I’ve been teaching high school and middle school on and off for almost two decades now. I specialize in working with “the problem kids,” particularly boys with hyperactivity/ attention related challenges, where the traditional framework of the educational institution is inflexible in providing ideal support. I thought I had seen everything. I thought I was really good at my job.
It’s funny when we start to believe in ourselves, all the little tricks our ego plays on us, the diversions, the distractions and false warnings.
Now, I don’t mean to be dramatic, but I’m a leo, so cut me a little slack, here while I paint the scene.
It was a beautiful day in Waimea, Big Island. The sun was out; Mauna Kea had just the faintest sprinkling of snow atop, and you could see the telescopes clearly. The nenes were honking in the football field, and I was substitute Spanish teaching for a friend’s 9th and 10th grade Spanish classes. It was the last period of a beautiful and, to be honest, quite straight forward and easy day.
I’ve been riding easy the past few days; with the wake of a false missile alert behind us here in Hawai’i, I’ve taken a few moments to pause and have put some larger learning I’ve been working on on hold to simply allow my self to be more present and accepting of each moment.
So this is really the story of how the big learning… well… it don’t just wait because you say, I’m taking today off, thank you very much.
As the students of the Spanish class file in, some recognize me from when I taught them in middle school; they come up and say hello. Class settles down, and I introduce myself. The entire class- to sum it all up, ended a full 15 minutes early, because of one boy.
His missions: get out of class early, not do his homework, distract himself, me and the other students for whatever reason- essentially he is the archetypal adolescent student whose arrogance and unsteady self-esteem mandates everyone’s attention- all the time.
Usually, I’m okay with this; I get it. I’m a leo. I, too, want to be noticed by everyone- at times. I too, enjoy the limelight. Well… certain types of limelight.
Long story short, after forty-five minutes of tolerating his arrogant interrupting, demands, and over all lack of listening and general disruptive, disrespectful and inappropriate behavior, everything escalated to his loud demands that I read his mind in front of the entire class (he found out what I do outside of subbing his class) I was over it.
Everything that I knew to do to manage disruptive students was not working; not only that, when I told him to be quiet and listen, he interrupted me- repeatedly, expressing an arrogance and lack of respect that astonished me and knocked the wind right out of me. I realized he was viewing me as an equal- not his teacher. To him, I was not someone worthy of his respect; I was not someone he valued enough to even politely request something with the word ‘please.”
So I let him have it quite brutally in front of the entire class.
Let’s just say, it was not my finest moment. In fact, it felt ugly. He apologized for being rude and disrespectful; I still was not satisfied and continued to berate him for being so arrogant to assume that I would do whatever he wanted, simply because he wanted it… now.
I’m still angry about it, mostly because, being a leo, I use anger to mask my sadness and soft mushy bits that feel hurt. So really, I’m not angry about it. I’m sad about it. There, I said it!
In fact, the scene itself brought all sorts of adolescent traumatic memories back for me, and as I walked back behind the teacher’s desk, I overhead students whispering to each other, “this is so weird,” and others requesting to leave the classroom to get some air, which I would have as well, but I suddenly felt choked, stuck, and wholly unable to do anything as I remembered all the times in my own life where I felt my power, my mastery and my abilities be eclipsed by an arrogant friend, colleague or peer, by someone whom I believed had more integrity.
All I wanted to do was crawl under the desk and hide. The room was pregnant in the silence my anger generated, and even I was grossed out by it, full of sadness and regret.
It was intense. The kid asked to get up and leave the room and I told him no, that he had screwed around enough and could sit still and quiet for a moment, because he had refused to listen to me all class, he could listen now.
What I did not anticipate was that I would still be ruminating on it, hours later, that I would be sad, and hurt, and angry at the way I comported myself, because I was the adult, I I was supposed to be the expert and the teacher, and I went into that situation- acutely aware that I might be having to deal with challenging students like him, and my own arrogance said,
“Nah, Amy, you can handle it.”
I was disappointed in myself, because in all my abilities and mastery, I had not only let these students down- I’m pretty sure, though they will NEVER forget me. It’s just not the type of unforgettable teacher moment I truly wanted to create.
I was disheartened, because I saw his arrogance, manifested as hyper-activity, insecurity, the class clown, and I related to it. I empathized so deeply with it, and I shouted at it, because that is what my experience as a student and a teacher- and my reaction- told me to do.
I realized he and I are pretty similar.
