Years ago, while working in Japan, I was asked to substitute for another homeroom teacher on finals day. The class was 2-B, and it had a reputation for unruly, disrespectful, and intentionally antagonistic students. Their homeroom teacher was new, and he wanted to be their friend—a common new teacher mistake. Think about how junior high kids treat their friends—respect rarely comes to mind, right? Most kids don’t need adult friends; instead, they need leaders and elders who might guide them, who might help awaken them to a bigger picture, who might mentor them to be wiser, more effective people. Alas, I digress ….
The teacher, whose class I was about to sub for, was a “friend,” and his students treated him accordingly. When he came into the room to start class, if the students were there they would openly disrespect him by ignoring him. Typically, a large percentage of his students would be in the hallways, chatting and seemingly oblivious that class had technically begun.
How on Earth was I, a teacher with whom they had no real relationship (and a foreigner to boot), going to get all of the students into the classroom and ready to begin the final on time? I was a third-grade teacher, and this was a second-grade class, which meant I had had practically no interaction with them before this moment. At the time, I had a reputation for being a fair and strict, yet loving, mentor-type teacher, and that reputation usually put new students in my corner right away. But with this class, I could not count on that reputation assisting me.
I entered the classroom early, with an open mind, hoping to figure things out on the fly. About a third of the class was not present in the room at the starting bell, so I peered into the hallway and found scattered groups of boys and girls enjoying conversation. All hailed from 2-B—and all were late.
Not wanting to disturb other classes that were already beginning their finals, I quietly managed to round up the kids and usher them into the classroom. I probably threatened to flunk them if they didn’t enter the classroom, but I don’t clearly remember now. In any case, I got them in there.
The next step was to take attendance, make sure that all desks were empty of any content aside from pencils and erasers, and then hand out the tests. During this time, students are to remain silent and focused to prepare for their tests. This was not the case with 2-B.
There were three boys who began making snide remarks about my race (a white man in Japan). I addressed them, telling them to show a proper testing attitude, but to no effect. In fact, one of the boys threw a pencil across the classroom to another mischievous boy, a quick way to get someone hurt. With a stern voice, I immediately scolded the boys. I told them that they were holding up the test and that I would expel them from the classroom if they did not immediately improve their behavior and prepare for the test.
One of the boys apologized, but the other two stood up defiantly, so I sent them out of the classroom immediately. They appeared to ignore me, but when I began to walk decisively towards them, one of the boys lost confidence and told the remaining defiant boy, Takumi, “C’mon, let’s go.“ Fortunately, Takumi agreed and both left peaceably. In Japan, sending a student out of the classroom is against the law, and I knew it. I didn’t see a better option, so I did what I believed was in the best interest of the class.
Once the two boys were out, we began the test. I went out into the hallway and told the expelled students that they had forfeited the right to take their finals (also against the law), and at that moment the head teacher of the school came walking over.
He asked me why these students were outside of the classroom. I attempted to explain, but the boys disrespectfully spoke over me to tell their side.
The principal cut through them with one question, “Were you perfect!?!”
Caught off guard, both students looked down and quietly answered, “No ….”
The principal replied, “Then you have no excuse.”
The boys nodded.
“Now, get back in the classroom and begin your test,” he ordered.
The students bowed, smirked at each other, and hustled back into the classroom.
To be honest, I felt undermined at this moment because the head teacher took away my authority by allowing them to take the final. I understood that he was following the law, but it still stung my ego. But more importantly, I learned something positive from his one slicing question: “Were you perfect?”
After exam completion, I called those two students up to my desk to debrief. One of them was sincerely apologetic. The other, Takumi, was defiant. I told them both to meet me in the teachers’ room after final homeroom. The apologetic boy agreed and apologized again. The defiant boy became enraged. He yelled that he had done nothing wrong, and that I had singled him out for no reason. There was fire in his eyes, and he clenched his fists as he approached me in an aggressive way. This might have scared a lot of teachers, but I had been training martial arts all of my life, so I was unfazed. I calmly looked into his eyes, pointed at his fists and said, “Careful. Attacking a teacher will get you expelled from this school permanently, and neither of us wants that.” He unclenched his fists. I told him that we would continue this conversation in the teachers’ room later. He bluntly said, “Not a chance,” as he walked away disdainfully.
Immediately, I spoke to the 2-B homeroom teacher to explain the circumstances and to ask for his support. Judging by his mannerisms and wishy-washy response, it was clear that he was not going to help. I suspected that he was afraid to appear as the bad guy.
