MOBILE, ALA. — One Tuesday morning, I opened my classroom to find shredded paper shoved under the door. Sweeping up the mess, I discovered that the torn strips used to be a sign that I had posted three years before that asked my high school history students to "Leave all excess baggage at the door."
It was my first personal effect to be vandalized since I started teaching, though I didn't give it much thought. I merely replaced the sign.
Wednesday: The new sign is shredded and crammed under the door. Thursday: Third sign, same result. I didn't bother to erect a fourth. But I did wish to know who was disrespecting my signs.
Ask any public high school teacher: Few things are more maddening than classroom vandalism. Yet, I had the feeling that none of my students was involved. After all, the secret to my teaching success was the fact that I related so well to my students. I had a gift of forging positive relationships, and discipline problems were things other teachers had to worry about.
During lunch duty the next week, one of my civics students strolled over and nonchalantly narked on the culprit. "It was Big Josh," she said with a smirk. "He trashed your sign; I saw him. He told me not to say anything, but I hate that guy. I hope he gets in trouble; just don't bring my name into it."
Now it all made sense. Josh, or Big Josh as he was known, was our school's bully. He towered well over six feet and weighed more than 300 pounds.
Although he had the means, Josh never stole anyone's lunch money. It was far worse. He had a knack for pinpointing a person's faults and highlighting them to the world. Teachers dreaded him in class, and students were too scared not to be his friend. Josh's troublemaking was typically random and because he was intimidating, no real consequences ever followed his actions.
Strange, I never even taught the kid. I had only heard stories of how he sabotaged Mrs. Clifton's Julius Caesar lessons, dissolved freshmen self-esteems at lunch, and regularly mocked the way a special needs student walked. And now I had become his latest target. We'd never even exchanged hellos. I had to stand up to him, because I knew my signs were only the beginning of his harassment.
I lived by three rules as a teacher: 1) Use humor to deal with tough situations; 2) don't ever let a student know they have gotten to you; and, 3) don't run to the vice principal – handle your own discipline problems.
On Friday, I held the mike at an assembly. I was hyping an upcoming basketball game. Because their classroom is so far away, shop-class students arrive late to assemblies and usually enter quietly from a door on the side of the gym. This day was different. During my pep talk, in a clear effort to be disruptive, Big Josh burst through the door like a wrecking ball. He just so happened to be wearing a garish, red shop-class apron.
All eyes were on him. He had gotten his laugh.
Then it happened. Without premeditation, I yelled, "Heyyyyyyy Kool-Aid."
It was Dave Chappelle funny. Laughter thundered through the gym. KO'd in the first round. Immediately, Big Josh was dead, and "Kool-Aid" rose from his ashes. For the rest of the year kids would yell, "Hey Kool-Aid" when they encountered Josh. After the assembly, somehow students saw him as more human, more accessible, more like everyone else.
During lunch I posted a new sign with a slightly adjusted message: "Leave all excess baggage (and Kool-Aid) at the door." It hung intact for the rest of the year.
• John Christian Hoyle, a National Board Certified Teacher, lives in Mobile, Ala.