Later in his career, Jaime Escalante of Stand and Deliver led his students to defeat the Cylons.
One of the “teacher moments” I most looked forward to was breaking up a fistfight. In my Teach for America interview, I specifically said that I didn’t expect my two years in the classroom to resemble a cheesy teacher movie. This was more self-deception than outright lie. I didn’t want to believe that I was doing TFA for the wrong reasons (i.e. glory), and my biggest motivation for becoming a teacher was how much I enjoyed tutoring, but I can’t deny that I expected to have a few inspirational, tough-loving moments. I imagined pulling apart two bloodied, heavily tattooed young hooligans and sitting them down. I’d yell at them for a few minutes, and then I’d meet their eyes and say “God damn it you’re better than this. All I want is to see you have the same things in life that I had. Maybe they’ve all given up on you, but not me.” Cue tearful, yet still-masculine hugs between all parties.
I'm yelling at you... because I care.
It didn’t exactly end like that when I broke up my first fight last week. It began, fittingly enough, on the basketball court. My advisory students were facing off against another freshman teacher’s class as a bonding experience, and half of the school was there to watch. My team lost, but getting to play “coach” for half an hour – pacing up and down on the court, yelling clichéd phrases I had heard in (here we go again) sports movies – was fair compensation.
It was the end of the game, and most of the students were filing out of the court, down the narrow staircase back to the school building. As I was packing up the equipment I heard a couple of boys swearing behind me; thinking they were just engaging in typical adolescent behavior, I turned around to give them my practiced “disapproving teacher” look.* What I saw could best be described as an “angry hug”; the two boys were in a mutual headlock, cursing and swinging ineffective punches at one another’s backs.
It wasn't even as exciting as the "jungle scene" in Mean Girls.
Before I knew exactly what I was doing, I had physically inserted myself between the pugilists and forced them apart. A few other students rushed up and restrained them both. I was honestly surprised that I had the correct reflexes; it made me wonder if I would do the same thing if I weren’t in the teacher role (I was reminded of a psychology study in which people were instructed to give each other electric shocks; when made to wear nurse costumes, they chose to deliver a lower voltage; I then briefly reflected on how incredibly nerdy that pattern of thought probably made me). Still, though, so far things were following my imagination’s script, and it was time to enter phase 2. “Stop right where you are,” I said. “I need to speak with both of you.”
Unfortunately, I didn’t plan out the part where one student told me to “fuck myself” and ran off, shouting more obscenities back at the other, who then followed in hot pursuit. I gave chase, but unsuccessfully; they ran, one after the other, in the school building.
Not quite the story of my career.
Neither did the meeting the three of us had with my assistant principal soon after go exactly as I imagined. The two students told completely inane and contradictory stories involving someone calling someone else stupid while putting on a sweatshirt. Frankly, I lost interest when I realized that they weren’t from rival gangs and weren’t about to settle a decades-old vendetta by renouncing violence forever. Still, though, I walked out of the office that day with a smile. The events of that day were sort of a symbol for my entire teaching experience: not exactly what I expected, but never a dull moment.
*Disapproving teacher look.