Letting Go: how a night of violence taught me to be a better teacher
Do you remember what it's like to be a new teacher? Perhaps you are one, in which case this isn't difficult. One thing that marks the baptism of the classroom is the stress; the frozen moments of paralysis and anxiety as you crumble under the weight of approbation, effort and worse, ridicule. This is no small problem; I reply to weary, worn teachers all the time who have almost nothing left to give, so eroded are they by the death of a thousand cuts. But new or not, everyone wears the strain between the desired and the delivered; the tension when twenty five people refuse to pursue their collective interest and seem to aim for your disintegration.
Instead of crumbling, some shatter. We have ALL lost our temper; we have all blown a seal. The pupils can often see it coming; watching you as the rivets eke their way from their seams before erupting like champagne corks. This anger, while understandable, is an alien acid to your practise; it almost exclusively fails to achieve anything other than entertaining the crueller cells of your class corpus. When I began to teach, I went home every night feeling like weeping, and spent lonely weeks racked with self-doubt and dismay. Children wouldn't do the tasks I asked, and what kind of man was I? It was one of the lowest points of my life.
By my second year I wasn't drowning any more, but I was barely breaking the surface. I fell into a familiar vortex of fail: my classes were all hard; they barely seemed to work when I asked; as time passed I did less and less about the behaviour because nothing seemed to make a difference, and I couldn't cope with the effort of doing anything about it. As things got worse and worse, I circled the drain, hating myself, despairing for my ability as a teacher, and my ability to help children many of whom, seemed not to want to be helped. In many ways, I took their behaviour home with me every night, and it burned.
Then, one night I was coming back from an evening out- I had been to see Shakespeare in Regent's Park because that's how I roll- and walking the short distance in the east end of London back to my flat in Stepney. It was a walk I had made many times, even at midnight, as this was. But this time, there were other creatures afoot, with designs on my contentment. As I entered the road I had an intuition that matters were not as they should be; ten, perhaps twelve teenagers spanned the road, clumped in small groups. They saw me; I saw them. I ignored the obvious thing, which was to turn around, because this was my street; so I continued. As I prepare to break their line, I kept my eyes straight ahead and my pace even- years in Soho had taught me that any engagement with an aggressor could be construed as antagonism, or sufficient excuse.
But my luck ran out. One of them stepped into my path and said, 'Are you being rude, mate?' I swerved around him, but not enough to avoid the roundhouse punch right into my mouth. Have you heard of people saying they saw stars after a blow? I did, then. Forget any fantasies about channelling Batman and boldly trading punches one after another; I went down like a minister's advisor, really hit the dirt in shock as everything swum around me. Four or five of them fell on me, and I knew for a moment what all prey knows: the irrefutable certainty that one is helpless, and hopelessly outmatched; whatever happened next was out of my hands, and I could only hope they were not blinded by viciousness.
Again, no luck. Too low for a satisfactory punching, I began to receive the proverbial kicking. To be honest, there was no pain; I simply curled into a ball and endured. But when they started to kick me around the head, I realised another proposition: they didn't care what happened. A kick to the ribs would indicate the desire to harm, but not end, a person; a kick to the head signified a boundary had been crossed. My options darkened. Still the kicks came; head, face, stomach, legs. A rain.
This went on for maybe ten seconds? It felt like an hour.
Abruptly, the ordeal stopped. Piecing it together afterwards, some of the others had disputed the attack, and pulled my assailants from me. Still on autopilot, I staggered to my feet, found my glasses, punched from my face with the first blow, and lurched off like a prisoner. Ten yards later I heard footsteps behind me, and the last part of me knew that I was finished; I had the sensation of knowing they were going to finish me, and the devils had overcome the angels. So I braced for the next blow, because I had nothing to offer them.
What happened next amazed me; it still does. One of the boys pulled alongside me and said, 'I'm sorry, please, I'm so sorry.'
