Taking Off

In the news recently “Parents allege kids isolated, restrained at Whitehorse school“. The headline tells the story. The parents are furious. The Department of Education is investigating. The CBC is making a big deal about it. But nobody is offering the teachers’ experience.

It’s easy to blame the teacher. The parent all say these children, mostly boys I do believe, are “fine” at home. I’m not in such a hurry to believe that. The norms of behaviour at home are likely VERY different from the collective social behaviour teachers work so hard to establish in their classrooms.

Yesterday I was talking to my niece, an experienced teacher in her last year of teaching 5 year olds. She is finding these post-COVID-19 confined children the most difficult she’s ever had to deal with. She has at least 12 children all needing special attention and no way in a class of 29 can she manage that on her own. She has an assistant. Even that help isn’t enough to keep her classroom running smoothly. She’s glad she has just six and a half months to go before it’s over. She’s in survival mode. Forget about teaching much of anything. Although she’s sure at least half her class is progressing she just doesn’t have time to keep a close eye on those children – she’s just barely managing to keep the lid on the group.

I thought back to my own teaching in a special education classroom in 1971 and the piece I’d written many years afterward!

From the teacher’s side of the desk.

Take Off

Judith M. Newman

The intercom buzzed. “Please answer that Anita,” I asked. Anita rose from her seat, skipped across the room and stretched to, press the answer button with her fingertips.

“Hello,” she said.

“Is Miss Newman there?” 

“Yes.”

“Can she come to the intercom?”

“No she can’t. She’s sitting on Gerry,” Anita replied.

A pause. 

“Well, will you tell her to be sure to bring her register to the office as soon as possible. It’s late.” 

“I’ll tell her,” she said. She turned to see if I had heard. I nodded and without saying anything, Anita marched back to her seat and resumed whatever it was she had been doing. 

Sitting on Gerry. 

I seemed to be doing that more and more these days. Gerry was behaving with less control than ever – or maybe it was simply that I had less resilience for handling his unruly behaviour. I was swamped by the work involved in keeping this special ed class afloat. Weak learners all of them, the children were very dependent on my support and direction. They were reluctant to attempt much of anything on their own. I needed to offer individual input and encouragement repeatedly during the day. 

To create that time I had set up an instructional agenda for each child. The preparation was a nightmare. I would spend the entire weekend working up a collection of individual lessons for each of the twelve children for that week. In addition, I had to gather or prepare materials for any group activities I wanted to try. There was no time left over for any relaxation.

Then there was the matter of their behaviour. The children actively avoided engaging in learning activities. They were forever out of their seats, bothering one another. It took an enormous amount of energy to persuade them to just try. The classroom was simply chaotic. 

It was their behaviour that kept them isolated from the rest of the school. Because they were forever fighting with the other children the administration had decided they should spend recess and lunch in the classroom. That meant I had no opportunity to be alone from eight in the morning when I arrived ahead of the bus and four in the afternoon when the last child was picked up. Just getting to the bathroom was a major undertaking since the children couldn’t be left unattended. 

It didn’t take long to realize I had really been hired just to baby-sit these nine to twelve year olds. No one expected me to teach them much of anything. The message was quite clear: just keep them quiet and under control. That was why the class was located where it was, a safe distance away from the other classes. We couldn’t disrupt anyone else at the back of the school next to the janitors. 

What was the problem with Gerry? It wasn’t that his behaviour was so dreadful. He wasn’t overtly malicious towards the other children. He didn’t attack them physically, although he was hitting out at me often.

No, it had more to do with how I was struggling to deal with his Inability to sustain himself at any task for more than a couple of minutes. I understood that he needed more room. But I was trapped. While I wanted to extend him more freedom, if I let him wander, Anita, David and Sharon promptly followed suit and instead of having one unmanageable child in the class, I had four. Four unengaged children were more than I could handle alone. 

So there I was sitting on Gerry again. 

