Today I yelled at a 9 year old.
He was ignoring me over and over again. He rolled his eyes at me. He laughed at me. And I snapped. I yelled at him.
I yelled at him loud and I embarrassed him. It was during my dismissal duty. The hallway got quiet and his eyes started to water.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t put this into a racial and cultural context. I am a 37 year old white woman. He is a 9 year old Latinx child. He also has special needs, and he also is developing his English academic language skills. And I leaned down over him and yelled at him.
As he walked out of school, head down, with his older brother calling after him, “I told you,” I felt my own shame. I have been so self-righteous. I have judged other teachers for yelling at their students. I have talked behind their backs and said, “If they hate kids so much, then they need to find a new line of work.” I have opined about the joys of a calm classroom, based in love and nurturing and shared power structure between students and teachers.
And I had just humiliated a nine-year-old boy, in front of his big brother and other peers, in front of my colleagues, and in front of anyone else who happened to be in the vicinity.
My instinct was to justify my behavior. What did he think would happen? I’m only a person. A person can only feel ignored so many times before exploding. In the past, I would have indulged this instinct, become indignant, and stopped my processing of my own behavior right then and there.
But this time, I took a breath, returned to my classroom, and forced myself to get uncomfortable. It is what I deserved. Here are the questions I asked myself:
Why did I lose my patience?
I have had tons of children ignore me, roll their eyes at me, laugh at me. What was it about this particular moment that sent me through the roof?
Would I have been so upset if my colleagues hadn’t seen me do this?
If so, why do I value their trust over the trust of my students?
Would I have yelled this way at a child who shared a racial or cultural background with me?
Let’s be clear. Would I have yelled at a White girl the way I had just yelled at this Latinx boy? There’s no way for me to know for sure. But as a white woman, I have prejudices, whether they are conscious or subconscious. Do I associate Latinx boys as being less deserving of my patience? Immediately, I want to scream no. No, of course not. Consciously, of course not. But the fact remains that this is the child I screamed at. This year, I have not screamed at Black children this way. This year, I have not screamed at White children this way. This year, I have not screamed at children of Asian heritage this way. This year, I have not screamed at children who present as Latinx girls this way. This year, I have not screamed at multiracial children this way. At whom have I yelled in the past? Who have I deemed less deserving of my patience?
Why did I use my unique power position to hurt a child?
As a teacher, as an adult, as an able learner, as a fluent English speaker, as a white person, I had considerable power over this nine-year-old child. Am I so fragile that when a nine-year-old child with special needs who is navigating a language and a culture that are not his language and culture of origin threatens my power in this minimal way of ignoring and mocking me, I fall apart?
How can I begin to make amends?
I immediately called his father and apologized. But his father said that I had every right to yell at his son, so now I feared I had gotten him into more trouble. I also recognized once again how my white, English-speaking privilege afforded me protection in that conversation. I was coming from a position of seeming expertise. His father was not going to chastise me even though I had done wrong. Of course, it would be ideal if his son had been more cooperative. But as the adult, I had the onus of a reasonable, measured response. His dad didn’t even question me. He just believed me.
I talked to his teacher about it. She happens to be my best friend and she said that he had been having a tough time at school, in general. That many teachers had yelled at him or gotten frustrated with him since the school year started. I think that was supposed to make me feel not so bad… but it made it worse. He was already disenfranchised, and I had just provided him with one more reason to mistrust the education system that should be serving him.
The next morning, I apologized to him. He still looked unsure but then gave me a hug before walking away. At first, I was like, “Great! I’m absolved!” But then I really thought about it… Did he really want to hug me? Was that what he had learned to do to make the white women teachers in his school feel better? In that hug, he had acknowledged my fragility and reinforced that he needed to please me to be able to function peacefully in his school setting.
Now, when I see him, I make a point to say hi. He says hi back with a smile. But I don’t know if that’s because we went through a tough thing together or because we both feel sheepish.
So, I guess, the best amends I can make is a commitment to my future reactions. I commit to asking myself questions that threaten my white desire for comfort. I commit to maintaining my patience with all children. I commit to admitting the mistakes I make, not only to myself, but also publicly. I commit to a dogged recognition of how I benefit from racism and contribute to racism. I commit to read and to learn and to attend conferences and to listen more than I talk. None of these actions helps that boy. I know that.
One of the agreements that my school district’s Office of Equity and Culturally Proficiency reminds us of is that in conversations about race, we must expect and accept non-closure. We cannot fix everything. When we rush to solutions without a full understanding of the problem, the solutions minimize the importance of the interaction. I rushed to call his dad, and he got into more trouble. I rushed to tell his teacher, and she comforted me instead of him. I rushed to apologize to him, and he comforted me with a hug.
If you find that you want to offer me words of solace, like “We all lose our temper,” or “Maybe this isn’t a racial thing, but just a matter of a child disrespecting a teacher,” I hope you resist the urge to comfort me, and instead ask yourself some tough questions. Why did you feel the need to comfort me? Have you ever done something similar? With whom in this story do you most closely identify and how does that affect the way you’re receiving the story?
If you find that want to berate me, call me racist, call me politically correct, thank your lucky stars that you don’t work with anyone like me, I hope you resist those urges, too. Instead I hope you ask yourself why this story makes you angry. Are you more offended by the story and my behavior toward the child or my reflections on my own behavior, and that I am discussing race publicly? What are the power dynamics in your school? If you really don’t perceive that there are any injustices occurring, do you think everyone at your school would feel the same?
Just as the child and I had no closure around this incident, I have no closure for this post either. This is simply the end of this story. I yelled at a child who in every facet has less cultural currency than I do. I must do better.