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Editor’s Note: Tina Buker is a third-year teacher at Birney Elementary in Anacostia, where she and Dr. Louvenia Magee Gafney run a charter school called Project PEACE. This school-within-a-school is designed for kids whose behavior has prevented them from reaching their full potential, and includes 35 kids ages 8 to 12 years old. Lesson One is an occasional column of excerpts from Buker’s journal.
I stood at the pinball machine, fixated on the flashing lights. A friend of mine came up behind me.
“You look intense,” my friend said.
“Yeah,” I said. “I was just thinking how my life teaching is like this pinball game. Every time the ball gets shot back here,” I said, pointing to an area filled with multicolored buzzers and bells, “it ricochets back and forth and creates all this noise. It just keeps going.”
It’s amazing. I’m going into my third year of teaching, and sometimes I still trip over all the kinetic energy and boundless chaos of my classroom. The curriculum at the charter school we developed is based on conflict resolution and problem solving, but there are plenty of times when I’m convinced that I am the one in need of lessons. The kids I work with are bright and most certainly can learn, but unfortunately fit the stereotype of children “at risk”—at risk of being disregarded because they don’t fit some neat academic description of what makes a kid teachable. My background is in teaching art, and the creativity in these kids is phenomenal. And I don’t think that children need to accept everything I say as Truth in order to learn. Many times, it’s just the opposite. My kids give as good as they get, and if I give them the opportunity, they will often come forth with amazing things. That’s why I love my classroom, chaos and all. As I told my friend watching me at the pinball machince, “Every once in a while, you actually hit the ball into the hole and score about a million points. That’s the cool part of teaching.”
“Yeah,” my friend said. “But doesn’t the game then just spit the ball right back out?”
I put two more quarters in to begin another game.
Lawrence sat at my desk like a prince, reading a list of big words perfectly. Like most kids with trouble in his past, he’s proven to be extremely capable one-on-one, but his buzz-saw attitude and downright defiance would turn Gandhi to stone. Many times, I have had to pry him away from the window, where he is loading fake machine guns and shooting imaginary bullets outside. Telling him to stop does no good—a mercenary’s work is never done. But today, sitting beside me, he was reading sixth- and seventh-grade words with ease. Lawrence is in fourth grade.
“Lawrence,” I said to him after he finished his oral test, “do you know what the word “bored’ means?”
“Yes. It means to not be interested in something.”
“Do you ever feel bored?”
“Yes,” he said in a soft, almost embarrassed voice.
I leaned closer to Lawrence to make sure he knew I was talking to him, no one else. “Lawrence, I’m sorry to hear that you have been bored in school. But you’re probably reading at least two grade levels above your age—that might explain why you have been bored. Can we work together on this one?”
Later that day, I noticed that Lawrence began to look directly at me when I talked and listened intently to other students when they spoke. A fight erupted in the other half of our classroom, and while most of the class bolted to the scene like buzzards, he and a few other students stayed in their seats and kept working. Amazing.
Brian is the type of child who has the recipe to turn metal into gold. He just knows. He continually asks and prods and demands to know things. I’m pressed to find a time when he hasn’t queried something I’ve said, be it directions to the bathroom or the capital of Sri Lanka. I’m not sure how other teachers feel about a child like this, but he happens to be my type.
One time, while discussing a lesson about the ancient Egyptians and their gods, Brian interrupted to tell me, “This is school and you ain’t supposta be talkin’ ’bout God.” While my other children were still pondering the notion that “god” simply meant “deity,” not “GOD” in all caps, Brian was already into a political discussion I wasn’t ready to tackle.
He floored me once while I was explaining the reason for my impending absence the following day: jury duty. “I doubt I will be gone for more than a day,” I told the group, feeling secretly confident that most of my views were probably extreme enough to be merit my being excused.
“Ms. Buker”—he paused—“just act bad and they won’t pick you.” His grin told me he could read minds as well.
