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Fair is Foul, and Foul is Fair

Educator, author, mother extraordinaire Jessica Lahey shares a personal story about reaching a student who wouldn't listen.

By Jessica Lahey

Jessica Lahey is an educator, writer, and speaker. She writes about parenting, education, and adolescence for the New York Times, the Atlantic, and her own site, jessicalahey.com. She is a regular contributor to Vermont Public Radio's Commentary series and appears as a parenting and education expert on the Today Show, Fox and Friends, WNYC’s The Takeaway and Huffington Post Live. Her book, based on the Atlantic article "Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail," will be published by HarperCollins in fall 2014.

August 7, 2013

Toward the end of this academic year, I cut across the playground on my way to deliver some papers. I was in my own head, thinking about all the report cards I had to write and the endless year-end details on my mental to-do list when I overheard a lower school student ask a question that so perfectly summed up the middle school experience. A group of students had pulled together to organize a game of foursquare, and a fifth grader sized up her opponents—a mix of middle school and elementary students—and asked,

"Are we playing regular rules, or middle school rules?"

Ah, yes. Middle school rules. Different from the regular rules. Elusive, slippery things I'm only beginning to master, and I have spent the past five years as a professional middle school referee.

The work of a middle school teacher and referee becomes particularly challengingand importantin the last weeks of school, when the chalk lines on the playing field are faded from use and the adrenaline runs high in the players. A lot of rules get broken in the last weeks, and while I am usually a stickler for those rules, the ones concerning classroom management, I've been breaking some of them myself in order to adapt to the changing dynamics of this game's final minutes.

In that last week of school, I had to pull a kid out of class so I could talk to him about the number of yellow cards he'd amassed over the previous days. He was on the verge of being ejected from my classroom, and I was beside myself with frustration. I'd needed to speak to him the day before, but I broke my usual rule of immediate feedback (kids understand consequences best when they follow immediately after the action) and put our discussion off for a day. I needed to sleep on my frustration with him. Okay, I admit it. My anger. I was angry with him, and I knew that if I spoke to him when I was angry, I would muck it up. This would be my last opportunity to speak with him and help create some sort of change in his behavior before we parted ways for the summer. If I botched the talk, he would be mad at me, I would be mad at him, and the rest of our time together would be a power struggle. I've been there before. I've tried that play over and over again, and I know for a fact that we'd both lose. It's a dud of a play.

I was up into the wee hours of the morning, worrying over what angle to use with him, what trick I could pull out of my hat as the clock ran down on our time and on my window of opportunity. As luck would have it, I was scheduled to introduce the summer reading selections to his class that morning, and as I looked down at the well-worn book on top of the summer reading pile on my desk, I had my angle. It was time to introduce my student to the philosophy and teachings of one Atticus Finch.

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The moment I heard his voice in the locker room, I called him into my office. His defensiveness was immediate and apparent. He knew he was about to get in trouble, and he was not going to look at me or acknowledge that he'd done anything wrong. I could see that in the first seconds, even before the first word came out of my mouth. His shoulders were rigid; he was looking past me, not at me; and his lips were set in a sort of angry grimace. He licked his lips and set his teeth.

I took a breath and told him that I wanted to talk to him not as a teacher but as another human being. He'd really upset me the day before. I'd asked him repeatedly to cooperate and work with the group, and the final time I'd spoken to him, he'd laughed with a friend. I asked him to imagine how he would feel if he were in my shoes. What if he had asked one of his classmates to change his behavior, and that classmate had whispered with another student and laughed.

He began to deny that he'd laughed, but his voice trailed off into silence.

I said I could not help but assume that he was laughing at me, that I believe he would have assumed the same thing had the tables been turned. I then confided that I'd gone home that day so frustrated that I went out in the yard and weeded my gardens rather than work on my writing. I felt disrespected and hurt.

He exhaled. His shoulders came down, his jaw relaxed, and he looked right into my eyes.

And he saw me.

Until that moment, I was the mean teacher who ruthlessly imposed rules on him and embarrassed him in front of his friends when he got too rough on the playing field. However, when I helped him understand how his behavior made me feel, he saw me as a human being worthy of respect.  Not because I'd demanded it, but because I deserved it.

And what's more, he knew I'd recognized the same in him.

An emotional soundtrack did not swell up from the corners of my cramped middle school officethe student did not leap up on a desk and address me as "O Captain, My Captain"but it was an important moment for us both nonetheless.

The rules of middle school are like that. Some days, they work great, and everyone understands the location of the bright white line between fair and foul, foul and fair. Other days, we know enough to toss the rules in favor of a system that will work for all of us: the players, the referees, and the object of the game.