Teachin' For America

Thoughts and otherwise on one particular Teach for America experience.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Bicycles for Humiliation

It’s too late for me to relay my entire day. But what a day it was. I managed to spend nearly eleven hours at school without actually doing any teaching. By “teaching” I mean actual, direct, classroom instruction. Whether or not I passed on any knowledge whatsoever to anyone whosoever is debatable. But between the fighting children, the crying children, the children wetting themselves, the administration demanding that every child in the building write their deepest thoughts on the World Series, the administration demanding that all teachers “stop teaching” and make posters for our walls, and my ever-sinking attitude through all of this, I was ineffective today.
One moment that stands out, for good or for bad:
Today we had our monthly, school-wide “Bicycles for Success” program. Seems some rich guy who didn’t have a bike growing up donated a bunch of cash to our school in the hopes of sparing some of our kids from sharing his cruel fate. I sound disparaging, but it really was a noble gesture on his part. We apparently have enough money to give away two bicycles per month this year. The process to determine the lucky new cycling enthusiasts goes like this: each teacher keeps a “Bicycles for Success” chart on the wall of his/ her room. At the end of each day, each child who has followed the program’s 5 rules (come to school, be good, etc., etc., etc.) all day long gets a star by his/her name. At the end of the month each teacher submits the boy and girl w/ the highest star count to the administration, who choose the winners from this pool of eligible “nominees.”
My nominees this month were Dontrell, my boy with severe mental retardation, and “Amani” the mush-mouth. Amani was less than impressed by the whole thing, but Dontrell- who, for the record, tells me every Monday morning that he spent the weekend riding his bike- was goddamn excited. I’ve mentioned before that I sometimes envy his ignorance. However, if he had known today what I knew, we could have (mercifully) avoided the scene I’m about to describe.
I knew full well that Dontrell was not going to win the bike. It’s common knowledge among the staff that the winners will be chosen from grades 4-6 and K-3 on alternating months. Since a 4th-grader won last month, Dontrell, a 6th-grader, was ineligible. We are not to share this information with the kids, as it would considerably lessen the power of the bicycles as incentives for good behavior if they knew they stood no chance of winning. So Dontrell thought he stood a pretty good chance of taking home a shiny new two-wheeler.
So excited was he over his chances, in fact, that by the time the program rolled around, Dontrell was convinced that the bike was as good as his. He sat excitedly through the early part of the program (some very cute 2nd-graders singing songs and reciting poems), making sure to tap me on the arm, grin from one side of the gym to the other, and point to himself each time the words “bike” or “bicycle” were mentioned. I knew he was setting himself up for heartbreak, but I wasn’t sure how to handle it. I wanted him to be happy to be nominated, to appreciate the fact that the bike could be his. He deserved as much for his consistently good behavior. But I certainly couldn’t encourage his misguided confidence. “I don’t know…” I would respond each time he indicated that the bike would be his, raising my eyebrows, shoulders, and palms in a gesture that could not have conveyed less certainty. “There are a lot of other nominees.” The gesture had a much larger effect than the words, but I could still see visions of bicycles dancing through his head. But there was really nothing I could do.
Then came time for the nominees to come to the front of the gym. Dontrell was the first to make it there, had the biggest smile on his face of any of them, and was having a very hard time standing still due to his excitement. It was an unbelievably bittersweet moment for me as I watched him bounce up and down with a huge smile on his face because while I was happy for him and proud he was up there with some of his peers, I could see that he would soon be deeply disappointed. After they gave out the girls’ bike to a deserving 2nd-grader, they wheeled out the boys’ bike. Dontrell’s eyes became as large as soccer balls, his bouncing became much more animated, and I could tell that it was time for me to go stand by him.
So I made my way up front, taking my place beside Dontrell in front of the entire school. I was the only teacher up there aside from “Mad Melvin” (his nomenclature, not mine!), the gym teacher who had the distinct pleasure of talking up the bikes and giving them away. I gently rested my hand on Dontrell’s shoulder, hoping to provide preemptive comfort for his upcoming heartbreak. He bounced up and down and up and down, his skinny shoulder, smaller than my hand, softly tapping my palm. I waited for the moment of truth.
What happened next was really just very, very unfortunate. As Mad Melvin did an excellent job of making the bicycle he was about to give away seem like the best thing in the entire world, he wheeled it back and forth in front of the line of nominees. Even though I was standing behind him, I could pretty much feel Dontrell’s eyes following it eagerly back and forth. The unfortunate part happened when, in the course of his pacing, Melvin stopped in front of Dontrell and I in a way and at a time that even I thought suggested my student was the winner. Of course he wasn’t. But the timely pause coupled with Dontrell’s hopeful ignorance was enough to convince him that the bike was his. “And the winner is…” crowed Mad Melvin, the audience of elementary kids eating out of his hand. Another timely pause was all Dontrell needed to make his fatal mistake.
Before Melvin finished his sentence and revealed the winner, Dontrell escaped my gentle, watchful grasp and strode proudly out to his new bike. His smile was huge, his gait confident, his arms raised in a victorious salute to bicyclery. He made it far enough to grab the handlebars and seat in an appreciative “Boy, I sure can’t wait to ride you,” kind of way before I caught him and gently pulled him back into line with the other nominees. “Not yet,” I think I told him, “They haven’t announced who won yet.” I could tell this hadn’t phased him (it was probably my saying “yet”) because as I placed a hand on each of his shoulders I could still feel the excitement pulsing from them.
He was also unphased by the uproarious laughter his premature declaration of victory and my hasty retraction had elicited from the rest of the school. A retarded kid mistakenly strutting around like he won a bike: comedy gold. Dontrell didn’t notice them laughing, but I did. I looked out and saw cruelty manifest itself in some of the cutest faces I had yet known. My tears nearly came before Dontrell’s.
“Some Other Kid!” cried Mad Melvin, finally announcing the name of the bike’s new owner. I’m sure I was too busy focusing all of my teacherly comfort into Dontrell’s shoulder to hear the name in the first place, let alone remember it now. Suffice it to say the name was not Dontrell’s. Once he had fully realized this fact, his tears came. He cried and cried and I couldn’t do anything for him but put my arm around him and let him bury his sad, wet face in my shirt. I don’t know if he was humiliated for having behaved like he had won or simply disappointed that the shiny new bike wouldn’t be going home with him. Whatever was upsetting him, though, was doing a good job. I felt sobs shake his head as it leaned against my abdomen. If only I had brought him close to me quickly enough, I might have avoided tearing up myself.
I have a feeling that most of the kids in the gym that day, when Mad Melvin announced the winner, had not taken so much as a cursory glance at the child whose triumph they were there to recognize. All eyes, as far as I could tell, had fallen immediately upon Dontrell, the unfortunate butt of their laughter. As funny as they had found his misguided happiness moments before, they now seemed to find his terribly obvious sadness to be the very zenith of comedy. They laughed and laughed as he cried and cried. After I’m not sure how long, I realized that Dontrell was not going to recover any time soon and that it was simply cruel to keep him up in front of the school so that they could continue to laugh at his expense. Unfortunately, the only way exit the gym was at the back and we were forced to walk through the crowd of hysterical students to reach it. Escorting the sobbing Dontrell out of the gym, tears came to my eyes as well.
We walked amongst the laughing children and I saw, painfully firsthand, the awful manifestation of the time-honored truism: Kids can be so cruel. I felt angry, I felt sorry for Dontrell, I felt like all of these little bastards should just shut the hell up. It wasn’t until we walked by my class that I felt truly sad, truly awful. My own students, Dontrell’s classmates, the ones in whom I had done my very best to create a sense of community and friendship toward their partners in learning, were laughing at us as hard as any students in the rest of the gym. They were pointing, guffawing, their little faces filled with glee at the expense of their fellow student. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t take it. How could the same kids who were so often helpful when Dontrell needed someone to cooperate with him in order to get his work done, who had spouted back at me my rule about always showing each other respect, who had wanted so badly to be nominated for the bike giveaway themselves, possibly get such joy out of Dontrell’s sadness? It was enough to make a grown man’s face burn, to make tears well up in his eyes, and to make him hurry out of the gym, dragging his student behind him at a quick pace designed for the benefit of them both.
We made it outside. We both calmed down. By the time we reentered the gym most of my students had managed to contain their laughter. I deflected their attempts to make conversation about Dontrell’s emotional reaction at the Bike Assembly for the rest of the day. I did my best to gently let them know that their actions had hurt more than one set of feelings. And I came to terms with a new understanding of Dontrell’s way of seeing the world, one much less envious of the “blissful” ignorance that had incited this awful incident. But I still find myself hoping it prevented him from gaining the understanding necessary to feel like I did when he was the butt of the joke.