What had he done this time? He’d been away from his seat as usual.  This time, he’d ensconced himself beneath the corner painting table with his old dinky truck and I knew he hadn’t even looked at the reading assignment I’d asked him to try. 

Exasperated, I watched him for a moment. There he sat cross legged, another rip in the left knee of his jeans, probably from a recent fight, running the toy truck across the floor in front of him. “Vroom, vroom,” again and again, oblivious to the goings on elsewhere in the room, or maybe not. As I observed, I caught him glance at me and away again. He was aware I was watching, perhaps challenging me to make him return to his seat.

As I approached the table, I quickly surveyed the room. Half of the children were productively engaged. The rest were watching me, curious, I suspected, about how I was going to handle Gerry this time. 

I reached Gerry and knelt down. I touched his arm to stop the play, then held out my hand, palm upward — a request for the toy. Gerry hesitated.  He positioned the truck in front of his feet, then he snatched it from the floor and hurled it at me. Not hard, but it grazed my leg and flew across the room.

I grabbed his shoulder and pulled him to his feet in front of me. “I’d  like you to pick it up,” I told him firmly. He looked at me defiantly. 

Here we were again. Being drawn into the now familiar battle of wills. I wanted him to extend some small effort on his school work, to try to engage. He consistently balked, challenging me to take charge which provoked further resistance from him. I would insist; he’d hit out then I would be pushed to contain him. 

That’s why I was now sitting on the floor holding an immobilized, yet struggling, child in the middle of the classroom. 

How had we reached this impasse? 

I recalled the day Gerry joined the class. I had been reading to the children when I caught movement out of the  corner of my eye. When I turned, there he was framed in the doorway. 

A smallish boy. Blond, somewhat tousled hair, clear blue eyes. He was just standing there, a red lunch pail in one hand by his side. The scruffy sneakers, his well worn jeans, baggy green cardigan evoked a Rockwell image. It was his guarded expression which caught my attention, though. 

“Can I help you?” I asked. 

“I’m here for school,” he said. 

“Which room are you looking for?

“Twelve.” 

“Well, you’ve come to the right place. C’mon in,” I invited him. 

Slowly dragging his feet, he entered.

I approached him with my hand extended — he didn’t accept my gesture of welcome. “I’m Miss Newman,” I told him, ” Who are you?”

“Gerry.” 

“Do you have a last name?” I asked.

“Rogers.” 

“Welcome, Gerry Rogers,” I said as I steered him toward the coat rack at the side of the room and pointed to the other lunch pails on the shelf above it. Gerry added his bright new pail to the collection then I drew him towards the group of children crowded around a table. 

There had been eleven assorted girls and boys in the class. Gerry made it twelve. 

I offered him a chair. He slumped into the seat, his feet extended under the table, his hands clasped tightly in his lap. Although he didn’t look around,  I was aware of him sizing us up. 

I introduced him to the others and then explained that we were reading a story together. I gave him my copy of the book. He took it, placing it on the table in front of him. He folded his arms across his body, as if to ward off the book. Without raising his head he mumbled, “Can’t read.”

“Everyone’s following along as I read,” I said to him. “Here, I’ll help you.” 

I placed my chair beside his, positioned the book between us and began pointing to the words as I continued reading where I’d left off. Voices chimed in as I read what had become a now familiar story to the other children. 

As I finished the chapter, I glanced at Gerry. He was still firmly slumped in his chair, arms tightly folded across his body, eyes downcast. I was afraid we were going to be in for a difficult time. 

During the following weeks my fears were realized. Gerry engaged me in a standoff. No matter what invitation I offered, he refused to engage. Any reading activity was out of the question. There was no point in asking him to write anything. His math proficiency was minimal. There wasn’t a great deal he could or would attempt on his own. That pushed my ingenuity to the limit.  Whatever I offered him had to have the semblance of school work or I’d face rebellion from the others. So playing with plasticine, or stringing beads was out of the question. Each weekend I’d create a battery of things for Gerry to do, wondering if anything would catch his interest. First thing Monday morning I’d find my work in vain. 

