I am currently reading the book Where I Belong by Alan Doyle. Alan Doyle is a musician, best known for his work in the band Great Big Sea; the band seems to be on indefinite hiatus, and Alan has been recording and performing as a solo artist since then. He is also known for playing Alan A’Dale in Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood movie (the similar name is a coincidence). The book is a memoir about Alan’s childhood in Petty Harbour, a tiny fishing village outside of St. John’s, Newfoundland. One story he told in that book really struck a chord with me.
Alan writes about a mean teacher he had in his early teens. He was the extreme stereotypical Catholic school teacher, with all the associated ruler-hitting, but also with verbal abuse involving telling Alan that he would never be a man. Many years later, as an adult, Alan ran into the mean teacher’s brother; he recognized Alan from knowing his music career, and knowing that Alan was from Petty Harbour, he asked if he ever had his brother as a teacher. Alan didn’t have the heart to tell him how much he disliked his brother and how much he had been hurt, particularly when the man spoke of how his brother had taken care of their ailing mother, and how his brother had recently passed away himself of a long-term illness.
As a teacher, it often haunts me to think about how many kids I have had this impression on. How many kids have I hurt because I was having a bad day? How many bright young minds have been turned off of math, or of school in general, because they bore the brunt of my overreacting?
I remember one guy from my most difficult year. He was a capable student who preferred to act like a wannabe gangbanger. For a while, though, we did have a point of connection in that he really liked Star Wars. One day, his class just wouldn’t be quiet, I couldn’t hear myself talk over all the noise, and I just blew up at them. This student in particular was being disrespectful, and I think I screamed at him and slammed his book down on the desk. I really don’t remember everything, because I tend to block out these shameful and painful memories. After that incident, they moved him out of my class. The vice principal told me that the student told him that my tantrum reminded him of his abusive father, who he had not seen in several years but who also used to blow up like that. I felt so bad after that, and after they moved him out of my class, I went and found him during my prep period and apologized, and told him that I had given in to the Dark Side.
My first year teaching, there was a girl who just didn’t seem to like me, which is totally normal for high school juniors and seniors. New teachers don’t know how things are done in their world, so the older students tend to think they don’t have to do anything that the new teacher tells them. She fit that description, and math wasn’t her strong subject to begin with. I said something in a phone call with her mom along these lines, and somehow it came across that she thought I was calling her daughter a spoiled brat or something like that. She complained to the principal, and we had a conference with her mother in which the principal told me that my choice of words was inappropriate. I honestly don’t remember exactly what I said.
I’m only human. Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone has bad days. It has been many years since I have seen either of these students, but they, and many others, probably still have very bad memories of my class. I can attempt to apologize, but the damage has been done. Sure, I know that there have been many students who have enjoyed my classes and learned a lot from me, but it still hurts to know that I have failed so badly sometimes. I can learn from those mistakes. I can think before I speak and walk away from frustrating situations so that I don’t overreact in the future.
More importantly, when I’m on the receiving end of this kind of thing, when someone is mistreating me, I can make an effort to understand what’s going on in the other person’s head. Alan Doyle didn’t know what his teacher was going through. Those who have been mean to me over the years have their own sets of issues that I can’t begin to understand. And my students don’t understand what I’m going through when I’m having a bad day. All we can do is try our best to be patient and forgiving and understanding.