Thursday, October 19, 2006

School protest

Reading about the protests at Gallaudet reminds me of the school protest I participated in when I was a student in a Washington DC school.

I lived in DC for one year when I was in the sixth grade. My mother enrolled me in Ben W. Murch Elementary School because it was near her office and we didn't yet have a permanent address. Subsequently, her office moved downtown and we moved to Mt. Pleasant, but I stayed in the school.

It was a bad year in the DC public school system and many teachers were "RIFed" (RIF=reduction in force). Because of the RIFing, my class did not have a teacher for the first couple of weeks of school. Instead, we sat in the classroom of Mrs. Jackson, the part-time teacher for the gifted and talented students. Mrs. Jackson had a fearsome reputation--she was said to have once been so angered that she threw a desk out the window. Her temper fascinated and pacified us. She was an excellent teacher and we felt privileged to be her students, even if it were only temporary--especially because our class was far from being "gifted and talented."

Mom had been trying to get me in the advanced/gifted programs at all of my schools ever since I took a reading test in the second grade that showed I was reading at an eighth grade level. Mom didn't expect me to be so smart--mostly because she assumed I was a normal kid. I wasn't precocious--I didn't walk, talk or read early. But when I finally did start talking and reading, you couldn't stop me. Mom always credited my reading skills to my first grade teacher (another Mrs. Jackson), who pushed me to learn to read. After that year, I didn't take my nose out of a book for...well, ever, really. I spent a lot of time in my room reading, and Mom would yell at me to go outside and play.

When my mother enrolled me at Murch, she talked to the principal and was assured that I would not be tracked (or, if I were, it would be with the "smart" kids.) Her efforts were to no avail, though, and I was put in the smallest of three sixth grade classes--there were twenty-one students and I was clearly the twenty-first. The kids in my class were a combination of poor testers, fighters and emotional basket cases. A few had been suspended for fighting or other offenses. Most of them had been in the school since the first grade and knew each other well. I came into this group and had an impossible time making friends. I was outside the outsiders.

Because of their (our) outsider status, these kids were especially gratified to be the students of the revered Mrs. Jackson. I remember enjoying those two weeks with her tremendously. Then, one day, it was over. Mrs. Jackson announced that our new teacher, Mrs. Fonville, would be coming to take us to our new classroom and that we should line up and behave. She left us on our own for a few minutes and we all sat silent and stunned. We started to discuss our options.

"They can't make us go, can they?"

"I don't know."

"What should we do?"

"We just won't get up. We won't line up."

"Hey--I know--let's tie our shoelaces to our desks."

I can't remember who suggested it, but we decided that it was the perfect form of protest. We all leaned down and tied our shoe laces to our desks. I remember the nervousness in the air. We were excited and a little scared. My heart was racing.

Mrs. Fonville appeared in the doorway. She was a tall woman with a large torso set on spindly legs. She had a broad face and looked very determined. "Class," she said, "line up!"

We sat, silent, staring.

"Class--line up! Is there a problem?"

Brian, one of the dopiest boys in class, raised his hand, "We can't get up."

Mrs. Fonville said, "Why not?" I looked around, meeting the petrified eyes of my classmates.

Brian answered, "Because we tied our shoelaces to our desks."

"Well, UNTIE THEM." And we did. "Hurry up!" We hurried.

We lined up behind Mrs. Fonville and marched across the hall to our new classroom. When we were seated, she gave us a short lecture. "I don't ever want to see that kind of ATTITUDE again. I'm going to be hard. You are going to READ a lot. I like LITERATURE and we will be reading a lot of LITERATURE this year. I don't care if you like it or not. THAT IS WHAT YOU WILL DO."

She was absolutely terrifying. Of course, I didn't mind the threats to make us read; that's all I did anyway. But her tone! It was chilling. It was probably not the speech she planned to give, but she knew she had to do something to keep us from acting up. And I'll be damned if it didn't work. She was quite a good teacher and our rag-tag class retained a certain solidarity throughout the year. At first, we were united against Mrs. Fonville. So much so, that what would have usually earned me pariah status--my above average intelligence--became a boasting point when I got the highest score (still a failing score) on an impossibly difficult grammar test she gave early in the year.

Later on, she decided that we were going to put on a Shakespeare play (Julius Caesar). It was a bold choice and we became united behind her as the teacher who gave us, a bunch of sixth grade misfits, something to be proud of. Our production probably wasn't so hot, but it impressed the other students and teachers and I got to be Marc Antony.

Mrs. Fonville, wherever you are, thank you for tolerating our stubbornness and having faith in us. I know I appreciated it.

Grateful for: a good teacher and a failed protest.

Drop me a line.

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