In late September and early October when half of the class was absent for the Jewish holidays Gerry was a different child. With only four others vying for my attention I was able to spend more time by his side. As long as I stayed beside him he remained involved. And in the smaller group his wandering was less disruptive. I could keep the others busy while ignoring what Gerry was doing. But with a full house life was hectic. 

Gerry would be one of the first to arrive in the morning. He’d shuffle his way into the room, drop his lunch pail in the vicinity of the coat rack, and begin wandering aimlessly. As I watched him, I could feel my tension build.  Did I have the energy to make it through the day? 

Then came the day when I pushed Gerry too far. I could tell from the moment he entered the room something was wrong. I tried to settle him down with some work but he was restless. He reluctantly picked up his pencil, quickly tossed it aside and turned away from the notebook. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a small toy truck and began wheeling it across the surface of the table. 

We had one class rule: no toys. I had banned toys because at the first indication of frustration the children would haul out a toy as a way of avoiding the school work. Whether they wanted to or not, I was determined they would engage with learning activities. So no toys. 

But here was Gerry blatantly flaunting the rule. I watched for a moment then went over to him. I asked him to put the truck in his lunch pail.  He ignored me and continued wheeling the toy across the table top. I knelt beside him and asked him to put the toy away. No response. I made a move to take the truck from him. An outburst. Wildly flailing, Gerry hit at me shouting obscenities. I grabbed his wrists in my hands, swung him around so his arms were immobilized across his body and sat us both on the floor. 

Holding him tightly, I tried calming him down. 

“You can’t hit people,” I said to him. “I’ll let go as soon as you’re quiet. We can talk about why you’re so angry.” 

At that moment I saw for the first time the cigarette burn scars on the backs of his hands. 

Gerry wasn’t my only problem. The other children were incredibly demanding and the more my conflict with Gerry escalated, the more demanding they became. I began to feel near the end of my tether. I needed some relief. 

I tried obtaining a little free time for myself each day. I approached the principal with an idea. Would it be possible for someone to stay with the children during lunch? There were no funds in the budget to cover such exigencies, I was told. The children would have to be supervised and I would have to do it. I had another idea. Couldn’t we team up these children with others who lived in the neighbourhood and have them go home for lunch.  Well, the behaviour of these children was unpredictable. It wasn’t a good idea to inflict them on the community. No, I would simply have to stay with them.  Could I, then, contact the Home and School to see if I could interest some of the parents in volunteering in the class. It wasn’t the parents’ responsibility to teach my children. After all I only had twelve of them to work with. Surely  I could manage the class. 

I was no longer so sure I could.

With each passing day my resources were stretched thinner. Without any support, each encounter with Gerry brought me closer to the brink. 

Early in October I had thought the children would enjoy an outing. A trip to the airport seemed like it might be fun so I contacted the school board’s transportation department to schedule a school bus. A week later, however, I received a call informing me that the buses were engaged for the particular day I’d requested — the trip was off and I thought no more about it. I was more than a little surprised, therefore, when on November 23rd there was a knock on the classroom door and the bus driver announced: “Ready to take you to the airport.” 

I considered for a moment and made a rash decision. I would take the class, including Gerry, on the airport trip. I notified the office about our improvised excursion then directed the children to prepare. We grabbed our coats and lunch pails. We marched in some vague semblance of a line out the nearest exit beside the janitors’ room and boarded the waiting bus.

The trip to the airport foreshadowed what was to come. The children were rowdy, bouncing around in their seats, pushing one another, yelling at the top of their voices. It seemed as if, once released from the constraints of the classroom, all self-control evaporated. By the time we reached the airport I knew I’d made a dreadful mistake but it was too late to do anything about it.

