Ch.13: Keep Cool!
Selected Chapters from
Angels in My Classroom
Russian Proverb: Patience doesn’t always help, but impatience never does.
One day during a math lesson, my student-teacher, Jane, was teaching the class. I was doing an observation on another student. I heard, “Victory!” shouted by my best friend Nelson. He was lying on his back, arms and legs in the air.
“Nelson! Come here,” I demanded. He came and stood in front of me with a hound dog look on his face. “Did you just shout victory?”
There was a long pause. His eyes rolled left to right, as if he was trying to rewind to two minutes earlier. “Yes.” He sounded chagrined, although I was uncertain if it was due to being in trouble or being interrupted in his fantasy.
“Why?” Mostly, I asked out of curiosity. I just wondered in which of many possible battles he had just reigned supreme in his mind.
His shoulders shrugged. I shook my head. “Do you suppose you could do a couple more math problems before you return to the battle?”
He smiled sheepishly. “I’ll try.”
I don’t perceive myself as a patient person, but I am often told how patient I am. I sometimes wonder why that is. Perhaps it is the moment or more likely the situation.
I am not patient with long-winded meetings when I have a bajillion things to do. I am not patient with drivers in front of me at tollbooths. I am not always patient in line. Probably that is when I am the least patient of all, when I am waiting in line on the phone. “All our operators are busy. You are caller number 68. Your wait time is 2 years, 3 months, 6 days, 14 hours and 27 minutes.” I always yell mean things at those recordings.
I am patient with a child who doesn’t understand something. I am wildly impatient with myself for not being able to find a way to make it clear for them.
I am patient with the wigglers. In fact, I kind of adore wigglers. They are so spontaneous. I frequently wonder if these children, ADHD diagnosis or not, are in truth faeries caught in human children’s bodies, struggling to get free. They lack the ability to put on a filter so they blurt the most outlandish things. I do get frustrated with them. I once told my wiggly, noisy Calvin it was a lucky thing I was single because my husband would have wondered why I said, “Calvin, Calvin, Calvin,” over and over in my sleep. I once counted how often I said Calvin’s name in a half hour during class: 29 times.
I know self-restraint isn’t part of these kids’ skill set but I did want them, at the very least, to try. Sometimes the “try” is almost as funny as the blurt. I once filled a full page of notebook paper, front and back, writing as fast as I could in an attempt to record every movement Nelson made in a half an hour. I’d start to write and look up: Nelson was somewhere across the room. This happened each time I’d look down. Up to sharpen his pencil, back to his desk, do a math problem, visit a friend across the room, break his pencil on purpose, scoot back to his desk, get up to sharpen the pencil again. Over and over. He did manage to get a little work done. Not much, mind you.
What exactly would impatience do? It would make Nelson or any other child feel rotten about himself—something that just happened because Nelson had no, not any, self-control. It wouldn’t help him accomplish anything. It would not teach him self-restraint. In fact, it would probably be worse.
I have a myriad of gimmicks for these kids. For Nelson, none of them seemed to work. The air cushion I gave him to sit on became a rolling wobbly thing to toss, a resistance band to kick on the base of his chair became something to trample into the ground, and stress balls became missiles in the air. I just took a lot of deep breaths and tried to see the humor in it. Even sitting in a chair rather than on the rug didn’t help. He’d fall off the chair at least once a day. Each time he looked so startled, I had to try not to laugh.
One thing that just causes my patience to evaporate is heat. I can be patient and redirect the worst behavior until the thermometer in my room hits tropical. I don’t know what causes me to become a raving maniac. Maybe I have a lower-than-average body temperature. Maybe my northern European blood can’t process it.
My only brother, Adam, lives in Queens. He called me on one hot, sultry day. There was a power outage in New York City. “It’s broiling,” he complained. “You know how we Schutz girls are.” We both laughed. That Schutz girls or boys don’t suffer the heat well is a bit of an understatement. We get crabby and sometimes just plain mean.
My classroom never had air conditioning. The first couple of years only a few rooms in our 1920-something school did. Each year, a few more rooms were added to the Land of Cool. Finally, about five years ago, there were only four classrooms left. Room 203 was one of those rooms. The new engineer said we could not get any more units. The city would not allow it. It had something to do with airflow.
We faced east. With the longer, late spring days, the room was usually 80 degrees when I arrived in the morning in late May and early June. Both ceiling and box fans would go on. As there is rarely an easterly wind in Chicago, windows would stay closed with the shades drawn. No sunlight was allowed to enter. The lights were off. The goal was to keep it from getting any hotter. After several years of experimentation, I knew these were the best options.
I kept a spray bottle of water in my mini refrigerator to squirt our faces and the inside of our arms. I taught the class then to blow on the inside of their wrists. Natural air conditioning, I’d tell them. I gave lots of drinking fountain breaks.
We did low-key work. Who can learn in that environment? Studies show 72 degrees is the optimal learning temperature. By 10 a.m., my room was well into the 80s. Studies also show behavior deteriorates in the heat. My deterioration was the worst in the room. My temper fuse was about a quarter inch long. I took lots of deep breaths to keep it there.
There were always two or three students who, like me, just couldn’t handle the heat. They alternated between pacing the room like a caged lion at the zoo and wilting over their desk like a wet rag. These students were usually my Nelsons or Calvins.
We tried everything to keep learning going. Other teachers would offer their classrooms when their kids were at library or fine arts. We would join other classes to eat our lunch in the relative cool. When my co-workers complained about the noise the air conditioners made, I just stared at them.
So in the dark days of June, we created beautiful things. We studied the solar system in our dark room. We made craters in powdered tempera paint mixed with flour by dropping rocks into the “moon dust.” We created our own constellations with cereal boxes and wrote myths to tell the corresponding stories.
Each June, we would do an author study of Eve Bunting. Partners would select a book at their level and create projects to show off the story. Dioramas, posters, interviews with characters, songs telling the story or dozens of other ideas filled the darkened room. We damply listened to each other as each child read a favorite part of his book to the class.
We did poetry slams. On Monday, each student selected a poem to be read in the slam on Friday. We practiced each day. We had done this all year, but second grade was coming to an end and students searched for the “perfect” poem.
On hot, stuffy Friday mornings, we’d sit in a circle on the rug. Poems lay on the floor in front of our laps. I’d pick a stick with a student’s name to start. In her or his best voice, they read with inflection and expression. Reading was paced carefully for effect. After each poem, we’d snap our fingers, coffee house style. Then the person on the left of the reader would begin. Jack Prelutsky poems made us laugh. Mattie Stepanek’s poems made us sigh and tear up. It was simply beautiful, heartfelt reading and listening.
And for a few precious moments we were remarkably cool.