Anonymous Sherry Staub said...

Hey PM
That was one of the most poignantly written accounts I have ever read. You should have that published....
I have to respectfully disagree, however regarding the degree to which you taught something that day. You taught D. how much you feel his pain. You taught the others that you will not tolerate their insensitivity. You taught everyone that it is acceptable for a man to cry over someone else's pain. Believe me...every kid in that school was wishing they were D....having someone lovingly wrap their arms around them in comfort.
I'll bet few of those kids ever experience that. They were laughing...but at the same time secretly wishing they were him.
I have to repeat what I said before. You are an awesome teacher. You repeat it too.

7:28 PM  
Blogger Jeff Pickell said...

It is a good thing that, in a year or two, Dontrell probably won't even have a recollection of the episode.

Those kids--the once who laughed at him, the ones who aren't retarded--they'll remember this one night, twenty years from now, long after your descent into madness. They'll remember, and their heart will skip a beat, and they'll feel a cold twinge in their breast bone, and they'll know that weren't the children they'd like to remember themselves as.

Either that, or they'll be cracked out of their skulls.

8:41 PM  
Blogger Will Yates said...


8:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will read this again sometime when I am not so emotional, or when I need a good cry, or when I need to be reminded that there are very good, caring people out there amongst the Neanderthals. Being a child is a tortuous journey of wonderful discovery and terrible heartbreak. Being a thinking, caring adult is the same.

7:38 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

I agree, PM, you should have this published. It's amazing.

6:42 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home