Hold Your Horses!

He didn’t know it, but he was right to say that to me, to tell me “Hold your horses.” Only now, years after this happened, I realize how right he was. Stop and think for a moment – Only if I did! Although clearly he didn’t mean to give me this message. All he wanted was to sound cool in front of his peers. Also, to buy himself time. He just didn’t want to do school work. His tone of voice was so rude – It made me mad… I wish it didn’t.

When I was a classroom teacher it seemed hard – almost impossible – to get myself to stop and think. My mind was juggling so many things at once. It was go, go, go…constantly. Keep up the pace so you can finish the course, or else there’ll be no time for review! Answer those emails promptly and make sure to touch on all the points! Set up the lab for the afternoon class before the lunch meeting starts! The pressure was high. Time felt short. The emotions intense. And this was especially true when I was teaching at the school for learning disabled students. It was there that this incident happened. I remember that year as particularly tough.

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That year all my school days started with them – the “nonacademic” grade twelves. It’s how the schedule worked out. I taught their class first thing in the morning. It was an options course, but it was mandatory for them. Yup, a compulsory elective – Ironical, right? The school was small and couldn’t offer many course choices. And spares weren’t allowed, even to grade twelves. Bottom line is, most of these students weren’t in my class by choice. They didn’t want to be there. They would have rather done something else during that time. Like study for a core subject. Or hang out with friends. Or sleep in. But there I was, requesting their attention. Expecting that some work would get done. There I was, hoping we’d understand each other, that my class would stay civil. I don’t know what I was thinking… Expecting them to rise and shine? Every morning?? Hold your horses, lady! Al said it right.

But, at the time, what Al said and how he said it sounded insulting. Anger rose in me and I yelled: “Get out!” To which Al caught fire too, and told me off: “Fuck you!” This wasn’t the only time a student swore at me, but I remember it as one of the most painful. Foul language aside, I knew this exchange was only the tip of the iceberg. I knew the problem went much deeper than my student’s manners, that it was rooted in his strong dislike of school. Now in grade twelve, Al had been at odds with school for years. I’d been his science teacher since grade ten – I knew him pretty well. Could his dislike of school be helped somehow? It was a question Al’s teachers had tried hard to tackle over the years. Alas, not much headway had been made.

&

On that day, Al left my class and didn’t come back. The school had a system in place that should have given him the chance to calm down and think through what had happened. Afterwards he was expected to return to my class, to have a calm and open discussion with me. And apologize for his foul language. I, too, needed a chance to explain myself. But none of that happened. Knowing Al, I didn’t think he was going to come back to my classroom while his peers were still there – he would have felt humiliated – but expected that he’d return later in the day. Perhaps during my prep time? I hoped he would. Time outs had worked with Al in the past. Not so much on that day, though. When he was told to get out that morning, he didn’t just leave my classroom, he left the school. And he didn’t come back for his other classes either. On the next day, he didn’t show up at all, and neither did he on the following day. Had he decided to drop out?

The third day of Al’s no-show was a Friday. By now his absence from school was starting to raise alarms. He had already been late in handing in some major assignments in his core subjects, and he was now falling even further behind. Al’s other teachers were concerned – and furious. I was feeling very concerned too, and also guilty. I knew the problem was much bigger than me, but I was part of it. And the possibility that what happened in my class had been a last drop for Al, that it might have made him quit school altogether, felt almost crushing.

On that Friday, late in the afternoon, I met with the two school heads. They wanted to talk to me about Al and what had happened. I described how the incident started with my request that Al completed some work. And how, when I insisted, he told me “Hold your horses!” Which upset me and eventually led to…You know, the situation we were in right now. “When Al told you to hold on to your horses, I don’t think he meant to be rude,” one of the school heads said. “It’s a fairly harmless expression,” he added. “I realize, but what upset me was Al’s attitude,” I replied. “You must cut these guys some slack,” came the advice. “Give them more space.” But I thought I was already giving them plenty of space… We decided we were going to wait until the following week, and see what was going to happen. See if Al would come back to school.

&

Tense and remorseful, that’s how I felt the entire weekend. I tried walking and reading a bunch, but I failed to relax. The way I had dealt with Al’s attitude had been impulsive – no doubt about that. I should have kept my emotions under control, shouldn’t have yelled. I knew all that. But that was not all there was to it, was it? Let’s face it, Al was in my class against his wish. He didn’t want to go to any of his classes in fact. His academic standing was dire. He wasn’t good at school, and by now he knew this all too well. His confidence was in a shambles. His incentive for being at school, besides hanging with peers, was null. And we, his teachers, knew all of this too. But we still expected Al to comply. Ok, yeah, we were giving him some space, but we just couldn’t let him fall too far behind. There was no choice. We were all trapped in this system which was such that a student either submitted to it, or failed. Over the years Al had tried, but school just wasn’t working for him. And now, although we saw he felt defeated, we continued to push. Some teachers insisted it was all for his own good. But not me. I was sure we were doing damage. Why then was I following the others? Why was I acting against my better judgment? Why was I upholding a system which was clearly harmful to Al? And, as a matter of fact, not just to him…Most students in his class – often labeled “nonacademic” –  were struggling with school and thought of themselves as “stupid”. No wonder they acted out! How else would they assert themselves? The more time they spent at school, the more serious the damage. And I, as one of their teachers, was guilty of it. I wish I had at least held my horses with Al. I wish I hadn’t yelled. Stirred by the incident, all these thoughts tumbled inside my mind with renewed power. I spent the weekend feeling guilty and helpless, not knowing what to do.

&

Then Monday morning came. A sunny morning. The school was quiet when I arrived. I listened to my voicemail, read and answered emails, helped one of my students with her homework questions, got ready for the day’s classes…I knew I could always count on the myriad of pressing things awaiting me at school – They were guaranteed to push my weighty thoughts from the weekend to the back of my mind. But would Al show up? Would he come to his morning class? This question stayed put. Too impatient to wait, I went to see if he was in his homeroom. He wasn’t. The first bell rang and Al’s classmates started to trickle in. “Is Al at school?” I asked. They hadn’t seen him. Perhaps he was late, I told myself. I was still hopeful. It wasn’t unusual for him to show up late for his morning class. But when the class was over Al still hadn’t come. The other three classes I had that morning kept my mind occupied. Although my anxiety was hard to ignore, it was growing… Had he actually quit? Just a few months before finishing high school?

During my prep time, in the afternoon, my classroom was quiet. At lunch I’d talked to the school head and he’d said he’d get in touch with Al’s guardian. He was going to give him a call later that day, after the school was over. We were hoping to find out if Al had just taken some time off school – What were his plans? Maybe he was using this time to get caught up on school work? He wasn’t thinking to drop out, was he? It was going to be a difficult conversation. Al’s family situation was tricky. I was trying to plan my classes for the next day, but couldn’t concentrate. I was feeling overwhelmed by emotions – a deep sense of guilt. A knock on my classroom door startled me. Then the door opened and Al came in. I told him to sit down and we talked for a bit. He apologized that he swore. I apologized that I yelled. Right away we were both chill. He said he’d managed to finish a couple of overdue assignments for his math and social studies classes. He had just come to school to hand them in. He was happy about that. I felt relieved.

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Now, thinking back on those days, I wonder… What could Al have become if school were not so humiliating for him? If instead of making him feel like a loser, school was a place where he accomplished things which made him proud? If school gave him the chance to nourish what he was good at? And I wonder the same about many other students I taught and who, like Al, were not good at school. How bad was the damage we inflicted on them? Did any of it heal later on?

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