As I sipped tea and pored over the first week of “Peace Journals,” I shouldn’t have been surprised that Brian’s journal caught my attention. I had the children respond to the statement “Peace begins with me,” and told them to discuss whether they agreed or disagreed with the premise.
Brian disagreed with the statement, and his supporting sentence read like so:
“Peace is war.”
I circled this statement, and asked him about the paradox on Monday morning.
“Ms. Buker, what’s this circle for?” Brian asked in his sweetly defiant tone.
“Oh. I just want you to explain what you meant.”
“Well trying to get peace is like war,” he said. “All them people out there, fighting, being all bad, and there isn’t nothing I can do about them.”
“You may be right, but can’t you control what you do?”
“Yeah, but do you know how many people there are in the world? Peace doesn’t begin with me, it begins with all of us.”
Of course, Ms. Buker, everybody has to wage peace in order to win the war. How silly I was to propose that it might be any different.
“OK, has anyone ever heard of the Dalai Lama?” A few students were throwing things across the room, anything they could get their hands on, and I really wondered if this was a ridiculous path to go down. Why would my kids care about the Dalai Lama or that I had forsaken the season opener of 90210 in favor of attending a lecture by him in pursuit of enlightenment?
Anyway, no one answered. “Well,” I said, “the Dalai Lama is the spiritual and political leader of a country called Tibet. He has been exiled in India ever since the Chinese took over Tibet in 1949.” I explained what pacifism meant, what negotiation meant, and they were actually listening. But I cut to the chase—I’ve come to understand the window of attention can close quickly.
“Now, I want to share with you a question that was asked of the Dalai Lama, and I want you to think about his answer. Someone asked him, “Do you think it will ever be necessary for there to be a violent revolution in Tibet to end Chinese occupation?’ What do you think his answer was?”
The class was pretty evenly divided between yes and no.
“James,” I said, “why do you think he would say, “No’?”
“ ‘Cause he’d say that violence was wrong.”
Then Brian, my class inquisitor, asked a question of his own. “Whatcha mean, they came from China?”
“The Chinese invaded—that is, came into—Tibet and claimed the land as theirs,” I explained.
Recognition flashed across his face.
“So that’s like them people, all them drug dealers, who came into our neighborhood and tried to take over?”
I told him it was exactly like that. He mentioned the name of some group, and although I didn’t know who they were, I knew he understood the concept of occupation. Yep, yep, I could hear the other kids mumble. We talked a little bit about the idea that violence creates more violence, and they certainly agreed that based on Brian’s analogy, that fighting generally begets more fighting. I’m happy the class found a real-life parallel between Southeast Washington and Tibet, even if they aren’t sure how to spell “pacifism.” The Embodiment of Knowledge.
Stephanie and Raymond volunteered for the role-play. All my kids are most definitely actors, but these two are particularly good. Stephanie, with her strong, pronounced stance, had no problem playing the instigator. She brushed past Raymond, bumping into his leg, and turned to glare at him as if to say, “What’s your problem?” “Yeah, whatever,” Raymond said, and rolled his eyes. Stephanie flung her arm out in an urban war gesture that let everyone know she was clearly not to be dissed. Raymond stood up, puffing his chest like a roost er, and lunged toward her. Maybe they weren’t really acting.
I stood up as they continued the war dance. “OK, now try it the right way.” I hadn’t instructed them on the “right” or “wrong” ways—I wanted to see what they would do with loose, unguided definitions. Stephanie passed by Raymond again in the same scenario, except this time she turned around and simply said, “Excuse me.” Raymond nodded, and Stephanie returned to her seat. Simplicity.
I congratulated them and could tell that although the other kids got the lesson, they were getting restless. “Do you see how simple all of this nonsense is to prevent?” I asked the class. “Yes,” they all said. Not more than 10 minutes later, a fight erupted. Stephanie had broken Raymond’s pencil in half, or said something about his mother, or had simply annoyed him, and he subsequently just about knocked her out. Containment is about all that can be hoped for once the fists fly. I took a deep breath (what I tell the kids to do when they are upset), and put the incident into my pocket to be used as material for our next role-playing scenario.