The first time I was called into the principal’s office was when I was fifteen years old. It’s a memory that haunts me still twenty years later because—even if for a brief moment—I was the kind of person I hated the most.
Teenagers can be cruel, no surprise there. In my sophomore geometry class, I sat next to a group of pranksters. They were always teasing someone and laughing behind the teacher’s back. One day they started teasing an overweight girl.
Whenever the teacher would turn and write something on the board, these boys would say, “oink.”
There was a quiet girl sitting near them. I remember her soft brown hair and innocent eyes. She had a round face and a round body to match. Truth be told, she could have crushed any of those boys had she tackled them, but she wasn't aggressive or mean. She was just overweight.
First, one boy would “oink.” Then two or three would “oink” together. Then something happened that made me hate myself: I laughed. My fifteen year old self found this funny for a moment.
There’s something to say about group pressure, the desire to be included and not excluded. The boys who instigated the “oinks” smiled at me when I laughed out loud. Then I did the worst thing: I “oinked” with them.
The girl burst into tears. The teacher turned and snapped at all of us. We were kicked out of class and sent to the principal’s office. As soon as I saw the girl’s tears, I felt incredibly bad. What kind of person had I become? An asshole, that’s what. I was so mad at myself. I spoke honestly to the principal and surprisingly never got in any more trouble than a one on one talk. I apologized to the girl too.
Ten years later I found myself in the principal’s office again, only this time I was a teacher getting a reprimand from my boss. You see, I had cussed out a student in class, and I guess teachers aren't supposed to do that.
But there was this boy, a fifteen year old, skinny, pimply jerk face of a student. He never did his homework, he talked back in class, he got up and walked around whenever he felt like it. And then one day, he started teasing a girl who sat in front of him. This girl too was overweight, round as a stability ball in the stomach. I heard the boy call her an “oompa loompa.” And then he called her a “fat cow.”
I snapped. “Hey, asshole. Yeah, did that get your attention? You are an asshole. And I won’t tolerate that in my classroom. Get out, now.” My face was red, my lips thin and angry, and my eyes were wide with adrenaline. I kind of wanted him to fight back, to say something mean back to me. I had plenty more to say to him.
He told the principal what had happened, and I was called down that afternoon to speak with the boss as well.
“You can’t cuss out students in the classroom, Joe,” he said, but he was smiling. “Between you and me, the kid is an asshole. Just watch your temper, ok?”
“You got it, boss,” I said. I can’t say it was the last time I had ever cussed at a student, but believe me, the few times a swear word has come out of my mouth in fourteen years of teaching (and I can count on my fingers the number of times it has happened), the person always deserved it.
But that first time, I will never forget. And let’s face it. The kid was an asshole, but that’s not all that was going on here. I was also calling my fifteen year old self an asshole too. When you see the bad in you reflected in other people, it makes it all the more real.
It’s these small moments that shape who we are, I think. And it is small reflections like this that have made me into the much stronger teacher I am today: the one who will stand up for everyone and put the assholes in their place.
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