When the bus arrangements had fallen through I’d dropped all plans for the trip. There would be no guided tour of the facilities, no other adult on hand to help keep the lid on this rambunctious group. What if one of them became separated in the crowd, how would I locate a missing child and still keep track of the others? And the bathroom. I dreaded to think of Gerry loose on his own in the men’s room without an adult to supervise. 

No sooner had the bus dropped us at the departure level than we were caught up in the bustle of the terminal building. I paraded the children past the ticket counters toward the gate area. Windows lined the large outer circular corridor and planes parked at the various ramps were readily visible.  We gathered to look at one large jet. Passengers were boarding from the adjacent lounge and the cockpit crew could be seen making preparations for their upcoming flight.

The children had loads of questions. 

“Where is this plane going?” 

“Where’s it come from?” 

“Which one is the pilot?” 

“How many people can it take?” 

“How does the food get on?” 

“Where does the luggage go?” 

I was busy with explanations, not watching the children very closely.  Their interest and excitement kept me occupied so it was several moments before I realized, with a sudden sinking feeling, that something was wrong.  Gerry was nowhere in sight. 

It took a while to gain the children’s attention. Had anyone seen Gerry?  Had he told anyone where he was going? 

“No, Miss Newman,” came a unanimous reply. 

Now I was in a panic. What to do? I knew I couldn’t go off to search for Gerry on my own, nor could I disperse the children to look for him for fear I’d lose someone else. I decided the safest course would be to locate the airport police and enlist their help. 

Finding the police was easier said than done, however. I spent a good ten minutes, with the entire troupe in tow, weaving my way through the crowded terminal, trying not to lose anyone else. When we still hadn’t found a policeman, I dragged the children to one of the less busy ticket counters to ask for help. 

“Please, I need the police,” I said to the ticket agent. “I’ve lost a child.  He’s wandered away from the group and I have no idea where he is.” 

The agent contacted the police who immediately appeared. I described Gerry and said I thought it quite likely they might find him in one of the many washrooms. It was not inconceivable that he might even have drifted  into one of the women’s toilets, I told them. 

With the police now tracking him down, I stationed the children in a row of seats to wait and worry. In fifteen minutes Gerry was back. He’d become bored with the plane and had decided to explore on his own. He’d found the escalator in the middle of the terminal and had been riding it between the arrival and departure level. That’s where an officer had found him. 

My resources nearly exhausted, I decided the thing to do was to get the children away from the crowd as quickly as possible. Since none of them had ever flown, I thought they would enjoy watching the planes take off and land.  The best vantage point for such viewing is from the top floor of the parking garage. The open west side of the building faces the runway and you have a clear view of the steady incoming and outgoing air traffic. Besides, I could more easily keep my eye on everyone there. 

So I marched the children, lunch pails in hand, through the crowd to the elevators. I bundled them aboard the first one to arrive, pushed P10 and breathed a sigh of relief. As the elevator rose, I explained to the children  where we were headed and how I expected them to behave. 

“We’re going to the roof of the building,” I said. “You’ll need to be careful near the wall. If you lean too far, you might fall over and it’s a long way down. Be careful!” I shouted as the elevator doors opened and they tore out. I followed behind past the few cars parked on that level toward the  outside wall of the garage to watch the planes. 

Although mid-morning isn’t a terribly busy time at Pearson Airport, there was some traffic. We could see a DC9 readying for take off at the far end of the runway. The children stretched to pull themselves up onto the parapet so they could see more clearly. Bunched together at one location they jostled for position. 

“You can spread out,” I told them. “There’s no need to push.” I moved behind them trying to help them settle down. 

The plane revved its engines and began to taxi down the runway. We watched it slowly gain speed. As it came abreast of us the nose lifted and the plane began a steep ascent. Gerry stood on his lunch pail. 

