Sunday, February 3, 2008

Reflections on Being the Classroom Menace

Note: Ari Cowan wrote this in 2002 soon after my "Dennis" story appeared in the Christian Science Monitor. My article and Cowan's are collected in a book edited by Denise Nessel entitled From Dubs to Marbles and published by Xlibris Corporation in 2002. It's available through online booksellers.

By Ari Cowan

I came across an article on the internet which I read with some interest. Dan Gurney, a kindergarten teacher in Petaluma, California, wrote an op-ed piece entitled The Classroom Menace (Christian Science Monitor, April 2, 2002). In it he describes the challenge to the teacher of having a child who acts out to express his discomfort, frustration, and fear. I understood well who that teacher was talking about.

Yesterday my older brother began serving time for a drug trafficking conviction. This is his “second strike.” He can never return home again because our state has a three-strikes law. Neither of my brothers had the good fortune to have a teacher like Gurney. I did.

I was a menace, much like the child Gurney describes in his article. Teachers like him got me in the relentless grip of their compassion, wisdom, understanding, insistence on excellence, and patience. When I showed up at school bloodied and trembling, they made sure I was treated by the school nurse and kept safe. When I was angry, disruptive, intrusive, hurtful, inattentive, or lost, those teachers were there, leading me away from the edge of darkness. I feel the heat from the light of their caring upon me as I write this.

They saved my life.

Miss Henderson. Mrs. Lewan. Miss Reader. Mrs. Nerheim. Miss Nightingale. I remember these teachers. All women. (There were good male teachers but, because I was terrified of men, I never allowed them to get close enough to reach me.) These women were patient, understanding, demanding. I hated them. I did everything I could to turn them away. I didn’t want anyone to know the truth about me—the ugliness, the failings, the repulsive history of my being in the world. In the face of my genius for alienating others, they held fast until the carefully crafted walls I build to keep them out collapsed under the weight of their collective caring.

They were among those who changed my view of the world helping me see beyond terror, suspicion, and dread. Their touch is indelibly upon me and, because of it, I’m forever changed. When people speak to me of “ordinary teachers,” I laugh. What a contradiction in terms. There’s no such thing. To undertake the stewardship of children and teach them is a singularly extraordinary undertaking.

Why is it that I collided with these extraordinary teachers and my brothers did not? I don’t understand. Now I write books and my brother, (a beautiful soul) is doing time. My heart aches.

What am I to do? I can’t repay what I got from those teachers. About the best I can do is pass the gift on. And give thanks, endless thanks.

Ari Cowan
Bellevue, Washington


pinto said...

A story as related by Gerry Spence:

"It's a story about an old man and a smart-alec little boy. The smart-alec boy had decided he was going to show the old man up, show him what a fool he was. The smart-alec boy caught a little bird on the porch and his plan was to go up to the old man and say, "Old man, what have I got in my hands?"

And he figured the old man would say, "Well, you've got a bird."

And the smart-alec boy's plan was to say, "Well, old man, is the bird alive or dead?" And if the old man said, "The bird is dead," then the smart-alec boy would open his hands and the little bird would fly off into the forest.

Or if the old man said, "The bird is alive," then the smart-alec boy would crush it and crush it, crush it, crush it. And say, "See, it's dead."

So he went up to the old man, the kid did, and he said, "Old man, what do I have in my hand?" And the old man said, "You have a bird, my son."

He said, "Old man, is the bird alive or dead?"

The old man said, "The bird is in your hands, my son."

from "The Devil's Advocates" by M.S. Lief & H.M. Caldwell

culmom37 said...

How absolutely wonderful for you to know that what you do and how you do it truly has a positive affect on all the "menace" children that come through your classroom. I can only imagine your sense of pride when the response article was written to your original article. Wow...good for you...makes all the hardwork worth it I would imagine!

Dan Gurney, Mr. Kindergarten said...


Nice story! Yes, the bird is always in our hands.

Culmom37, thanks. I liked what Ari wrote as much as (more, really) what I wrote.