Students swarmed my car. As I turned off the engine, I heard their buzzing voices, charged and anger-filled. I rolled down the car window and asked them to step back so that I could exit the car. Everyone talked at once:
“Robbie is gonna go to jail if you don’t do something!”
“She wrote everyone in the classroom up!”
“We didn’t do anything wrong.”
“That substitute is a bitch!”
“We did exactly what you told us to do!”
“We were practicing civil disobedience —just like you taught us!”
I raised my hand. Their attention captured, I said, “Let’s go up to my room and you can tell me what happened—one at a time. I’ll read the report left by the substitute and we’ll figure things out.”
The students who gathered around my car and followed me to my classroom were enrolled in an alternative high school. Their ages ranged from 15 to 21. The educators who referred them to our school considered them “at risk.” I considered them courageous. Some of my students, in just 16 short years of life, had faced challenges and difficulties that I would never face. For some, school was safer than their homes and neighborhoods. For others, school was the place where they ate a full meal and were warmly greeted by an adult every day. Others learned how to parent their children. Everyone received counseling, social services, and medical care.
The previous day I had attended a workshop. In preparation for my absence, my students and I made a plan so they could be successful in my absence. I expected their best behavior while I was gone. I also expected them to go easy on the substitute and treat her like they would treat me—respectfully. The last time I was absent, my students snookered the substitute. They told him that I let them play their personal CDs in class —which was true. Unfortunately, they omitted the detail that I did not allow CDs that contained profanity. The class was listening to comedian Andrew Dice Clay, who spews the F-word, when the principal walked into the room. That substitute was never allowed on campus again, and the CD player was silent in class for several weeks.
Even for an alternative school, this class was diverse. When I first viewed the roster, I wondered to myself, “Can I build a classroom community with this group?” The class contained many streetwise students with the “grit” to survive. The character traits that allowed them to navigate their often-hostile world also made them a challenge to teach. And then, my job was made more complex by a group of young women described as the “Church Ladies.”
The Church Ladies kept to themselves. They always entered class together, sat together, and left together. Although they were 17 and 18 years old, they often wore flower print dresses with lace collars, more like grandmothers than teenagers. It was clear to most of us—students and staff—that they were emotionally fragile. For example, Jenny panicked the day she scratched a mole on her face and it began to bleed. It was her favorite mole and she was afraid it would fall off. When Carly became anxious about something, she gouged and scratched her arms with her fingernails until they bled. Ruthie did not make eye contact with anyone.
In my room, their classmates demonstrated a daily consideration and kindness to these young women. In a class where students were not assigned seats, they always arrived to find the three seats they preferred vacant. This was true even when they were the last to arrive.