With the roar of the engines at full throttle I felt Gerry strain to pull himself up and onto the wall to watch the take off. I reached to restrain him and see myself catching one of his legs in my hand and lifting it sharply,  unbalancing him: 

arms fly out feet rise
the soles of his sneakers pass in front of my face
a sky diver, his body hangs suspended 
arms wide
legs spread behind him 
wind flaps at the falling body  
silent screams masked by the engines’ roar 
plane lifting
hung in the overwhelming middle of things 
amazement at the dumbfounding ease of a nightmare unfolding 
heat shimmering from the runway
plane banking left into wisps of low level cloud 
a flock of small birds
swooping over the grassy verge 
miniature cars along the 401 
lunch pail skidding 
thump 
bloody red chin

I turned to see Gerry in a heap on the floor beside me, his moans drowned by the roar of the still climbing jet. 

“I warned you to be careful, didn’t I?” I said shaken. He reached toward his chin, drawing away a bloody hand. I just stood there, watching, making no move to help him. Wiping the blood on his jeans he looked up at me. His clear blue gaze guarded. For a moment he stared, then he quickly scrambled to retrieve his lunch pail from beneath a nearby car. 

I hastily gathered the other children into a group, and oblivious to their protests and complaints I hurried them across the garage and aboard a waiting elevator. When we reached the departure level I herded them toward the car  park and onto the waiting bus.

Once back at school I settled them for lunch and headed for the office. 

“I’ve had it,” I said. “Someone will have to replace me.”

Then I turned and took off. 

_______________________________

This is what it looks like from the other side of the desk!

6 thoughts on “Taking Off

  1. Wow. That gives a first hand view of how intense it is. I’d like to think it’s better now with more LA’s in classrooms to help support teachers but I wonder.
    My rural 5 year old granddaughter (stay at home mom) just started kindergarten. Her favourite part is the bus ride and recess. The teacher says she needs to work on making friendships. This is not something the last 3 years has taught her at all. She’s happy to go outside and play alone. I imagine post covid times the kids are scattered in many ways.

  2. I ended up being a technical writer and it suited me much better. I could focus, work independently, and had a tangible result. Still, nobody likes to read online help or the manual so the feeling of my work being undervalued continued, but at least I was satisfied with it!

  3. You are an amazing writer; I could picture it all so well. Congratulations on all you did for the kids till you couldn’t anymore 👏

  4. I get it. I taught (euphemistically speaking) junior high kids for two years. I was exhausted with the crowd control, having to be “on” every minute of the day and having no time for myself. I knew I was not cut out for it.

    I admire and respect so thoroughly those who can do that job. It’s relentless and demanding in all the ways you mention. It takes so many skills that most people don’t understand or respect. It’s so undervalued.

    Such a sad thing to be losing teachers and discouraging those who have the skills and temperament from entering the field.

    • Majorie, while I was ostensibly a post-secondary literacy educator in my professional life, my classes were all about the politics of education – the relationships between teachers/students, teachers/parents, teachers/administration, teachers/the public, the complexity of the learning/teaching relationship and how the institution of “school” undermines learning. I left that special education classroom job not because I couldn’t do it, but because there was no support to let me actually engage with the kids in a sustained way that nurtured me. I suspect you may very well have been cut out to be a teacher – just not in that kind of setting.

      My first teaching job was in a high school – biology to tech classes. During one of our staff inservice days we watched a 1966 film “No Reason to Stay!” about a school drop-out and what he drops out from – I was that student although I managed to hang in until the end of eleventh grade, after which I went to university. The film let me understand my own high school alienation experience. I lasted as a high school science teacher just the one year. The following year I taught at a treatment centre for disturbed adolescents – again, the alienation of these youth was tangible, only manifested as mental disturbance. Then the three and a half months in that special education classroom – I was both isolated and alienated. I subsequently went to graduate school, became a teacher educator which I did for close to 20 years before again dropping out – finally fed up with institutional constraints that undermined learning.

      You’re right – unless you’ve been a teacher you have no idea how relentless, demanding, exhausting a job it can be. I still teach a bit – I do sewing and quilting classes to share what I’ve learned over a very long time with others who want to learn. I find it rewarding.

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