Horace Knew What He Was Talking About

Posted on January 30, 2011


I learned of “Horace’s Compromise” very early in teaching inner-city kids…. “Don’t mess with me, and I won’t mess with you..”

It’s a simple system. If you make demands of students that they don’t like, like adhering to school rules, doing homework, paying attention to you.. they have the capacity to make your life a living hell. On the other hand, if you choose to be the Tyrant Teacher, you can make their lives miserable through constant harassment.. trips to the office, detentions, whatever school policy will let you get away with.

SO, NOW I want to CONFESS! I bargained with the devil.. or devils.. There were times in my life… like when one of my daughters was born, and I was getting no sleep at all, had run out of sick and leave days, and my ability to be effective in the classroom was gone, baby gone… My solution was to whip out crossword puzzles, word finds, paper games… check out movies… even challenge kids to play “hang-man” on the blackboard… Anything to keep them occupied while I let my tired body and brain retreat from engaging in what I was being paid to do. Did I feel guilty? Yeah, I did. Did the kids suffer? Looking back, I doubt it. Most of the kids assigned to me were already on the principal’s list of “next to go..” and they really didn’t give a damn what I tried to teach, they were just done having anything to do with school, classroom or teachrs.

But a strange thing happened. When they saw I wasn’t going to bust their nut to drive nouns and verbs down their throat, several of them approached me with concern… “Hey, man… what’s goin’ on?” At some point I spilled my woeful tale and they (most of them, anyway) seemed to understand. It was strange.. for some odd reason, many of them began taking care of ME. “How the hell did this happen?” I asked myself one day when lucidity invaded my insomniatic stupor. The more the question ate at me, the more I looked closer at who I was standing in front of …. 16 year olds, mostly… kids on the brink of school expulsion.. single mothers, guys whose problems with the law went back as far as 8-10 years…and yet here they were, sensing my vulnerability and instead of torturing me, not going half-crazy and pushing me into psychosis, they were reaching out.

I finally asked them why… what was happening? Their answer was interestingly pure and devastatingly clear. They said, “Hey, you care about US. You get in the principal’s face when one of us gets screwed over. You don’t judge us because some of us are speeders, or toke over lunchtime… hell, you are one of the few who even KNOW we toke.

I had to admit this was true. I was too crazy to be a teacher, too involved with the “undesirables” to find favor with administration’s views of this group. That’s why the principal kept my yearly assignments limited to working with them.

Another old education saw came to mind…. “you are what you teach..” I had learned what that meant. You teach academic classes.. you’re special. You teach high school, you’re higher in the pecking order than if you teach middle school.  Somehow, this old canard meant even more to me now, because one of the girls, already a two-child mother, said to me… “hey, we’ve got your back… hell, if you want to take a nap, we’ll post a lookout… it won’t be no different than standing guard over lunch when we’re hanging in the restrooms….

Yeah, you are what you teach… As I looked out over them, I saw kids who cared about each other, and knew what being screwed over by the privileged felt like…. I knew that feeling as well. Turns out we were a lot more than I thought. We were family.

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Posted in: Teaching in Hell