Tomika Brown is a college friend and a wonderful educator. Over ten years after graduation, her humor stuck with me so much that I reached out to her to contribute to Black Teacher Matters. True to form, her following piece is hilarious, but also speaks to deeper issues of trauma, teacher expectations and fear, and the power of the Black educator. Please enjoy:
Black Male Achievement: Teaching through Trauma
Guiding Question: Do you agree with Tamika’s response to this incident? Please comment below with your thoughts.
Despite the challenges of being a first year teacher at an urban high school, I had found my stride after a couple months in the classroom. It took a lot of research, trial and error and consulting more experienced educators, but I was in a comfortable space where I was pretty stable in my abilities and skills with instruction and classroom management. It wasn’t easy and I wasn’t the most confident educator, but I was committed to the work and the students.
One morning during my first period 9th grade World Geography class, I had just finished giving instruction and I divided the class into small groups to work collaboratively on an assignment. As I circulated around the classroom of 30 students, checking to see if everyone was contributing to the group assignment, I noticed that one student—we’ll call him Marcus—was just sitting at his desk, not participating with any group. I asked if he needed help or forgot which group I had assigned him and he ignored me. Hmm… what’s this about? Now I had heard from other teachers that Marcus was a behavior problem but I didn’t let their opinions cloud my perception of him, especially since he hadn’t shown me any issues in class.
“Marcus, what’s going on today?” I asked. He told me to leave him alone. I told him that I wouldn’t allow any student to just sit in my classroom and not participate. I had learned early on that idle students tend to create mayhem, so I tried to encourage him to put forth some sort of effort and engage in the activity. He shifted in his chair and refused to move. After moving on to check on other students and returning back to Marcus, he asked me to send him to “Cool Down.” Cool Down was a room in the school that housed students on in-school suspension. Teachers call a member of the school’s security staff to escort students to “Cool Down” when they were disruptive during their class period, but it wasn’t a practice that I employed because I saw the room as a retreat from the educational environment. Why would I send you somewhere to have a break when you aren’t doing anything here. Nah, bruh. “No you can’t elect to go to Cool Down, Marcus. You need to stay here and work with your group. You need this class to graduate! Get to it!”
He asked again, but this time, his voice was raised and his body language changed. He sat up straight and learned forward. I again denied his request and walked to my desk and took a seat as the rest of the class worked in their groups. He then stood up, walked up to my desk and asked me to call security to take him to Cool Down. Why are you so close to me? Didn’t I say no twice? “Marcus, return to your seat and work independently on the assignment if you don’t want to work in a group, but I’m not sending you downstairs.” He was not pleased with my denials. He started pacing, huffing and puffing, and even attempted to come behind the desk to pick up the classroom telephone himself. Why are you doing the most right now? “Marcus, go sit down.” Through this entire exchange, I never lost my cool, although I was annoyed. I wouldn’t let him or other students think that they controlled my classroom.
He then said, “I bet if I flip your desk over, then you’ll let me go!” HUH? Did this kid just threaten to flip my desk over just because he wants to go to Cool Down for no sufficient reason?! While I was slightly offended at this threat, I really didn’t believe that he would do it. So I said, “Marcus, you aren’t crazy enough to flip my desk over.” He then walked to his desk. Cool. He’s about to chill out. But walked right back and literally flipped my desk over and all of its contents onto my lap and the floor around me! Did this motherfucka just flip this whole desk on me? What in the entire fuck?!
Before this moment, none of the other students paid our exchange any attention. They were busy doing their group work or more discreet forms of mischief themselves, so they weren’t too concerned about a teacher redirecting a fellow student. But in that moment, you could literally hear a rat piss on cotton! Don’t get mad, Tomika. Breathe deep. Don’t let him see you lose your cool. I surveyed the classroom and all eyes were on me and Marcus. They wanted to see what would happen next, how I would respond. Even Marcus was awaiting my reaction. It seemed like those next couple seconds lasted forever as I sought to compose my inner rage and remain in control of the classroom.
I stood up, letting the papers on my lap to fall to the floor and slowly walked to the classroom door and locked it. Everyone’s faces were puzzled. They didn’t understand what I was doing. “You will not leave this classroom until you turn my desk upright and return everything to its right position, Marcus.” The students’ eyes shifted from me to Marcus. It was like a good game of chess. Check. “I ain’t doing shit” he said as he paced back and forth in front of the classroom. I just stood silently at the front door, awaiting his fulfillment of my request, but the tension was real.
