Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
~Paul Lawrence Dunbar
I sit down with two other women present for the two-day workshop. We are instructional coaches – former classroom teachers – in Orlando for professional development in literacy. Our conversation drifts to “the kid.” Who was the kid? The one who was the pivotal in your career? Lillian tells of two, beginning with ‘Eric.’
That kid was always grumpy. On edge. He was likely to pick a fight or get in trouble for some reason or another. It wasn’t long before I discovered he simply couldn’t read very well.
She explains to us how she won him over through small, daily successes. She was blown away by how sweet this boy was, hidden underneath an angry, defensive exterior.
Then she tells us of ‘John.’
John was a bit more outspoken in his dislike of the school environment. Not only vocal, but also physically violent at times. He required restraints if triggered. Educators who provide special education services would recognize his EBD label.
One day was particularly bad. He began shouting. Raging. I had to grab him and bodily place him in the time out space. He demanded to get out but he couldn’t.
A plank stood between him and freedom, with the teacher’s body pressed against it. Just in case. When yelling didn’t work, he threw himself again and again against the door, determined to force it open through sheer will.
I, on the other side, barely 100 pounds, I mean look at me even now, body against the door, praying it remained shut until he calmed down. Items sailed over the top of the door. Shoes, socks, pants. He was stripping, maybe this could buy his freedom. When that didn’t work, suddenly it was splat, splat against the wall. You can imagine what he was throwing (feces). But that kid is the reason I went back to school for a master’s degree. In the end, it was all a mask.
He, just like Eric, was wearing a mask. Neither one of them could read. Here they were – middle and high schoolers – angry they couldn’t read and scared to be found out.
Many classroom teachers can pinpoint students who were angry, or otherwise picked fights with the other students for the express purpose of getting thrown out of class. Trouble was their mask, hiding their inability to read.
These masks, along with zero tolerance policies, and cultural disconnects between students and school, contribute to the school to prison pipeline. How can we discover these masks earlier? When will we develop policies and curricula that make it safe for students to discard their masks? Can we create a system that alleviates the need for masks at all?
I remain hopeful, but hope, in and of itself, is not a strategy.