The average Special Education teacher’s career lasts a grand total of approximately two years. It’s the one fact I remember on the road to my Master’s Degree. Actually, remember two. I also remember that teaching in the inner city is the second most stressful job in these United States, next to being an inner city cop. And of course, cops have guns.
My first year teaching “Severely Emotionally Disturbed & Socially Maladjusted” adolescents came complete with a two hundred pounder who I suspected didn’t quite like me — at least that was my impression upon hearing his not too infrequent threats to “beat my ass.”
Attempts on my part to gain his confidence, or at least defuse the situation proved futile. So I tried humoring him, or myself, by telling him that he’d just have to wait his turn on line like everyone else, which wasn’t that far from the truth.
For students already complete with long histories of disruptive behavior, like fighting other students and teachers alike, my skinny self provided a most opportune target.
My trusted classroom assistant, a graduate himself of NYC “600 schools” (public schools for problem youth back in the day prior to Spec. Ed. When teachers were allotted an extra $600 for their added woe), advised me in a quiet aside, “You know you have to deal with that.” His wry smile echoed my very thoughts, if I was to have any control of the class, any modicum of respect from the students, it was, very much, on me. Nodding, I replied, “When he makes his move.”
Whenever I can restrain a student during a physical altercation, that is the course I take. Some people don’t seem to understand however, that restraining someone can be harder, much harder than just plain fighting the person. If physically attacked, and my personal safety and well being are at serious risk, as far as I’m concerned, the professional teacher-student relationship has been checked at the door.
Said student outweighed me by over fifty pounds, so when he made a point of knocking me back into the blackboard with a forearm smash when I attempted to retrieve whatever he snatched off my desk, I bounced off and went for broke. Speed and surprise would have to offset the weight differential, as I hit him with everything I had, as quickly and as often as my fists would allow. If I were going to the hospital, I would do my best to make sure he joined me.
Fact was, all he had to do was pick me up and throw me. Instead, he panicked. The oversized bag of bluster quickly folded into a huddled mass of tears. He never contemplated that he himself would get hit, never conceived something smaller ever capable of toppling a more formidable land mass. Ego and physics aside, he returned to class the very next day, not a mark on him, not a care in the world. Unbeknownst to him, I screamed in silence every time I held a pen or grasped a piece of chalk for well over a week, his chin having made a lasting impression on my writing hand — but he never did threaten me again.
Several months into the school year, his mother (who appeared to have a connection or two in the school system) arranged to have him reassessed by an off site evaluator, of which he made no small mention. Mom never believed her son had a behavior issue in the first place, so they were clearly off to bigger and better things once given the green light for a school with a “less restrictive environment.”
Running up the stairs after lunch one day, he collided into said evaluator, nearly tripping and falling over his own two feet. Turning and glaring at the person he had almost knocked over, he exclaimed, “What the fuck you looking at?” Assigned to escort her to meet with him that afternoon, I managed to retain my composure as I pointed out that that was indeed, the very student that she had been sent to revaluate.
She looked at me; I looked at her. She turned around and left, meeting adjourned.
He would stay with me the remainder of the year, my belief in divine intervention renewed. Perhaps it’s been that same guiding hand that has seen me through fifteen years of threats, and threats made good. I’d be a fool, and a very broken fool at that, if I thought I could fight my way out of every perceived danger. My students, make no mistake, are damaged goods — damaged by an environment that has assaulted them since birth, a society that has abandoned them by choice. Their intervention, divine or otherwise, still awaits.