In which Ms. Ebner considers dogged self-worth in others . . .
I’m near the front of the room with five kids yammering for my attention. Two ask if they can go to the bathroom before the bell rings. One asks if he can go to the office to call his ride home from school. One or two more are explaining something about missing the day before, or asking me if they need to do a test, or something. I can’t really hear. It’s 32 middle school students all talking at once. I just want to get class started, take role within the legally-mandated time frame of fifteen minutes, and have everyone present so I don’t need to repeat instructions. And in all of this clamor—oh, yeah, kids are not in their seats yet, are not giving any indication that they are here to be here and learn, but playing or chatting or zipping through their touchscreens—there’s Albert*, saying in his oversized voice and equally oversized enthusiasm, “Hi, Ms. Ebner. Here is my behavior contract. You need to sign this, put it in the folder and give me five reward tickets (to use for purchases). See I went over the minimum points for my goal for the week!”
I bet you did.
There was a time when I was newish to this school, and still wonder if I am cut out for the culture. I first returned because the office manager treated me well, as a valued substitute teacher. Later, when I got to know more students, I continue to serve there because so many of them seem to like me alright. I am a now a person with a personality and won’t put up with too much crap, but enough to make me one of the “not mean subs.” Hence, the line up of requests and stories and the full orchestra warming up before class even starts. There will be more distractions throughout the day. “Can I get a drink of water?” Can I go to the bathroom?” “Can I go ask my math teacher a question?” “Can I make you life in this room more like a family, rather than an 8 hour incarceration?”
Albert is the second person I took to be motive to return to this school day in and day out. When I first met him he came right up to me, started asking me questions, wondering about me, and being, yeah, a bit annoying. He would try to relate to me. When I mentioned my insulin pump one day, he held onto that knowledge—not as a person with diabetes himself—and asked me about it, curious, concerned for several days after. The kid exemplifies a willingness to make the first move to relating instead of cowering in insecurity and bitterness at the world. Albert reaches out.
One grouchy old teacher there described him to me once as “a puppy dog” but I would say— when he greets me as I come into school or come near the classroom—his persona is more like riding the edge of an avalanche. He is always there, booming and moving fast, and he always has something sparkling yet bracing to say.
His classmates don’t like him. Probably most of his teachers don’t either, which explains the “behavior plan” he has been on since the beginning of the year. He is loud, says outbursty stuff at odd times, has way too much energy, and radiates indefatigable optimism for the essence of life at least eight hours a day.
He is what I wish all people had within themselves, or kept intact. He has something unstoppable inside which makes me want to protect him from society’s insistence on dumbing-it-down so we can all be bored out of our skulls.
But the thing is, Albert doesn’t seem to need my or anyone’s protection. He appears to have woken one day at a very early age—with his scruffy, consistently unmaintained red hair—looked about him and decided, People behave like jerks. I will try to be better than that.
The behavior plans challenge his personal ethics and motivations as do the countless barely-hidden remarks smacking of borderline bullying. He turns a blind eye to this unnecessary noise, and focusses on me. The cymbals clang.
“Hi Ms. Ebner. How are you? I’ve decided to be a force for good today again! What do you think of that? Here’s my behavior contract.”
* Name changed to protect the identity of this wonderful student.