Friday, March 20, 2009

Thursday Night Fight Club

They start to shuffle in at a little past 7:35 on Thursday evening. The class is supposed to start promptly at 7:30. I am sitting at the teacher’s desk at the front of the room, waiting. The room feels cold and the blinds are open, despite the darkness outside.
Opposite me are eighteen desks, the little table type with the chair attached and a book rack underneath.

Rochelle is always the first to arrive. She is a small, thin girl with dark skin and long, black hair. She has a serious expression and is unnaturally quiet. She always chooses a seat in the front row, on the farthest side of the room. Next comes Sean, a big, blond hulk of a boy. He’s an athlete who wears his pants two sizes too big, and his bright yellow hair down over his eyes, making it necessary for him to jerk his head to the left every few seconds so he can see where he’s going. He is the polar-opposite of Rochelle, and sees himself as the star of the never-ending sitcom that is his life; “The Sean Show.” He goes directly to the back of the room and pushes a desk to the back wall before falling sullenly into the seat.

Mike is usually the next to arrive. He is an awkward boy with a thin frame and wire-rimmed glasses who tries to be cool and impress Sean, but the most he gets for his trouble is a punch in the arm or the back of his chair kicked.

Goofy Trevor with the permanent grin comes in behind him, and then the kind, friendly Dylan accompanied by Davey, the charming redhead. Then Jack arrives; a short fellow with large eyes, brown hair and freckles, and a voice that reminds me of Linus in the “Peanuts” cartoons. He is sweet, almost as quiet as Rochelle, and like her, takes a front row seat, but in the opposite corner.

Always the last to arrive each week are Tisa and Jennifer, the two princesses. Tisa is a redhead like Davey, with beautiful copper curls. Both girls have their hair up in messy buns and the waistbands of their sweatpants rolled down. They wander in, laughing and gossiping loudly, cell phones and bags of candy in hand, even though they have been warned several times that both of those things are banned in religion class. While most of the kids have glanced at me and mumbled hello as they entered, these two take no notice of me at all. They stroll back to the farthest corner, and pull two desks together before settling in.

What am I doing sitting at this desk at the front of the classroom? This is religious education class for grade eight. I am the teacher, amazingly enough, and it’s time to begin the lesson for the week.

But first, Sean has fired a pencil up into one of the ceiling tiles and is now standing on his chair to pull it out. A contingent of the boys on the left side of the room have pulled their desks into a tight circle. They are red-faced and laughing raucously over an off-color joke, while Tisa and Jennifer squeal over a text message on one of their phones and toss brightly colored skittles into each other’s mouths, oblivious to the rest of the class. I raise my voice to a decibel not common for me and as calmly as I can manage, I say; “Page 242, everyone! Two-forty-two in your books, please.”

But Davey complains that he cannot turn to page 242, because Trevor has torn it out of his book. He balls up the tattered page and flips it like a miniature basketball into the trash can next to my desk. “SCORE!” yells Sean, leaping to his feet with both of his arms held high. He falls back toward his seat at an clumsy angle, and it tips over, desk and all, clattering to the floor with Sean in it. Laughter and hoots of derision erupt.

Someone’s cell phone goes off ...the ringtone is a Kanye West tune. This instantly sets the corner circle group into a series of rhythmic, robotic motions, punctuated by foot stomps and slaps on their desks.

Rochelle exhales loudly and crosses her thin arms over her ribcage. She is an altar server on Sunday and probably the only kid in the class who would come even if her parents didn’t make her. Her mouth is set in a tight line now, and she is looking at me with her eyebrows raised as if to say, “Well,… Do something!”

Lord, how did I get myself into this? “I remind you all again that there are no cell phones allowed in class, people. Please shut them off right now or you will go to the office! Settle down, guys…c’mon. Who will read the first paragraph?”
“I will!” answers Dylan, and for a moment the clamor dies down, but only for a moment.

