Teaching is not for the faint-hearted

From time to time my job as a teacher reminds me how naive I was in becoming a teacher. Today was one of those days. What started off as a normal day began to spiral out of control at 10am. My first lesson was with the Grade 8s-my favourite class. The lesson unfolded as I had hoped with no suprises.

It was a small whisper that jolted me into reality. One of the girls came to me whispering that she needed to tell me something. She isn't the shy type so I was confused by her approach. I listened carefully as she told me "Ma'am, X has dagga in his blazer."

I didn't know whether I should believe her or not so I carried on with the lesson by walking around the classroom checking work and making comments until I walked up to X's table. I asked him if I could chat to him outside. While he stood up looking confused I leaned over and took his blazer before he could. While walking to the door I felt him try to tug the blazer from my hand. As we stood outside I started searching the blazer casually but X tried to grab the blazer from me. We started playing tug of war with his blazer and X's voice took on a pitch I had never heard him use, considering I hardly heard him speak up in class throughout most of last year when I taught him English.

A bit of context about X before the rest of the story unfolds: X walked into my class last year and moved my heart. He looked sad most of the time. He had a face that belonged to a baby, a gait that belonged to a toddler and dark skin. He was an easy target for bullying. He was quiet. The kind of quiet that is unnerving in a classroom. After a few weeks into the first term I asked him to sit in the front of the classroom rather than with the rest of the boys in the class. He wasn't as smart nor as sharp as the other boys who formed a pack I referred to as "The fearsome five". I had all the naughty Grade 8 boys in my class and on the periphery was X yearning to be accepted by the crew. As the year unfolded I watched how he changed from being a quiet boy whose presence unnerved me and he became a ball of anger. He created a wall around himself and his only weapon was his foul mouth. He became rude and belligerent. I heard him use words that made me blush. He tried to defend himself from the barrage of insults from "the fearsome five" by retorting with harsh insults while I tried to teach.

My only solution was to call him aside. I tried talking to him about his behaviour. I did most of the talking because in a teacher's presence he became a scared mouse. I didn't get through to him. I knew he was going to fail the grade and end up in my class again. I tried to intervene with " the fearsome five" as well but they became a hopeless cause and the reason for most of my angst last year.

I was partly relieved when X walked into my Grade 8 English class again this year. I tried to encourage him so that he would see this year as a second chance. I implored him not to make the same mistakes as last year but rather to speak to me when there was a problem. I sent an email to the Grade Head expressing my concern about him and I think he started visiting the school councillor. Sadly I had to watch him being taunted by the boys who had progressed into Grade 9 and I watched how he tried to befriend the new boys in his Grade 8 class. I tried to ignore the snickering his new friends made whenever I asked him to answer a question.

So when he raised his voice this morning, telling me to leave his blazer alone, I knew he had dagga in his blazer. I was stumped. I didn't have the script to deal with this kind of problem. I racked my brain for words and eventually decided to take on my mother's persona when she's angry. I spoke softly asking him questions I already knew the answers to. He begged me to make the problem go away by throwing the dagga away. I was crestfallen. I stammered trying to find other words to convince him that making the problem go away wasn't an option. I found myself repeating over and over again that there are consequences to his kind of foolishness. I also heard myself repeating that I cared about him and that he had to trust me. I don't know why I said that to him but eventually he calmed down and we decided that he had only two options: go to the police station at that moment or go and speak to the Grade Head. He opted for the latter. And thus he was no longer my responsibility.

The rest of my day was fuzzy. I felt like a sucker. I was sad. Given the broader context of education where dagga and bullying are the norm I realised I would never be able to cope in "the real world" of education. My strangely sheltered childhood and confusing youth have rendered my hopeless when it comes to the reality of a teenage life. Drugs, bullying, experimenting and trying to fit in are what make the teenage experience. But when it happens to a child like X I have to wonder, is he simply being a teenager or is this a cry for help? Am I simply navel-gazing or is there something that could have been done to help him make better choices?

Today I was faint-hearted. And the faint-heartedness will remain as there are many children like X, trying to make sense of the world and making stupid mistakes along the way.


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