I kept moving, not wanting to release the opportunity to escape. 'It's fine,' I said. 'It's fine.' I felt nothing at all, no pain, no fear.
I got home, cleaned up and shook with shock. The damage was less and more than I had thought; my ribs were black and blue, and throbbed for weeks. My legs looked as if I had been caught in a crusher. Two of my teeth had been loosened; days later, I lost them completely. Dental work aside, X-rays showed nothing but soft tissue violation The body healed. My mind, not so much.
Gradually the anger rose; after a few nights, the blood boiled in my veins with a deadly purpose. I had been humiliated, beaten to the ground, unmanned in a way I hadn't thought possible, and if you have never been totally physically bested, you cannot know: to feel in fear of your life and have everything you are subject to the whim of another, crueller person.
I raged; I didn't sleep for days; I sat and stared into the darkness and seethed with revenge and anger and violence. I ate almost nothing, and did so begrudgingly. I became cruel, and that made me powerful. All I wanted- ALL I wanted was to pick up a brick, circle the area where they took me apart, and throw myself into their midst, exploding like a grenade and to Hell with the consequences. This, from me; I abhor violence; I have never thrown a fist in anger, I shrink from aggression. But my humiliation had driven me to the edge of my sanity, and every time I closed my eyes I saw the blows again and again. I wept with violence, and I believe that some part of me, some human shape inside me, fractured and fell.
I went back to school after a few days, although it seemed to be a dream world that hardly mattered. Alone at the end of the day, I contemplated another night in my prison of a room, disintegrating in the darkness. I must have looked like an animal, pinched and battered. I couldn't face the strain of the rage and hatred I constantly felt; the stress that acted like a skeleton to my body, keeping me up. I have never felt such a thing before, nor since.
Then it happened.
I realised that if I continued to hate so completely, to writhe so perfectly in anger, I would be annihilated; everything I am is contrary to hate; it has no part of my DNA. Breathing it like oxygen would be the end of me, either physically or in my identity. I faced two paths: continue to hate, and rage, and revenge; or I could forgive; I could let it go. So I let go.
In an instant- and I mean an instant- clouds parted in my heart.
I am not a man of faith, and I can imagine how this could be interpreted, so I can only provide my own poor agnostic perspective, though I borrow the language of faith. Not only did I feel better, but I felt immaculate; washed clean; baptised and reborn. Every muscle relaxed inside me as I realised that there was nothing to be done about my attack, so the appropriate thing to do was nothing, just move on. I felt strong again, stronger than before, and confident. Joy burst inside me and as a strange side effect, I felt nothing but pity for the children who had assaulted me. I saw their desperate, dysfunctional lives cast in the air like a 3-D map, and, without excusing or extenuating their vile behaviour, felt no anger, merely understanding.
This, in a second. That moment has never left me; the sheer transformation I felt from despair to elation. Somehow- and I am not a good man, nor am I possessed of heroic virtue- I had dislocated the event from myself; I had found some distance between the moment of violence and whatever it is that makes me who I am. This epiphany- and it was an epiphany- redesigned my relationship with my classes. Perhaps not as instantly as my Damascan absolution, but gradually. I saw that pupil behaviour was not a personal attack on me, other than that I was the person dealing with it, but a general action near to me rather than internal to me; I saw rudeness and mucking around as situations to be dealt with, not as a personal failure on my part. I started to see it as if it were a documentary on television, removed and dislocated from me rather than something that defined me.
In short, I came to care a bit less what they did, and care a bit more about what I was going to do about it. I still believe that pupils completely own their behaviour, and no one should ever blame a teacher for it unless they have literally antagonised the children to the point of goading. But, just as a doctor cannot crumble if a patient withers, so too must a teacher learn to create a professional distance between pupil and the person. From then on, I knew what I had to do in classrooms. You can only be hurt by people you love or care about; I decided to care a bit less about if they liked me, and a bit more about how well they flourished as pupils.
And that has made all the difference.