On the first day of school, I observed my class of seventh-graders. All thirty were listening attentively to my every word. Having been a teacher for over three decades, I knew this “honeymoon-phase” would not last forever.
I commented on all the new shoes adorning my students’ feet. Then I noticed Sergio who was wearing an old scuffed up pair of black Converse. Quickly, trying to protect this kid’s ego, I added, “I have new shoes, but I decided to wear my old comfortable pair today.”
The boy stepped up to protect me. “That’s okay, Mr. Ramsey,” he said. “I wore my comfortable shoes today too.”
One morning, a few weeks later, Sergio informed me that his heart was beating fast.
Frantically looking for the nurse passes, I cried, “Are you okay? Do you need me to call for help?”
“No,” he explained, “my heartbeat is different in each of my classes. I like your class. In here, my heart always runs fast. In some of my other classes, it’s hardly beating at all.”
Teaching middle school would be easy if it weren’t for hormones. Those dastardly chemicals flow in full force, daily transforming the personalities of my kids. I’ve learned that a teacher needs to be creative in his reaction to adolescent behavior and attitude and to grant every child a fresh start each new day.
Sergio was not immune to the plight of puberty. One day he opted to disrupt those sitting near him instead of writing. I knew he loved learning new words – the bigger the better. Rather than reprimanding him outright, I slipped him a little note: “Wish you could work ‘unobtrusively,’ Sergio.”
I received a silent, quizzical look. “Quietly,” I defined. “Non-interrupting.”
He repeated the new five-syllable term and then settled down to his composition. I knew he had mastered the word when, a few moments later, he loudly chastised a chattering classmate. “Do you think you could work a little more unobtrusively?” he hollered.
The hormones hit hard a few weeks later, creating yet another mutation of Sergio. He sat at his desk looking depressed. Twenty times I asked him what was wrong. Twenty times he replied, “Nothing. I’m fine.”
At lunch time, he approached me in the cafeteria. “Can I eat with you?” he asked.
“Sure,” I replied. “You okay?”
“Yes,” he said with a sigh. “I told you I was.”
“I know,” I said. “But you’re a kid. You might just be saying that to get me off your back.”
He smirked. We began walking to my classroom.
“Where’s your tray?” I asked.
“I’m not hungry. The food here is nasty.
“Want some of mine?”
“No, it’s nasty.”
“Thanks. I picked it out myself. What’s bothering you?”
“I’m okay,” he insisted, heading into the room.
He opened his laptop and began working.
“Are you hungry?”
“You getting enough to eat at home?”
“Your mom doing okay?”
“Yes. I told you, I don’t live with my dad.”
“I know. You tell me that every day. I just wanted to know if he is okay.”
“How about your sister?”
“I only have one grandmother. Everyone else is dead.”
“I’m sorry. I bet they’d be really proud of you.”
“I’m worried something is bothering you. Somebody bullying you?”
“No, I’m just tired.”
“You sure you’re okay?”
“Would you tell me if you weren’t?”
I stared at him.
He giggled. “Yeah, I’d tell you.”
“That’s good. The door is always open, kid. You’re always welcome.”
He came back the next day.
“Where’s your food?” I asked
“It’s n…” he began.
I cut him off. “Wait! You said ‘nasty’ yesterday. You can’t use the word more than once.
The wordsmith could not suggest a replacement. So I offered, “abhorrent.
“Ab…what?” he asked.
“You left out the ‘h’. Let’s try it again. Abhorrent.”
He practiced the word all the way to the classroom.
“How do you say it in Spanish?” I asked.
Google Translate helped: “Aborrecible.”
“Teach me how to say it,” I said.
The boy slowly enunciated for me. “Ah-bor-Ray-see-Blay.”
“You should do your work now,” I suggested. “Your grade is abhorrent – aborrecible.”
“That’s what my Mom thinks,” he revealed. “She told me I had to give up lunch recess until my grades improve.”
“Great!” I teased. “I get to lose my free time too!”
The boy rolled his eyes.
A month later, puberty presented me with “Stubborn Sergio.” He refused to follow directions in my class and in his second class as well. I pulled him from his third class.
“What is your Mom’s number?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” the boy sassed. “Look it up in your computer.”
I took a deep breath. I loved this kid, but I refused to put up with disrespect.
“You know, I have a better idea,” I replied, writing an office pass. “You can go ask the secretary for your Mom’s number and then return. I’ll be right here. You see, I have a job to do. Soon as you get back, we can let your Mama know what her baby boy is doing today.”
Despite his brave exterior, Sergio was mortified that he had to talk to someone in the office. He looked at me with pleading eyes.
I pointed to the door. “Goodbye, Sergio. Try to be respectful to the ladies there. They’re my friends.”
He returned ten minutes later and handed me the numbers. “You’ll have to wait. Like I said. I’m working. We can call once everyone starts writing. Sorry, I won’t be able to offer you a totally private moment. You don’t mind if the others listen, do you?”
Sergio let out a deep sigh and sat at a chair in the back of the room.
After dragging out the lesson, I sat with the boy and dialed his mother’s cell phone. Of course, I got voice mail. But, of course, I left a lengthy message.
“Can I go now?” he said with a huff.
“No, I want you to stay right here and get your work done. For starters, you could do the paper I assigned first hour. Not sure what exactly kept you from getting that done. But, no problem, you’ve got all the time in the world right now to finish it.
He opened his computer, and I opened my own. I used our online monitoring app to watch him work.
At one point, I opened the “chat” feature and typed, “Really disappointed in how you acted.”
He responded, “sorry.”
“Wow,” I replied. “Pretty lean response from one of my favorite kids, You can do better. I thought you loved words.”
“Better. Still pretty weak for such a vociferous and intellectual young man.”
It took him a while to type, “Thank you, sir.”
“I am really disappointed in the way you behaved today. I did not deserve the disrespect.”
Another long pause. Finally: “You are right. I am really sorry for letting you down and for acting the way I did.”
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, counting backwards from ten. Then I typed:
Copyright, Tim Ramsey, 2019.