Today, my pride was plucked by the gently-puckered lips of a twenty-one year old French boy from Paris who we’ll call Francois. Like all twenty-one year old French boys likely to steal your pride he was unbelievably good looking with smooth, golden-brown skin, and astutely intelligent to boot. He is one of eight students in an ESL class I teach four hours a day, Monday-Friday, downtown.
It was our first day together, and the soul-plucking came just a few minutes after I’d told him to put his cell phone away while setting up a game I’d created with flashcards. I’d just set the cards up in the middle of the table in an effort to bring the class’s low energy level back up; I wanted to do what I could to help them enjoy the rote nature of our book. Immediately after I’d set them up, Francois leaned his six-foot-two frame clean across the table and blew at my flashcards until they scattered in the hot, careless wind from his perfectly shaped mouth. He then leaned all the way back in his chair until it was propped up on its back legs and laughed so hard his eyes closed and his face went red. It was not a particularly raucous display of disrespect, but rather a silent sort of signaling – to me and the rest of the class – that I might be the one at the front, but unless he decided to relinquish it, he was the one in control.
I’d like to pause here to reflect on the fact that life in general is nothing more than a continuous jostling for power — if you are happy, it is probably because you feel like you have some kind of control over your world — you know what you want, you know how to get it, you have someone to love. As a teacher, I try to balance my actual power over the room with the attention I pay to my students — are they happy? Are the comfortable? Do they understand what I am saying? Are I pushing them hard enough, or too hard? But today, after Francois leaned across the table and more or less challenged me to a dual in front of the class, I wanted nothing more than to throw down like the ghetto girl I sometimes think I am, and tear him a new asshole. I didn’t care what the class thought; it was one of those moments where you literally just don’t give a shit anymore. Not about responsibility, and certainly not about bodily harm. Even more interestingly, there was a prolonged moment where I wanted to destroy them all, even those who said nothing, for sucking up my time and energy when they didn’t really want to be there. I wanted them all to be miserable — I wanted them to feel what I felt.
Of course, I am too much of a professional to loose my cool. Still, it took me the rest of the morning and even some of the afternoon to completely recover from the blow to my ego, and from my irrational desire to treat him like an adult rather than an immature, and completely insignificant dot on the landscape of my world. In fact, it took sitting down and writing this blog to remind myself of what I am — a writer — and to remember that this is my power . . . why? Because it means I don’t have to worry about being embarrassed in front of a classroom full of disrespectful students; everything they do is an opportunity to feel. How else can a girl from the suburbs of Baltimore with two loving parents and a Masters Degree in Creative Writing make art? From which horrid, festering wound?
The next day Francois was not in class, and three weeks later he has not bothered to come again at all. Since then, a few students have even thanked me for not only disciplining Francois, but all of them, saying that in their previous class everyone was always texting and sleeping — they were happy I’d cracked the whip.
Of course, after that my resolve and ego were restored, and I remember my true task as an educator — to teach, and when necessary, to absorb the negative energy of others in order to insulate the learning of the class.
So, thank you Francois, but still . . . be careful we don’t meet in a dark alley somewhere after school. You might be six foot two, but there’s no way your well-tanned, fru fru Paris upbringing prepared you for a pissed-off-American woman one generation removed from the ghetto-fabulous city of Baltimore.