Monday, March 10, 2008

Back in the classroom

I remember how vulnerable I used to feel returning to a classroom after being away several days. I felt as if I'd gone to sleep and woke to a new world.

Billy's class is in the middle of a campaign. To illustrate participatory democracy a classroom project to elect a mascot commenced. Last week four characters were nominated. Today campaign posters were going to be made to extol the virtues and promises of the candidates.

I wonder if this would have had any meaning for Scott even if he had been in last week. It must have contributed to a sense of disorientation and isolation I think he feels anyway.

Four poster-sized sheets of paper were distributed. One group of children took the poster to a spot on the floor that also happens to be a walk-through. Scott was passing through the area.

Things just happen so fast, and conclusions are drawn so quickly. The children had let the paper slip to the floor, and the current of air it generated ruffled it. Scott was intrigued by this, as the edge floated over his shoes. He wiggled his feet to loft it up again. One boy spoke harshly: "Don't step on it!" and shoved him backward. Then he grabbed Scott's arm and moved him over to trade places and told Scott to 'go over there.'

Scott stared at him, with no hostility on his face. It seemed more like puzzlement. He gazed into Ben's eyes while Ben glared back at him. I walked over and asked Ben if he could find a nicer way to ask. Ben said, "He was stepping on the paper" and I said, "Then your request is, 'please don't step on the paper.' "

I'm looking at the incident as one of those exploded diagrams of machines that illustrate the anatomy and relationships of the whole and parts. I see that Scott was startled by the intensity of the response he'd received and he hadn't reacted to it in anger because he hadn't yet categorized it. He didn't know he had been disrespected. And with an open face he was looking to Ben for an explanation of what had just happened. Ben was all-too-ready to "tell" him: "You're stupid!" He didn't use those words, but there was contempt in his face. The way such a scenario usually unfolds is that child A's intentions are misunderstood, child B speaks sharply (and because child B is protective of his object his first response to a 'threat' is anger, and because he feels anger he assumes the other person is the source. If the other person is the source, then the other person must be wrong, bad, or "stupid." It seems very logical). Child A either 'gets it' that child B thinks he's stupid and gets angry back, or, if he's confused, waits for child B to 'explain'. Child B, still angry, does or says something to make the point clearer, that child B is defective. Child B internalizes this and may become angry in turn. It could come to blows. And it all happens so quickly. Trying to deconstruct it is like trying to separate baking soda and vinegar once the chemical reaction has begun

It occurs to me that there is a fulcrum point there where child A is defining the moment for child B as 'you're stupid and deserve me to talk to you like this.' Which means that on some level child B can accept this definition, or not. What typically happens is that child A's meaning is registered, and accepted, even as it is being angrily denied.

It seems such an obvious conclusion: if we're angry it's because someone else is the source. If we already assume someone is stupid, we're likely to perceive that they're being stupid again. We treat them that way, and their resentment for being treated that way predisposes them to act that way.

What I want to know is, is it possible to slow that moment down where one has the choice to internalize how an Other says we should define a situation? So instead of accepting and reacting to Ben's definition, can we instead say, 'wow, what's eating HIM? I'm not stupid, why is he talking to me this way?'

Too late I wonder if Scott was in a kind of limbo where his interpretation could have fallen in either direction--and by stepping in to correct Ben *I* actually pushed the definition to 'you were just disrespected'?

3 comments:

Lori said...

"What I want to know is, is it possible to slow that moment down where one has the choice to internalize how an Other says we should define a situation? So instead of accepting and reacting to Ben's definition, can we instead say, 'wow, what's eating HIM? I'm not stupid, why is he talking to me this way?'"

This has special interest to me. Old patterns are ingrained deeply.

Suzy said...

Interesting post.

For me it translates into, " this is not about me, this is about the him/her (the other person).

Had I learned this lesson 50 years ago, my life and therapy would have been very different.

Great post!

Love
Suzy

paul maurice martin said...

I became a pretty good deconstuctionist and used to actually get kind of a kick out of it. The real fun for me (oh, evil guidance counselor) was that I learned to get all the background info I could from students, teachers and other staff if I suspected one or more of the involved students would be apt to lie.

It was fun knowing all or most of the real deal and pretending I didn't and leading them into telling the truth. Evil but in a good way I think - getting them to see it was possible to tell the truth and have things turn out better than they would have otherwise.