While Dylan was reading, Trevor has pulled the laces out of Mike’s shoes. Mike protests loudly when he finds they are missing and Sean corrects this outburst by slapping him in the back of the head with his book while yelling, “Quiet! Dylan is READING!” Sean has finally gotten the attention of the princesses and they giggle in appreciation of his antics. He is smiling now and under the yellow fringe of his bangs, his cheeks are turning pink.

“Who can tell me what we should do to live our faith?” I ask hopefully.
Tisa’s arm shoots up and waves about frantically. “Yes, Tisa?” She smiles and says sweetly, “I really like your sweater.” Jack has slumped down in his chair, his face hidden behind his book, but his body is shaking with silent laughter.

I sigh and look around for another response… “Trevor, how about you?” I regret my choice immediately, because Trevor always answers every question the same way; “Be holy and stuff?” His generic response ensures that he will always be ready if called on and he’ll never be wrong. The discussion is interrupted when Dylan, apropos of nothing, wants to know if Santa Claus is actually related to Saint Nick.

Sometimes I think I must be out of my mind to have taken on this role. The aggravation hardly seems worth it, but I keep coming back each week.
The director of the program said the first night, “You may be the only Gospel some of these kids ever hear.” I guess that’s why I show up every Thursday.

Davey grabs Mike’s book, and Mike lunges out of his seat to get it back. While he’s standing, Sean pulls a tack out of the cork board and places it strategically on his chair. Caught in the act!
“SEAN!” I yell “That’s enough! How are you going to explain yourself to your parents when I call them and tell them about this?” He grins from ear to ear and casts a sideways look over at Tisa and she giggles. The bell rings, It’s 8:30.

“Class dismissed-see you all next week.”


  1. I don't remember any teachers coming back for a second year of teaching jr high religious ed in any of the years my daughters went.
    Those are the years I would like to forget. You all should be sainted!

  2. Hi Jane! My father said I was out of my mind when I told him I signed up to teach eighth grade, and he should know - He was a vice principal for many years back in the sixties and seventies, but they were desperate for volunteers and I figured, if not me, who?

  3. how about mac? those steely eyes will bring em around...heehee. maybe rigs would be a better choice, good luck st.dee, jc

  4. Oh boy, that really would be tough. You really should be sainted. Hang in there I'll be praying for ya.

  5. You're definitely a talented writer / storyteller. Your opening made me so curious that I could hardly wait to see how a Bible tied in with a fight club. And you deserve a medal, moreso for the fact that you're going back into that classroom again.

    I made two attempts at being a religion teacher. The first time, a nun tricked me into it. I was told that I was going to be "an assistant." I actually think things worked out that entire year because the kids felt sorry for me looking so lost on the first day, being so human, asking over and over in bewildered tones "Where's the teacher?" until one of the Other teachers who somehow knew the answer calmly informed me that I was the teacher. That was the 10th grade Confirmation class. They actually behaved for me and listened.

    Emboldened by the success of surviving that year and actually managing to teach, I volunteered for 8th grade after moving to a different state. Only lasted one class. Had a literal nightmare of the main troublemaker and that was my cue to resign. Which is why it makes me dizzy even reading through your current experiences.

    Probably why the Bible says "But they that are learned shall shine as the brightness of the firmament: and they that instruct many to justice, as stars for all eternity." -- Daniel 12:3

  6. Great story! I admit that I laughed at the pencil in the ceiling tile. Any person that attempts to teach anything to an eighth grader has my utmost admiration and respect! I couldn't do it.

  7. Thank you for the great insights into and humor about what it means to stand in front of a class of young teens. Pearls before swine? I think not--it's amazing how kids who seemingly don't have a brain will remember good teachers like you 30 years hence. I do.

  8. Your writing flows so nicely. I like all the descriptive details throughout the story. What a tough job standing in front of teens and trying to get them to focus on anything! We have to give teachers a lot of credit for their dedication and patience. I enjoyed visiting your blog. Thanks for coming by mine :)

  9. Wow, no easy job! That is the toughest age of all! Excellent advertisement for birth control, don't ya think? Your writing is riveting, I do hope you pursue it professionally!