The Butterfly Effect

Wil Wheaton wrote eloquently about a memory he has of being treated unfairly by a teacher on Parent Night, and it really resonated with me, as I am sure it would most teachers.  You have to go read it first, so go on do it, but come back here for the rest.  I’ll wait.

OK, now that you’re back, wasn’t that heart-wrenching?  Many of us probably have a memory of being called out or being treated unfairly by a teacher.  My only memories of kindergarten are of sitting in the middle of the floor (which was the equivalent of time-out).  My teacher also wanted us to write our full names one day, but I couldn’t spell Michelle (my middle name), and she wouldn’t tell me how.  Her name was, ironically, Mrs. Love.  To be fair, I was one of the youngest kids in my class and really immature.  I was a real tattler.  But I count myself lucky because I can’t recall a time when I thought a teacher was really unfair to me.  I was wrongly accused of chewing gum once.  A couple of my teachers doled out class punishments.  Once I received a detention (my only detention ever) for not turning in a permission form on time.  I had probably been told a million times.  In all, though, I can’t say I was singled out and humiliated by any of my teachers.

I do remember a time when I think I hurt a student of mine, though.  It has actually most likely happened more than once because I don’t think we realize sometimes what sort of a ripple-effect our actions cause, and something that seemed to us to be a minor incident can be much larger to a child.  The time I remember, however, involved an 11th grade male student.  I was a first-year teacher.  He was horrible.  He locked me out of the classroom once when I had left to get the principal’s help with a discipline issue — and the principal laughed about it, which says a lot about that principal, but I digress.  This kid had to do something every single class period.  It might be making annoying noises, talking out of turn, not doing his work, etc.  You know the kind of kid.  He fancied himself the class clown.  He was difficult.  I didn’t really like him, to be honest, because he felt it necessary to make my job so hard.  I talked with the teacher who had taught him the previous year, and she loved him, so I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.  One day, I was so angry, I threw him out of class.  I said something hurtful, which I can barely even bring myself to repeat here.  Deep breath.  OK, told him as he left the room not to let the door hit him in the rear on the way out.  In the grand scheme of things, it might not be the most horrible thing ever said by a teacher to a student, but it’s pretty bad, I think.  I said it in front of his peers.  I shouldn’t have said what I said, and I have turned it over in my mind for years.  I do regret it.  Not that the kid didn’t have the trip to the office coming — he fully deserved to be sent to the office.  He was out of line, and no one supported me — not the administration and not his parents, whom I can remember calling more than once.  But I saw the kid’s face after I said what I said, and the best description I can give is that his face sort of crumpled.  He was clearly angry, but under that was a layer of hurt I didn’t expect to see.  He had been so obvious, I thought, in his sheer disrespect for and dislike for me.  What could it matter what I thought of him?  But at that moment, I realized it did matter.  He slammed the door and stalked off.

This incident happened in 1997 or 1998, which means it was nearly ten years ago.  The kid is in his mid-to-late-twenties by now.  I think about that incident often.  I have never said the same thing I said to him to another student.   I feel regret that I said it to him, no matter how poorly he behaved in class.  I feel rotten that I could possibly be this kid’s Mrs. Krocka.

The old aphorism is true: a teacher can never tell where his or her influence stops.  We can indeed touch lives forever.  The aphorism doesn’t elaborate, but the obvious conclusion is that we can be a negative influence or a positive one.  I strive to be a positive one, but I don’t always succeed — in this particular case, I failed miserably.

B.C., your name and face are etched in my mind.  I can still see you wearing your quilted orange jacket.  You’ll probably never read this, but I’m really sorry I said that to you.

2 thoughts on “The Butterfly Effect”

  1. Wow…that post really resonated with me. I try very hard to be mindful of what I say to my students (11th graders–a difficult age), but sometimes it's hard. It's especially hard for me b/c I'm sarcastic by nature. *sigh* It's a good thing, realizing everyone makes mistakes.

  2. Dana: Thank you for sharing your memories and for pointing me to the posting on the butterfly tree. Both touching vignettes get to the essence of what we do as teachers. Behind the content standards and other mandates, What it all comes down to is that we spend 181 days modeling human behavior. Or course this will naturally include our fair share of mistakes, but hopefully a bigger dose of honesty and a real sense of caring like you show here. Even if you don't feel the student got it at the time, I'm sure your honest and insightful approach to teaching has positively influenced other teachers. I'm sure Mrs. Krocka never spent another moment thinking about the impact of her actions, unlike you.

    Thanks again for your posting. I've enjoyed reading and learning these last few months, thanks in no small part to the words and ideas you share on the blog.

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