I then went to the head of the second grade and explained the situation. Mr. T. was a longtime friend and a great teacher who understood the necessity for a balance of fairness, kindness, and discipline in a teacher/student relationship. He promised to join me in the student conference once he was finished taking care of his own homeroom class. He also promised to have both students at the conference on time. Both promises he kept.
The students came at the appointed time—one in a reflective mood and the other ready for a fight. The reflective student immediately apologized and then explained that I was not the only teacher he was in trouble with. He was caught playing hooky from his homeroom class. We talked about his unhealthy behaviors, and he immediately agreed that he needed a change of direction in life. I told him to see the other teacher first and come back later to speak with me. That left me and Takumi, whom I ushered into the teachers’ conference room. The head of the second grade, Mr. T., was still busy with his homeroom, but I assumed he would be along shortly.
As soon as the door closed, Takumi started yelling at me, claiming that I had singled him out for no reason. I told him that I wanted to have a calm, respectful conversation with him. He sat down sideways to show his defiance, his eyes showing anger. I began speaking, but immediately he spoke over me. I waited. Then he started yelling at me because “I was wasting his time.” I repeated that I would wait until we could speak calmly and with respect. He yelled that he was in the soccer club, and that they had a big match that weekend. He was a key player, and he had to get to practice. I reminded him that this was a school, and that scholastic education and behavior were primary concerns. I explained that soccer club was secondary, and that he could not enjoy club if he did not behave in class. This statement sent him over the edge, and he started screaming obscenities at me.
I immediately stood up and marched over to his side. I was planning to sit down next to him so he could feel that I was not going to be bullied. Before I could sit, he surprised me with a comment I will never forget, “Go ahead! Hit me! I get beat all the time at home! I’m used to it! You know you want to! Go ahead!”
At this moment, the conference room door flew open as a score of teachers poured into the room to stop whatever ugliness they feared was about to ensue. The teachers surrounded the inner walls of the room and the disciplinary teacher said, “Takumi, calm down. Don’t yell.” The boy flew into an insane rage. He roared, animal-like; toppled desks; crawled at me on his hands and knees; and clawed at the air between us as a teacher restrained him from behind.
In my 14 years of teaching, I had never seen anything like this. I left the room immediately, hoping that Takumi would calm down.
Takumi’s homeroom teacher and soccer coach entered the room to deal with the boy. Ten or 15 minutes later Takumi calmed down, but he never admitted his wrongdoing. He was allowed to go to soccer club without consequence. Nothing more was said.
I realized that most of the other teachers were afraid of Takumi, and they handled him with feather gloves. Because of this fear, no one was willing to take the lead with Takumi. I was the first teacher to hold Takumi to an acceptable standard of behavior in the two years that he had been at our school. Until that day the only person in Takumi’s life to take “authority” was his father, who physically beat him. To Takumi, authority was traumatic, trust-destroying, and potentially life-threatening. The beatings made Takumi feel powerless, so misbehavior at school was his way of feeling that he had power. I had unwittingly triggered Takumi’s fight/flight response by exerting authority.
Aggression, violence, and selfish rebellion (as opposed to moral/ethical rebellion) in society are primarily caused by the psychological damage inflicted on a child at the hands of adult relatives. Some children may take the punishment quietly, but they pay it forward to their own children later. Other children, like Takumi, may become extremely violent when the associated fear of authority is triggered by other unwitting adults.
If we look at societies where crime and violence are rampant, we will likely find an abundance of broken families. The children are beaten physically and emotionally by their only parent, by neighborhood kids, and gangsters. The children live in an ocean of very real danger. The entire atmosphere is toxic. A certain percentage of children will become fearful, aggressive, and rebellious to any type of authority, for they know no other option.
It is important to understand that fear is not only born of physical attack. It is just as easily born of the stories that we tell our children. The narrative of the family, of the neighborhood, of society as a whole can be just as psychologically damaging to children, and can cause the same fight/flight/avoidance response.
When we understand that societies are just extensions of families, which are extensions of individuals, then we will begin to see that we need to address, on an individual basis, our own shortcomings and re-raise ourselves accordingly. None of us are perfect. If we do not start with our own narratives, then how can we ever expect to have a positive influence on society as a whole?
Are you perfect?
Neither am I.
Let’s get to work, shall we?
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