So I have this student, let’s call him Shaun, he is cocky, combative, and disruptive and never does his work and he exhibits all these characteristics because he is homeless . . .
Electricity. It is an amazing concept if one actually takes the time to think about it. With the push of a plug we are connected to an entire world. It can turn on a light bulb; bright heat to a home, power the cell phones we read about the problems of our nation on. Electricity. It is one of those things we can’t live without but rarely consider. Like running water, we just assume it will be there. At most, its availability is thought of once a month, when we begrudgingly pay a bill for it so that with the push of a button, we can continue to happily remove ourselves from the problems of our days, loosing our minds in prime time television and the latest reality TV flash in the pan. But what about those without it – what about those people who don’t have switches to flip, buttons to push and homes to heat? My guess is they still wonder about the power of electricity, how it works, its availability and how it can best be used. Shaun is one of those people who still thinks about things like running water and electricity, and his experience with the true power of electricity is a funny and thought provoking tale. After his run in with that which was unfamiliar, neither him nor I will wonder about electricity’s true power again.
It has been about three weeks since the day Shaun both saved me from a fistfight and admitted to me that he is homeless (see his original story here). His behavior and attitude towards school have not changed much since when I first met him. Though he no longer causes confrontation with me and listens to my requests, he is rarely attentive, talks to his peers in class, occasionally sleeps and hardly ever takes notes (though he does now bring the notebook and pen I bought him to every class; a silent token of an unspoken bond). I can’t say I blame him. If school were my sanctuary – the only place I felt safe – I probably would not have learning about maps and graphs at the top of my mind either. Where many students see school as a place to thrive, Shaun sees it as a place where he can survive. For Shaun, school is a place to rest and mentally prepare for the night on the streets ahead. It is his place to eat, find friends who may consider housing him for a few weeks and unwind when he has a chance. Maps and graphs will not be useful to Shaun on the streets. So why would a boy with so much to worry about, even consider learning about that which does not apply to his survival? Outwardly I act as if he must learn what I am teaching, making it seem important to his eventual academic rise. But on the inside, all I can think is, “Why should this kid care about some random historical figure? I don’t blame him for his actions. He has better things to worry about because society has dealt him an unwinnable hand.”
It is Tuesday, so the children have come down from their Monday highs and have not yet found reason to celebrate the impending weekend. This means it will be a relatively peaceful day, so I decide to give a rousing Powerpoint Presentation on Greek society – The District would be so proud of my use of “technology” in the classroom. Taking to the front of the classroom stage, I deliver an awarding winning monologue on Greece’s contributions to democracy and philosophy. Unfortunately, my only audience is me. This occurs often, even outside the classroom. At least I always receive a standing ovation.
So I do what every great, young educator does when the inspiring only births the awkward type of silence that is only acceptable in church and when visiting an in-law, I yell for the students to pay attention. Not my finest moment, but it works. Even Shaun starts taking notes, probably not because he feared the tone in my voice, but out of respect for not telling his weakness to the world. Shaun can’t survive if he is seen in a weak, both by others and within his own mind.
Of course, the girl with the black eye does not comply. She simply looks at me, wearing her fire red headphones. I decide not to start a loosing battle on this thus far peaceful Tuesday, so I let it go and continue teaching. At least she watches me for the entire lesson, though my intellectual words on democracy and philosophy are most likely drowned out by the likes of Kanye or Lil’Wayne pounding into her ears. They make some pretty sick music. I wonder what I my teaching actions would look like synced up to one of their songs. Clearly, a music video I would buy on iTunes immediately.
Aside from the girl with the black eye’s decision to listen to her music and not me, the lesson goes on for twenty minutes of uninterrupted peace. The kids are taking notes and asking questions. “I am getting pretty good at this job, ” I think before committing the worst mistake an educator at any school, public or private, can make in the classroom. I turn my back to students to write something on the board. The consequences of this action need no definition, as we all know what we did when teachers turned their backs to us when we were in school. Its equivalent to turning off the lights at a casino. Insanity is sure to ensue, even if it cannot be seen.
Before realizing my crucial mistake (ten seconds at most), I see a small explosion reflect on the board, hear a loud poof noise and begin to smell smoke. I took about five seconds with my back turned, attempting not to look at what had just unfolded behind me. I knew it was bad but not seeing the actual events taking place to my naïve back would make the pain temporarily better. Like when you know you have been injured and try not to look at the injury for as long as possible. Not seeing is not believing.
The screams of the once peaceful children and the lights shutting off force my attention. Turning around I saw the following: Shaun lying on the ground holding a smoking pen, kids running everywhere and burn marks that started at an electrical outlet and made their way up the wall of my classroom. There was still a small fire smoldering. Then some lights turned back on but they weren’t my normal classroom lights. The flashing at first confused me but the glaring alarm that soon followed made it all clear. The fire alarm had been triggered. And just when things could not get any crazier, the sprinklers began spewing out water that had to have been put there sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s when the nation was still energized to do things because we had put a man on the moon. Now surrounded by girls placing notebooks over their heads to protect their hairdos and weaves and with the boy who stands on his chair and screams doing some type of ancient rain dance, I did the only thing I could think of and shouted, “RUN!” Awful decision. Engulfed by the chaos, I got Shaun to his feet and the two of us sprinted for the door. All of us were now living in his world of survival.
In the aftermath of being the awkward teacher whose room caused the entire school to evacuate and sometime after giving a statement to an overly aggravated fireman, I found myself in the nurse’s office with Shaun. He was still holding the burnt pen – now a memento of his most recent survival. Thankfully, he was fine. At least that’s what I took out of the nurse’s saying, “It’s a good thing he had rubber shoes on.” Don’t even get me started on that statement.
Walking with Shaun to our replacement classroom – aka the auditorium – I asked him, “What the heck man?” He shrugged his shoulders, broke eye contact, and let out an embarrassing, “I dunno, Sir.” At least he was calling me Sir.
Fully ready to lecture him on how even a five year old would not have done something so stupid as stick metal (a conductor of electricity) into an outlet and how I was the one who had to deal with yet another crazy incident, fully earning my name as The Awkward Educator, I stopped myself. Because when Shaun – the cocky, combative, and disruptive boy, who never does his work and exhibits all these characteristics because he is homeless – made eye contact with me again, I realized the anything but blissful ignorance of his actions. I couldn’t lecture a student who has no lights to flick on, no buttons to push, no cell phone to read on and no television to escape from his world of survival, about the proper use of electricity. Shaun, not having electricity to both depend on and forget about, exhibited the curiosity of a child who was just introduced to something as fascinating as an electrical outlet. No caregiver ever told him not to do things like stick a knife in a toaster or put metal into a socket. He was made to learn these things from his own dangerous experiences. Because in Shaun’s world of survival, such modern conveniences as running water and flowing electricity were not necessities, they were thins that people who thrive have. Things he put out of his young mind as necessary for survival
On this day Shaun and I learned the power of electricity – that invention we so often take for granted. And so I just patted him on the back and said, “I’m glad your alright man. Keep that pen as a reminder.”
Photo Credit: CUA Libraries