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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

And Londell cursed.

Once upon a time, in a classroom far, far away, I had a student whose memory sticks with me to this day. (Do you ever feel like your first years teaching are a lifetime away? I do!)

Let's call this young man Londell. Londell was a small, loud, angry 17 year old boy trapped in my freshman English class.

And Londell cursed.

I don't mean the occasional cuss slipped out, I mean he cursed like he breathed. I never heard him utter a sentence without at least one inappropriate word in it.

It bothered me, but it seemed habitual more than disrespectful. Instead of responding by assigning consequences, I responded the same way every time:

"That language is not appropriate in this classroom, Londell."

A funny thing happened. The other students picked up the mantra. Before long, I didn't need to say anything to anyone. The automatic chorused response to any inappropriate language became completely habitual.

Londell had this chanted at him at least a dozen times a day. Other students experienced it less frequently. It was never said with malice. It was just a fact. That language was not appropriate in my classroom.

Students were expected to own their language choices and we often discussed the good, or bad, impression language choices can make on others. As one person put it: "Cussing makes people think you stupid 'cause you got no other words." That about sums it up, really.

Anyway, in the wake of our chorused reminder, I always asked students to "try again" or "rephrase" (this was before "code-switching" became a buzz word in our local educational parlance).

It was annoying to have class routinely interrupted, but less annoying that thoughtless cursing. And the number of interruptions did decrease over time.

One day, Londell and I had an encounter of a different kind.

I was handing out a short quiz (vocabulary or maybe grammar, I don't remember). I got to Londell's seat and as I had done with everyone else, I made sure his desk was clear and then handed him his copy of the quiz.

He snatched it out of my hand quite violently and exclaimed "That ain't how you s'posed to give it to me, you s'posed to throw that shit on my desk like this!" and he demonstrated with a careless toss of the paper onto his desk. We watched it skid to a stop on his neighbor's desk.

The chorus was thankfully silent. Everyone else was already absorbed in the task at hand and Londell had been quieter than usual.

I smiled. Quietly, I said "Londell, I know you don't want to take this quiz and you are hoping I will get upset and put you out so you don't have to try. That's not happening and that's not how I hand out papers, I respect you too much for that."

He peered up at me suspiciously, then glanced around to see if anyone else was listening. When he saw no one was paying attention, he muttered "I dunno none a this stuff."

"Maybe," I said, "maybe not. You'll never know until you try" and I walked away.

Londell took his quiz. He failed it. He got a 50%. That was 50% more than he thought he could do. I made a note on his paper to that effect, I don't remember the exact words.

A few days later, I noticed a new and exciting phenomenon: Londell caught himself cussing. Not all the time and not in time always, but he tried to monitor his own language. He had never done that before.

I was thrilled. My strategy for dealing with the careless cussing was having an impact. A lot I tried in those early years did NOT work.

Unfortunately, my enthusiasm took a serious hit the next week. Because even though I was gradually getting through to Londell, even though I was seeing my classroom environment improve, it wasn't enough. Londell got into a massive fight and was expelled.

I never saw him again. It broke my heart and lightened my load. Without him, that section of English went more smoothly almost every day. Still, I missed him.

Londell's story is a sad one for me. It isn't a story of success or real change. It doesn't challenge expectations or show how much of a difference teachers make. I don't know what happened to Londell. I doubt his memory of me is as clear or meaningful as my memory of him.

But it did teach me an important lesson: If I keep trying, eventually, I will find things that work, that make a difference. And if I look closely, I can find small victories almost every day. That is a good thing.

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