Friday, November 28, 2014

Conversations on the Rifle Range 17: Boundaries of Behavior, Parallelograms, and the Art of Forgiveness

Barry Garelick, who wrote various letters under the name Huck Finn, published here, is at work writing what will become "Conversations on the Rifle Range". This will be a documentation of his experiences teaching math as a long-term substitute. OILF proudly presents episode number 17:

There are a variety of methods one can use to discipline students: detentions, referrals, sending the student outside of class, contacting the parents. I was confused about most of them and resisted using them. Lunch-time detentions were especially tricky because of a dual lunch schedule at my school. Because of the limited space for lunch there were two lunch periods for the two grades. This meant that during the eighth grade lunch period, I was teaching my fourth period class (pre-algebra).

The first person I ever referred was Peter in my fifth period algebra 1 class. He showed disrespect in a number of ways. He would sometimes say in a sarcastic Eddie-Haskell-like tone: “I think you made a mistake—oh but I know you’re a great teacher,” which would elicit knowing giggles from others. One time when he was particularly disruptive, I sent him outside which in this school meant outdoors. The school was a collection of modules—all classrooms opened to the outdoors. Sandra, another disrupter, waved to him on his way out and called “We love you, Peter.” He has a fan club, I thought—just what I need.

Her seat was next to the wall on the other side of which Peter now stood. She pounded on the wall to get his attention. I heard the pounding, and saw Peter’s head appear in the window as he jumped up to see what was going on. Not knowing the details of the event, I assumed wrongly that Peter had been doing the pounding. I got him back inside and gave him a referral. As I filled out the form, Peter protested and Sandra quickly confessed. “It was me who was pounding on the wall,” she said. I knew Sandra was telling the truth but I decided I had no time for details; the die had been cast. I needed an example. Plus, if the class thought I was acting irrationally or in error, then it was a signal that they better be quiet and not risk my irrational actions.

My referral was thus performed as an irrevocable act. I called the office and said that I was referring Peter and he was on his way. I then turned to Peter and handed him the completed form. “They’re waiting for you.” Butter would not have melted in my mouth.

It worked. The class was like a tomb. I remember thinking “I didn’t mean for them to be this quiet.” But I went on as if nothing had happened and the class noise level eventually increased—but not to its usual level. At the end of class Sandra again confessed and told me she would give herself an after-school detention. “That’s fine,” I said and thought it a good opportunity to give her some of the tutoring that she desperately needed. She would keep putting it off and would not show up; I never pushed the issue.

The next day I dreaded my fifth period algebra class, knowing I would have to confront Peter. I didn’t know how that would go, or even if there would be one. Earlier that day, I sent out a boy named Chad in my third period pre-algebra class. He was noisy, and given to saying “Sweet Jesus!” when amused or surprised or frustrated, and would make what I thought to be frog-like croaking sounds. After hearing such a croaking sound I told him to go outside. He croaked “Why?” and I explained “Those croaking noises are precisely the reason I’m sending you outside.” He left and the class became tomb-like as had my algebra class the day before. After a few minutes, I went outside to talk with Chad.

“I want you to control your outbursts. I know you’re a nice boy and can do this work, but I can’t have the class disrupted like this.”

“Well I wish you’d tell Bryan to stop barkin’ like a dog!” he said. While I was unaware of Bryan’s dog imitations, this was the first time I heard Chad in conversation. Except for outbursts, he did not participate in class. I suddenly realized that Chad’s croaking was his natural voice—perhaps the first stage of a changing voice which starts around middle school for most boys. I felt terrible. I told him I’d keep an eye on Bryan.

What with behavior boundaries established (and clarified) we went back inside where I proceeded to demonstrate a more mathematical view of boundaries—namely that the area of a parallelogram is the same as that of a rectangle. I did it by means of magnetic shapes I had made that stuck to the whiteboard. The parallelogram had a right triangle indicated as below. “Now it so happens that this triangle…”

The class didn’t let me finish and many shouted: “You can move it to the other side!”

Which I did, thus transforming the parallelogram into a rectangle without altering its area. “Sweet Jesus!” Chad croaked. I took this as a Q.E.D. for my informal proof.

The day wore on until at last the fifth period that I had been dreading arrived. Peter came into the room and said "Hi, Mr. G!" I greeted him back with a wave and while I began taking attendance he asked "Do you hate me, Mr. G?"

"I don't hate you and I never have,” I said. “I felt you were showing me disrespect so I gave you a referral."

"I wasn't disrespectful yesterday," he said.

"You've been disrespectful for quite some time. I think you know that." He nodded and said nothing else. I realized then that no matter what disciplinary action is taken, it necessitates the equally important act of reconciliation. Our brief conversation was it, and we moved on.

I could feel a chill that day amongst the people who were his friends. Perhaps they felt as I did 50 years ago when, one day during spring semester, I mouthed off to Mr. Dombey, my algebra teacher. He raised his voice and I felt he hated me just as Peter felt I hated him. I remember feeling betrayed, then confused. I don’t recall how it was reconciled; I just remember that the next day it no longer mattered. I knew where the boundary was, and things were both different and the same.


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