Pandemonium in the Crisis Room

(From Substitute Teaching in Alexandria,Virginia, by C.F. Navarro.)

Assignment in the crisis room at Maury Elementary. No sooner had the morning bell rung than a 10-year-old-boy in the Emotionally Disturbed (ED) class facing the crisis the crisis room went berserk. A few minutes earlier he had given the ED teacher, her aide, and me a big hug. Now he was shrieking uncontrollably, his cherub face ugly with rage. What prompted the shrieking he wouldn’t say, nor could the teachers figure it out. Maybe another kid had said something he didn’t like, or violated his space, or maybe something he saw or heard triggered a recollection of some unpleasant experience.

The ED teacher knelt by the shirking boy, and, in a soft, loving voice, tried to calm him down. She offered him a coloring book, a box of new crayons, a lollipop, techniques obviously learned in ED-training workshops. But this infuriated the boy all the more. He kicked at her shins, —“Get away from me! B_ _ _ _ ”—and shrieking the epithet, broke away from her, sidestepped the aide and me—I had come in to help—and proceeded to dash helter-skelter about the room, ripping up books, breaking pencils, throwing art supplies, and wreaking all the damage he could before we could corner him.

The teacher finally restrained him by crossing his arms in front of him and gripping his wrists, the proper way, I was told, of applying a restraining hold on a child. Like most ED teachers I’ve met, she was surprisingly strong. She sat down with the boy on her lap—he still shrieking, she saying nothing—and thus they remained, while the aide did her best to keep the rest of class under control. Several of the kids had started mocking the shrieking boy and threatening to “kick his butt” unless he shut up. Others seized the moment to rip up books and break pencils that the shrieking boy had overlooked. One smallish kid amused himself by karate-kicking the cage of Ralph, the class’ pet guinea pig. Guinea pigs in normal classes tend to sleep and munch placidly most of the day. Ralph, by contrast, was a nervous wreck. He scurried about squealing and pawing at the wire walls of his cage. He also had lost much of his hair.

Meanwhile, five boys had come into the closet-sized crisis room where I was subbing. These boys were not certifiably ED, just chronic troublemakers. Regular teachers, under pressure to boost test scores, understandably, didn’t want such kids disturbing their classes, so they would sent them to the crisis room at the first hint of trouble. The ones in my charge that day had spent most of the school year in the crisis room, doing little and learning nothing. Academically all were far behind their peers.

My five charges, it turned out, didn’t like one another at all, and to express their dislike, began badmouthing their mothers. One boy told another that his mom’s hairy p_ _ _ _ stank . The other boy retorted that his mom was a “ho,” and with exaggerated hip thrusts mimed how she plied her trade. The other three joined in with like insults. That such filth was spewing from children made it all the more appalling.

I tried to calm my charges by offering to show them how to make origami birds and wallets, but my educationally correct approach didn’t work any better with them than the ED teacher’s blandishments had worked with her berserk student. Their reaction was to start pummeling one another. The sharp smack of fists on bone and flesh indicated that this was for real. I stepped in between them, now holding one back, now the other, until my co-teacher, who had just arrived, came to my aid. In the melee, one boy punched her in the stomach. Another one kicked me in the ribs, two of which I had fractured the month earlier trying to break up a fight in a middle school, and were still sore. Another one deliberately broke my glasses and tried to smash my thermos bottle. Somehow I managed to catch it before it hit the floor.

After a while the boys grew tired and went back to their seats, but not in peace. They resumed reviling their moms, then, bored with that, started in on my co-teacher and me, calling us every name imaginable. One boy threatened to stab me in the eye with a tack he had pulled from the bulletin board. Another one warned me that his daddy would follow me home and cut me to pieces. Another said he was going to sue me and reached for the telephone to call his lawyer. The kid couldn’t read or do simple math but he knew his legal rights. He knew that the law was stacked against teachers and none would dare lash back at a student, not even verbally, or in self-defense. Very, very gingerly I wrested the telephone away from him made him sit down. The first boy, meanwhile, regaled the group with a rap song, rich in F_ _ _ phrases, about the necessity of selling drugs in order to survive. I looked up at the clock. It was only 9:30. Still five and a half hours to go. Only the calming presence of my co-teacher, a saintly Christian woman—one of many such in our city schools—kept me from walking out on that assignment.

Meanwhile, in the ED room, the berserk boy tried to bolt the school and, when stopped, had so waxed out of control that the principal phoned his mother and asked her to take him home. The mom, however, wouldn’t come. Claimed she was too busy. The principal then tried, for two hours, to get hold of the Social Services employee whose job it was to take out-control kids home, but the man could not be located anywhere. So it fell on the teacher and her aide to do his job, during their lunch hour. Two regular teachers then had to give up of their planning time to cover for them. On route home, the boy tried several times to jump out of the car, and nearly succeeded. Had he gotten hurt, however slightly, the teacher and her aide would have been in big trouble. Back from the ride, the two young women looked ten years older.

A witness from another age or culture would have said that those kids in ED and crisis rooms were possessed by demons, and I would have been inclined to agree. Six months of subbing in public schools have led me to suspect that demons do indeed exist, and in huge numbers. Pandemonium—in the etymological sense of the word—was precisely what I witnessed that day at Maury Elementary.

The vile rapping, the fighting, the cursing, continued, unrelentingly, until the final bell rang at 3:00 P.M. Now and then the principal, a counselor and other teachers pulled from their planning time would drop by and try to establish order, but to no avail. There was not a thing they could do. All their training on how to deal with “needy” children was useless. Educators cannot be expected to double up as psychiatrists and correctional officers.

Those kids that ruined my day—they didn’t even allow me time to eat lunch or visit the rest room—were a pathetic lot. Most will probably end up in prison, or worse. As a parent, I felt very sorry for them. But I felt even sorrier for the hundreds of normal students whose education they had been disrupting since they entered kindergarten and would continue to disrupt as long as they remain in school.

Directly across the hall from the crisis room were two regular first-grade classes. I could not but notice how the pandemonium in the ED and crisis room, which sometimes spilled out into the halls, was affecting the first-graders. Most were markedly stressed out by it, while others, envious of the attention lavished on the troublemakers, had become inclined to emulate them. And their noxious effect was not limited to the first-graders across the hall. Over the course of the year it had spread like a virus to all other classes throughout the school. Most substitute teachers, myself now included, refused to served there, and when the school year ended, half the regular teachers, the entire office staff, the principal, and the assistant principal either transferred to another city school or quit to find work in another school district. Some, I suspect, have made career changes. How that sorry situation came to pass in one the better funded school districts in the greatest nation in the world is beyond comprehension.

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