This year, at the senior banquet, I got the first shout-out. I don’t like being the center of attention, so I was both pleased and embarrassed. What does the graduating senior say of me, after two years in my class? “I remember Ms Schurman always used to say, ‘Wake up!”
The purpose of education is, basically, to say “Wake up,” all the time. After everyone chuckled over this remark, I noted every senior I had woken up. I mean literally “woke up,” not in some kind of sweet hippie or Zen master way. The seniors were coming up to get their various awards, and some of them I remembered waking up, over and over again. How angry they were at me. I’m tired. This is boring. I was offended and discouraged. They were angry and sleepy. Not our happiest moments.
Usually I jiggle the forearm to wake up the sleeper. As you would expect, the student is often unhappy about being bothered. My theory is that you may sleep in my class, but you won’t ever sleep well. Usually we just get annoyed with each other and move on. But once a kid got really angry.
Kid was older than most in class, and more mature, definitely. Sometimes felt the assignments were below him, and maybe sometimes they were. The first time I touched his arm to wake him, he said, “Don’t touch me!”
I was even more irritated now. “I don’t want to touch you,” I said. “But you have to pick your head up. Sit up and I won’t have to touch you!”
Several more times, over the course of the year, we ran this little script, with him flinching and me griping back. The last time, it was different.
He had his head down, I shook his elbow, and he leaped up out of his desk and lunged at me. “I said, don’t touch me!” Everyone in the class stopped and looked at us. I stood my ground as my heart pounded, and he backed away to the corner of the room. He hadn’t made any move to hit me, but that was the energy in his body.
We went on with class. He worked. I worked. When I was calm, I thought, what the hell am I doing? What kind of person touches someone who asks not to be touched, over and over again? A bully. A molester. Or in my case, an asshole. What was I doing?
I pulled the kid out in the hallway, and he looked worried. I told him it was wrong for me to touch him when he asked me not to. I could have sent him to another disciplinarian, or set some other consequence for putting your head down. I should have listened to him. Then I explained how insulting it felt to have someone check out, mentally and physically, while I was working so hard.
I felt guilty about the whole incident for a long time. I had to keep reminding myself that I had apologized, and tried to make it right. The kid seemed satisfied by my apology. I could have been more sensitive to him,realized he might have some personal history that made even a little touch feel dangerous or invasive.
That kid woke me up, really. And I woke up the kid who graduates tonight. The whole system doesn’t work very well unless we’re all waking each other, on guard for each other’s invading unconsciousness, all the time.