Choices

Dear Terrence,

I spoke to your English teacher today. She told me about a problem you had with another student, that this boy did something that so angered you that you were willing to fight him. That you turned over a desk and started marching toward the kid with every evil intent that anyone could imagine glowing your eyes.

Remember, we had a conversation in the hallway about this the other day. You’re letting people push your buttons. You’re essentially giving them a remote control and saying, “Hey, you want me to hop on one leg, press this button. You want me to laugh, press that one. If you want me to hit you, the red button’s the one.”

What saddened me most about what your teacher said, though, was your response later, how you asked in a low voice, “Ms. Jones, did you write me up for that?”

“What choice did you give me, Terrence?” she said.

I know that you feel you don’t have a lot of choices right now, Terrence. I know you feel that no matter what decision you make, things always turn out the same way. I know that a lack of choices feels like a prison, but not a conventional one — this one has invisible bars that seem to change location but hold you fast just the same. I know you feel you have few choices, but I’m wondering if your teachers don’t feel the same way.

“What choice did you give me, Terrence?” asked Ms. Jones, and in that, I can almost hear as much frustration as I hear when you tell me some of your stories. What choice does any teacher have when facing a child like you, a child who really needs some positive attention and someone who can sit down with him and explain and practice, as many times as it takes, some of the rules of the game that you seem somehow to have missed out on?

Before you can learn math, science, history, or English, you need, quite frankly, to learn how to learn. To learn how to be comfortable with your own stillness. To learn how to look at someone who’s giving you instruction the same way you look at me when we’re standing in my doorway, chatting. To learn how to listen with a slight smile of anticipation like you do when I call your name out as you walk down the hall and motion you over to me.

But unfortunately, we’re not in a situation where we can take a lot of time to teach you how to learn. We teachers have got deadlines and testing hovering over us, and it feels like the tests are pressing our buttons. We have choices — I’m convinced of that — but I’m not sure we’re all aware of these choices, of the various options that might lead to more success for you and kids like you in the classroom. I’m certain there are choices, but I’m not as sure that they’ve even all been discovered yet. So in a way, we teachers are just groping around, feeling out these invisible bars just like you.

I do know that for most of us, being in the classroom is a conscious choice. We’re an idealistic group at heart: it’s what led most of us to the profession and it’s what keeps us there. Maybe if you can keep that in your conscious thoughts — that everyone who stands in front of you day in and day out is there because they choose to be there, because they want to help, because they feel called to do what they do — then you’ll start to see some new choices, too.

Sincerely,
Your Friend in Room 302

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