During 5th period on Friday, I walked up to the front office to check my mailbox and deliver some paperwork to the school secretary. I watched as a student sauntered down the sidewalk on the other side of the open patio, swinging the hall pass lanyard until it wrapped tightly around his fingers and then swinging it the other way to unwind it.
I didn’t know where he was going, but I knew he was headed away from where he was supposed to be. His 5th period class is a pet project of mine; it is one of those remedial classes where the kids prefer to act out rather than admit that they need help. They feed off of each other’s distracting behavior and accomplish very little learning as a result. He plays a lead role in this drama, and really knows how to push the teacher’s buttons. I’ve been working with this group regularly since the school year started, and every time I think we’re making progress, we hit a wall the next week.
I considered yelling across the open patio to remind him there was a bathroom down the hall from the English classroom he was escaping—no need to waste 15 minutes by walking all the way to the cafeteria bathrooms. I don’t know what stopped me from stopping him. Many thoughts ran through my head: the bathroom in Building 1 may be closed, getting his attention would actually require shouting, and I didn’t have time for discipline. I even considered that his 5th period teacher might actually be getting some teaching done in his absence. I let him go and went on my own way to the front office.
On my way back, knowing the period was close to ending, I decided to swing by another teacher’s room to catch her between classes and follow-up on another project. I walked past my office, toward the cafeteria, and ran smack into Nick, on his way back from the far end of campus, a rough wooden structure in his hands.
“Did you build that?” I asked, “Is it a bridge?”
He held it out for me. I surveyed his work, flipping it around in my hands. It had taken a lot of time, cutting angles in a dozen small planks of wood, gluing pieces together. It was solid, not very pretty, but solid. He explained that his construction teacher had told the class to pick them up today or the projects would be thrown away. He shrugged his shoulders and said he didn’t know what he would do with it.
I suggested putting it on a shelf to admire—made a joke about someday looking back fondly on his beginnings in construction—or conducting that old science experiment to see how much weight it could hold. He said he wished they had done that in class. “But then you lose all your hard work when it finally collapses,” I said. I’ve always hated that part of that project.
Our conversation lasted a minute—maybe two—long enough, though, to build a little bridge of our own. This may not be the kind of bridge Ralph Ellison had in mind when he said “Education is all a matter of building bridges,” but without a foundation built on personal relationships, we are never going to bridge the gaps for students like Nick. Because I resisted the urge to police his behavior, and with a little fortuitous timing, I was able to make a positive connection with a troublesome student. When I go back into that classroom next week, I know I’ll have an ally—someone who can help me build more bridges with the rest of the class.