This is a memory that came up in my therapy session today. Ms. D—JoAnne DeMaria—was my sixth grade teacher. She was the greatest teacher I’ve seen, and I’ve seen many. It’s only recently that I’ve come to understand how much of my own teaching she informed.
Chris Y was a year below us. At even 11 years old, he was always eager to start a fistfight or make fun of some kid’s weakness. Did we call him a bully? One day, he was sent to our classroom for misbehaving. This was unprecedented in the year we had Ms. D, but also didn’t seem peculiar at the time. We all knew Chris Y was bad.
His teacher had given him dittos to work on quietly, and Ms. D put him in a desk up in the corner of the room, away from everyone else. I don’t remember what happened next. My guess is he Acted Out in one of the ways any of us kids did. Let’s say he was talking when he shouldn’t have been. Whatever it was, he got Ms. D’s attention.
Ms. D always spoke to us with the same measured tone. Her philosophy was reason—”Common sense, David,” she’d tell, when I’d get too far in my head to understand something—and mutual respect. On the first day of class, she’d asked us students what qualities we believed made a good student. And we raised our hands and suggested some. She made a list on a large sheet of posterboard, and had each of us sign underneath. Then we collectively made a list of what made a good teacher, and she signed that list.
These contracts were hung over the blackboard for the year, a reminder that we all agreed to what it took to create an effective and equitable classroom.
“Do you want to earn the right to go back to your classroom, today,” Ms. D asked.
“Yeah,” said Chris Y in the tone of voice that made it clear he thought the question was stupid.
“Excuse me?” Ms. D said.
“Yeah,” Chris Y said, louder.
“Excuse me?” Ms. D said? Her tone didn’t change.
Chris Y started getting very frustrated. “Yeah!” he said.
And every time Ms. D asked her question again.
In my memory this exchange took a half hour, but it was probably all of 20 seconds. However long it took, we students were in agony. Everyone in Ms. D’s class knew you didn’t say “yeah” to answer a question. You said, “Yes.” Probably each of us had gone through some version of the Yeah-Excuse me-I mean Yes exchange at that point in the school year.
Maybe Chris Y eventually got it, but I seem to recall one of us—all of us?—whispering it to him, to save us all the agony: Say Yes! Because he finally said Yes.
“Thank you,” Ms. D said. And then she must have reminded him what he had to do to get back to his classroom, I don’t remember. Whatever she said, he didn’t act up again. He sat quietly, doing his dittos or not doing his dittos, and soon we forgot he was there.
Recalling this story 30 years later, the teacher in me rankles a little. I’m quick to get furious when teachers use their position in the classroom to assert authority over students, especially when they do this in ways that don’t lead to more learning, when they just do it to assert the hierarchy.
Teachers do this is any number of ways. Laptop bans in classrooms. Restrictive policies for assignments. Telling you what fonts to use and not use. Etc etc.
So a story about a teacher refusing to accept one kid’s “yeah” over “yes” sounds like needless authority bullshit. Except this isn’t how Ms. D operated. Witness the contracts we all signed, which hung next to the b/w poster of Bobby Kennedy. Or the personalized vocab/spelling lists each of us students received each week, based on errors we’d made in our work or difficulties we’d had in our reading the previous week.
What made Ms. D the best teacher I’ve ever seen is this level of personal attention she gave every student in the room. This was a public elementary school. She had 20-25 students. (Did she have kids of her own? No. Do I think it’s worth looking for biographical excuses of how/why she was able to be so committed and dedicated? No.)
What I realized in therapy today is that this scene isn’t about authority or coercion or control or punishment. It’s about strength. In fact it might be a scene about the difference between strength and power. Ms. D was the first teacher in my life (maybe first adult) who showed us her guns, so to speak, and then stuck to them.
She was the first adult to care enough to point out when and how we weren’t living up to our individual promise. The effect was that we learned not to disappoint. Which is different from learning not to misbehave. N.B.: When we misbehaved, we always felt that we had disappointed ourselves, not just her.
There are two ends to the story. One is that Ms. D died in 2003. I miss her more than I realize. The other end is that Chris Y is now a backyard MMA fighter with a sizable YouTube following. He spent many years in prison and is almost fully covered in tattoos, but he’s now trying to spread good messages and inspire others.
I just watched his video calling for an end to bullying.