Searching for An Unruly Student

I have been teaching college for 10 years now and sometimes I think that it's as close as I can come to not working and getting paid for it.

I tell my students to do something and they do it. I ask them a question and they answer. I admonish them to come to class on time and they really try their best to comply. As a veteran of this experience, I might be entitled to take it for granted. But I don't. I still enter the classroom with the alacrity of the milk-faced student teacher, flattered (and somewhat surprised) when my students leave at the end of class - and then return for more.

It wasn't always like this. After my undergraduate education I taught high school - high school! - for a year. I was only 22, and when I look back on that experience I realize that I needed all the strength, spirit, and optimism afforded by my youth.

The principal of the all-boys school that hired me fresh out of college said he believed I was a natural. The only formal orientation I received was a word of caution from him: "Don't smile until Christmas."

I taught sophomore biology and freshman earth science. The honeymoon period lasted about two weeks, at the end of which I must have smiled, because I suddenly found myself spending more and more time disciplining my students. They were talking out of turn, falling asleep, passing notes, and generally irritating one another - benign infractions compared with some of the things that go on today. But over the course of days, weeks, and months, I found that it was taking a toll on me. I was getting less teaching done as the school year matured.

There was one student I will never forget: Terry Ryan. A freckled and impish strawberry blond with his hair parted in the middle and a chipped front tooth, he had nothing less than a body too happy for its own good. He fidgeted constantly, came late, neglected his homework, took his shoes off in class, fell asleep, and snored.

I finally had to call in his parents. They were older parents, first-generation Irish with thick brogues. The four of us sat around my desk while I explained to them the difficulty I was having with their son and the desire I had to help him in any way I could. By the time I finished my story Terry's parents were crying. So I started to cry as well. The only one not crying was Terry, who was checking his watch.

The meeting, as it turned out, didn't solve a thing. The next day when I went to class I found the door locked and my students huddled outside in the halfway. I tried to put my key in the lock but couldn't: Someone had filled the keyhole with toothpicks and glue.

I took attendance. The only one missing was Terry.

I caught up with him the next day. He didn't deny what he had done, but simply shrugged. I was furious, and he knew it. "What am I going to do with you?" I pleaded.

Terry shrugged again. "Let me go to basketball practice?" he taunted, flashing the chipped-tooth smile that drove the girls gaga.

"You play basketball?" I asked him with a note of surprise.

"Yeah," he said, looking sidelong at me. "You play?"

"Yeah," I said, nodding. And then something welled up in me, born of either inspiration or foolishness. Leaning toward Terry I blurted out, "And I can beat you."

I bit my lip as soon as I said it. Terry's eyes flashed. "Let's go," he said.

I held up a hand. "I want a deal first," I told him.

"A deal?"

"Yeah. If I win, you promise to sit still in class, talk only when called on, and do all of your homework. If you win, I'll never bother you again."

Terry rubbed his chin three or four times. And then, "A hundred points by one, winner takes out."

We shook hands on it and the next thing I knew we were facing each other on the gym floor. It was too late for regrets. Terry had the ball and I found myself trying to keep up with a speed demon. He was good, really good, and for the first five minutes, as he pulled farther ahead of me, I felt my heart sinking. Was I really going to lose? The prospect of a revitalized Terry, immune from my restraining hand, filled me with terror.

I couldn't keep up with his speed and boundless energy, so I took the last refuge of the underdog: long shots from the top of the key. I was taller than Terry and a better shooter. I won the game, 101 to 99. Terry limped off the court without saying a word. I sat down on the ball and took deep breaths. I had essentially played one of my students for his grade. What would the principal think of that?

Terry kept his word. He became, well, not a good student, but a cooperative and conscientious one, and I never had to call in his parents again. He began staying after class to talk to me, and I gradually learned of the things he was struggling with in his young life. But he persisted, went on to graduate, and I miss him.

NOW I am a university professor. As I said, discipline is rarely an issue with the students I teach, but sometimes I reflect on the role discipline has in bringing teacher and student closer. The high school kids, such as Terry, were looking for boundaries, which I was obligated to supply. The abiding willingness to please of my present students suggests that they've already found the boundaries. I know that's a good thing, but it also keeps me at arm's length. I feel up to the challenge of dealing with maybe one troublesome student, if only I could find one.

After all, I still have my hook shot, and I'm told that it's pretty good.

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