About two minutes later, the bell rang for the end of the class period and my students, who usually ran to the door when the bell rang, just sat in their seats, not really knowing what to do since I was blocking the door. I instructed them to complete the assignment for homework and that we would review it the next day. Even after that, they moved very slowly to the door which I unlocked, letting each out one at a time. Every student looked back at Marcus as they walked out, wondering what would happen after they left. I’m sure he thought I would just let him go because it was the end of the period, but no. I was committed to maintain control of the situation, regardless of how much I wanted to straight up act a damn fool.
After all the students left and Marcus and I remained, I relocked the door and repeated my request, “I will let you go when you have returned my desk to the upright position and put everything back in its place.” By this point, he had stopped pacing and just stood there looking at me. I guess he finally realized that I wasn’t going to budge and he picked up the desk. He mumbled angrily as he picked up every item on the floor and returned it to the desk, but he had finished doing what I asked before the tardy bell rang.
I thanked him and unlocked the door and let him out. While he was angry, I could tell that he was still confused. I’m sure he encountered other teachers who would have gladly sent him to Cool Down at his request because of his reputation, but why didn’t I? I had no intention of writing a referral for the disruption or insubordination; I was serious about maintaining control of my classroom and not giving the control to someone outside of the space. Students were there to learn; if they were suspended due to referrals, they aren’t learning. I would not easily reward a student with a vacation from learning. Nope. Not in my classroom. It wasn’t easy, but I found it necessary for creating the type of educational setting I sought to maintain in my classroom.
Throughout this entire exchange, my department chairman, Mr. Mocky, was standing in the hallway outside of his classroom next door. He observed and heard the interaction but he didn’t intervene. He was one of the teachers who warned me about Marcus. He taught Marcus the year before and apparently they had their fair share of altercations, causing Marcus to fail World Geography the first time. As Marcus walked out of my classroom and passed my department chairman, Mr. Mocky commented to him, “I see you’re causing trouble again this year. That’s why you failed my class last year!” Before I could respond, Marcus turned to him and said, “Shut your punk ass up! Ms. Brown got more balls then your pussy ass will ever have! Fuck you!” My jaw dropped. Should I be flattered? Was this some sort of test? I don’t have time for this madness! Mr. Mocky stormed into his classroom, much like an angry teenager, and wrote a referral on Marcus.
Luckily the next period was my planning period, so I had time to process, decompress, and regroup. What just happened? Tomika, you always test limits! That could have ended terribly! What the fuck? Has this happened before with other teachers? Will I experience this again? I don’t know if I could muster the strength to be this composed again under that stress. I’m tired. I need a drink. I want to go to sleep. These thoughts were interrupted by Mr. Mocky, asking if I wanted him to take my referral for Marcus to the main office. I declined. Naw. I’m good. The situation was handled. But why are you writing one? Y’all passed words; he flipped my fucking desk over!
Marcus received an out of school suspension for 3 days for his exchange with Mr. Mocky and the entire time he was out, I wondered how he would respond to me when he returned. His classmates didn’t seem to be affected by the incident afterwards but how was he affected? Well, when he returned to class, he stopped to talk to me on his way into my classroom. Ah Lord. What is this about to be about? Just be pleasant, forgiving, and don’t hold a grudge! “Sorry for the other day, yo. I got mad respect for you. I didn’t know you were that crazy though!” I was surprised when he apologized. He thought I was the crazy one?!
I never had another problem with him in my class again. Sure, he was the usual rambunctious teenager, but his behavior was usually reasonable, although I did observe his violent fits in other parts of the school—so much so that I talked with his older sister, his guardian, about getting him evaluated by a professional for psychological abnormalities. He was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which made perfect sense to me.
Marcus and I developed a close relationship during that year and to this day–almost 11 years later, we laugh as we recall that day. I’m not sure what drew us together but he always expressed gratitude in my treatment of him. “No other teacher cared to look deeper to see if something was really wrong with me. They just said I was crazy and left me alone. That’s why you’re my aunt!” He grew to be very protective of me with other students, saying “you looked out for me, so I will always look out for you.” My relationship with Marcus is a great example of the transformative ability of caring and concern for our students. While we didn’t start off on the best foot, we grew to love and respect each other and he was able to understand more about himself and how he perceives the world around him.