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Friday, March 4, 2016

DJ broke my last nerve

A number of years ago, I had the privilege of teaching a 90 minute per day ELA course to 9th graders who had been identified as catastrophically disorganized, in need of significant additional time on task with an instructor, and/or had reading and writing skills multiple years below grade level.

It was AWESOME! Yes, I had the students who needed the most academic support. Yes, I had some students who asked for love, and help, in the most unloving and unhelpful ways. Yes, it was a challenge.

But I had the greatest gift: TIME. Twice as much instructional time for the same curriculum and objectives meant we could slow down and reteach and repeat and individualize and redo and rethink.  It meant we could teach to mastery.

For the most part, my students were well-behaved and eager to learn (as much so as any adolescent, at least). I had a few who took some coaxing and several who resisted.

And then there was DJ. DJ broke my last nerve. I mean jumped up and down on that nerve until it snapped and whipped him in the face so hard he didn't know what hit him.

DJ had a diagnosis of ADHD. Though hugely, over-diagnosed, I think the diagnosis was accurate in this case.  DJ was expected to arrive at school in the bus, get breakfast, and report to the nurse's office to take his medication.

He followed this routine religiously...about 15 minutes late.  Every day.

He arrived at school. He got his breakfast. He lingered until the bell rang. Then he lied. He told the secretary in the office that the nurse wouldn't let him in after the bell without a pass. He told the nurse he needed a signed pass to get into class.

He came to class 5 or 10 or 15 minutes late with a signed pass. In our school, a signed pass equaled an excused tardy.

Then he clowned his fool head off for 15 minutes until his dosage kicked in. He wasn't mean-spirited, or intentionally off task, or disrespectful.  He also wasn't quiet, or on task, or following directions. He was a bundle of 14 year old energy whizzing around the room disrupting everyone with antics largely beyond his control.

I talked to DJ. I talked to his mom (we were on a first name basis by week 3). I talked to his counselor and his principal. I tried every strategy ever suggested over and over and over again.

Nothing helped. And it was hard to hold it against him because after that first 15 minutes he would settle down and be a silly, intelligent, fun-loving, hard-working JOY to have in class.

One day, he pushed me too far. I do not recall what he finally did that pushed me over the edge. I don't remember what exactly I said, or yelled, to him. I remember I put him out of class and sent him to the office. I remember the rest of my class sat in stunned silence.

Above all, I remember I saved every pass I was ever given. I got out my basket of passes and I sifted through them as the lesson progressed. I stapled every pass DJ had handed me to his referral.

He got 10 days of In School Suspension. He got 10 days because he lied. He lied to his momma and said the bus was late. He lied to his secretary to get that blue pass. He lied to the nurse to get that blue pass signed.

The principal told me he straight out sobbed when he realized how much trouble he was in and what his consequence would be.

DJ is a Junior in college this year with an athletic scholarship and a decent GPA. While he was still in high school, I asked him if I could use his story to help my students understand my management style. He said yes. He said he would never do anything like that ever again. And he didn't.

Before he graduated DJ came to see me. He told me getting caught out like that had changed his life. He explained that he had never really been in trouble before and realized he never wanted to be in trouble like that again. He thanked me for, as he put it "squashing me flat" when he broke my last nerve.

That is a good thing. And each year I tell DJ's story, it is a good thing. I still get hot just thinking about how angry I was at DJ that day.

It makes me smile when I think about how far DJ has come and will go in life.

It teaches my incoming students what happens when they test my limits too fiercely.

And it reminds me that I am not perfect and I lose my temper occasionally, and that it is ok as long as I am careful to love the child even when I hate the behavior.

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