds me of parenting.
When I left the meeting with the social worker and Frank did I give up, surrender, choose discretion over valor, or something else? I don’t know. Ask me next October. By then I might have some idea.