One of the eventualities of working as a high school teacher is being cussed out, ignored or otherwise disrespected by a student. In my first week as a student teacher some twelve odd years ago, I tried getting a student to go to class. The student responded by farting at me. This is a different, though no less humiliating experience from being "farted on," which as the youngest of three boys was not a foreign experience. What exactly does it mean to be "farted at"? Allow me to describe... he turned his back to me, leaned over thereby protruding his butt in my direction, and audibly expelled gas. In shock, I could not respond before he laughed and scampered down the stairwell. Determination, stubbornness, a sense of humor... some combination of the above gave me the strength to show up to school the next day.
That was my first lesson that being disrespected was part of this profession I had embraced. Still, acknowledging this truth about my work has not necessarily lessened the sting. This week, in a nearly identical scenario, I was trying to get a student to go to class. His response, though less odoriferous, was greatly triggering. "Get the fuck outta my face before I rock your shit." As a guy of small stature, I had two reactions to those words. The first was intense heat. I imagined putting him in a headlock and punching him in the face until blood was dripping on the floor. This emotional reaction was wrought from years of being picked on and feeling physically intimidated. The second reaction was one of fear, aka self-preservation. Along with having "little man" rage, I had also learned quickly that being small also meant that fighting was generally not a smart choice.
While anger and fear were coursing through my body, I was breathing. I was noticing these intense emotions. I was noticing that I was a teacher - a conflict resolution teacher, in fact - in a school hallway with a student who was clearly not in his right mind. This was not a rumble in the jungle. My survival was not on the line. Even though my ego was demanding respect and begging me to at least say something with the voice of authority, I could see that any words might only provoke a physical response.
This young man was angry. Why? There could be a million reasons. How had he suffered in his life up to this point? Fifteen or sixteen years old, how many murders had he seen? How many fights had he been in? How much abuse did he witness in his home or at school? So even though my ego felt attacked, was this even about me? A few simple breaths helped me to look beyond the haze in this young man's eyes and to see the pain in his heart. Violence, intimidation, and fear are realities of this society, and we as a species have cultivated these emotions.
Thankfully, I walked away. I am breathing now, taking care of my emotions. I hope that schools will continue to prioritize teaching young people to take care of themselves. Who knows when they will cuss, scream or fart at someone who won't know how to walk away.