I was angry, because so many times in my school experience I wanted to ask my teachers,
“Hey, what the heck am I doing this for anyway? Do I even have to do this?” and,
“Who are you to be teaching me this?”
“Why should I believe what you say?”
I always lacked the nerve to do it. I always operated from a place of blind acceptance, and here was this kid, hardly arrived in puberty, not giving a shit and demanding that I prove myself and my mastery to him simply because he was entitled to it.
I’m a pretty laid back teacher; very little sets me off. Unbridled arrogance and blatant rudeness, well, you all know my achilles heal now.
He questioned me, who I am, where I am from, and why I am what I am; he transgressed all the boundaries I set up for myself and my students- all at once, I was stripped away to raw nerves, and I found myself, oddly enough, questioning my own expertise, wondering if I was, in fact, a good teacher, someone who deserved to be instructing students. All of a sudden, I was awash in someone else’s insecurity. This feeling, it was not mine, was it? I do not think of myself as an insecure person generally, but there it was, screaming at me, this doubt, this anxiety and fear that perhaps, I was just a big pile of nobody.
And I didn’t like the feeling, because I had lost control and authority over my environment to someone who snatched it up from me, not because he deserved it, but because he believed he could possess it. And I just gave it to him at first, until I realized that it was not his to take, and I fought back. I fought back brutally; inside I was a mess of every complicated emotion I felt as a teen that I had squashed down and told to be quiet. I was boiling over, and all because of a student who felt it was his right to push me, the teacher, around.
So let me back-peddle for a moment here…
When my husband, Corey, and I received the false alarm warning on Saturday, we were driving down to Kona through a lava field.
“Ballistic missile threat in bound to Hawaii. Seek immediate Shelter. This is not a drill.”
Corey and I looked around. On all sides for miles was nothing but lava. There was no where to hide. Both of us doubted the validity of the text, and my brain got overwhelmed, because so much of me has been trained to trust authority implicitly, and so much of my childhood and adult life has guided me towards blind acceptance of whatever authority says.
When Authority in school said something, over the years, I beat the revolutionary out of me and did it, without question, and have been reclaiming the awareness now for decades that authorities don’t generally know what is going on any more than I do. But this emergency alert did not feel real. This was not true. I felt it is in my heart it was not true, but the official alert system was telling me it was real. If I denied its validity, was I risking my life? If I accepted it, what then?
Ultimately, the alert was a mistake. There was no missile threat, but I’ve been straddling this awkward balance beam between trusting authority because it says it is the authority and revolting against it for a long long while now.
So it makes sense that my role as an authority- as a teacher- get pulled into examination. It makes sense that as I question the role and importance of a teacher as a leader, a guide, it is also important- for some- to understand that boundaries are needed- in any life situation. One of those boundaries I need is mutual respect and kindness. I believe the world would be a better place if authorities possessed a bit more of that.
So it was kind of awesome, really watching this student piss me off me so deeply. He was totally disruptive, totally rude, and totally revolutionary, because there I stood, manifesting everything I absolutely did not want to be as a teacher as I threw down major boundaries with this student- and all the shitty, vindictive, gross, shameful qualities of an authority figure that I do not want to be, that I do not believe in and do not want to create, barfed out of me in a crazy mess of words, emotion and fear.
I felt as if I lost control of my classroom, because I was inhabiting a space of authority I do not believe in, do not want to be, and is the opposite of everything I stand for. There I was, angry that he was asserting his own authority, and I was afraid to assert mine in the way I knew I could. I was afraid to revolt, afraid to invite disruptive chaotic energy into my own space, and see what happens to my own ability to be an authority.
But, well… isn’t that how change happens?
Don’t we have to lose all control- all identification and ownership over what we think we know- so we can open to to the revolutionary- and often disruptive qualities- that change brings with it?
Wasn’t this kid, with all of his annoying and disrespectful qualities, actually gifting me with this amazing opportunity to be a revolutionary in my personal relationship with the power within me and how I share it with others?
And wasn’t he, through his disruptive actions, begging me to be powerful, begging me to assert authority and give him a structure through which he could realize his own best version of himself?
Oh man! I totally failed the test. Instead of jumping on the band wagon of change, I balked, stopped, and stuck my head in the metaphorical sand… At least, I did at first.
In a split second, this student taught me more about the work I have to do in my life around flowing in harmony with my truth and listening to what I know is best and embodying true abundance in every moment than I could ever hope to teach him about Formal commands in a 80 minute Spanish class.
How ironic that I was teaching them about formal commands that day; doubly so that his name means “water” in Hawaiian