Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Nov 18 2010

A Sorry Letter, NOT a Poem

During standardized testing today, one of my students… your classic smart, difficult, angry, awesome boy… couldn’t stay focused on his test and kept writing things in the booklet that he would hide as I walked by. When he got up to get water, I stood by his desk and read what he had been writing. I wasn’t trying to be sneaky – the goal was for him to see me and scurry back to his seat instead of dawdling at the fountain – but he didn’t look until I’d already read his writing. He had written his girlfriend’s name and was writing an adorably sweet phrase for every letter. All I can remember was that Y was “Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Forever.” Right as I finished reading it, he turned and saw me…pure mortification. He rushed to his desk and scrambled to hide the poem. Mission accomplished: he was working.

In between that session and the next one, we were talking about being on-task and I made a joking comment to him about not writing poems instead of working. Another kid made a joke about him having a girlfriend, he shot back an angry remark, and I changed the subject. I didn’t think any more of it until the second session started.

When I’d finished reading the directions, I noticed he was in a terrible mood. He was sulking at his desk, turned sideways in his chair and refusing to work. I asked him to face forward and he ignored me. He always does everything I say, so that was a huge red flag. This is a kid with anger issues, who has yelled and sworn at teachers multiple times. Once I saw a teacher try to get in his face, and this boy came painfully close to punching him. Going over and scolding him was definitely never going to get him to work… I’ve learned my lesson a million times that confronting angry boys when their pride is at stake will never ever ever go in my favor.

Instead, I just left him alone to make his own decision to start working. I sat at my desk and wrote him an apology letter. I told him I shouldn’t have read his poem, but I was just messing with him and didn’t realize it was private. I told him it was wonderful that he can write such nice things about someone when many men don’t know how to be so expressive, but that a better time for it would be after testing. I gave him permission to take a walk if he needed to cool down, but that afterward he needed to finish his test or he’d miss lunch. I told him I was really sorry and that I hoped he knew that I meant well. Then I dropped it on his desk and left him alone. Two minutes later, he was working. YES. YES. YES.

When he finished the test, he asked permission to take that cool-down walk. He was gone forever and I started to get nervous, but a student who went to the bathroom reported that he had actually just sat down right outside my door. (Thank you for not taking advantage of me!) I had another teacher watch my class for a moment and went outside to sit with him. During our conversation, I found out that he was now angry at me for calling it a poem in front of his classmates. He was worried they were going to tease about it and he was not happy with me for that. The rest of our talk was me apologizing. I didn’t realize that was a problem. I had no idea people had an issue with poetry. Is there any way I can make this situation better? Is there anything I can say in front of the class that will help? What do you want me to do?

No. No. Nothing.

You don’t have to forgive me now, but will you forgive me one day?


Then we both walked into class and it was as if nothing had ever happened.

Reflecting on that, I just can’t believe that I messed that up so badly. How did it go from trying to make him work to inviting bullying over poetry? I embarrassed him enormously and narrowly avoided an outburst or a ruined relationship. I’m thrilled that I managed to talk him down, but it’s amazing how much I have to pander to a 13-year-old to make that happen. In my old life, I can’t even imagine what circumstances would have ever made me apologize that much to anyone. Suddenly I’m tripping over myself to apologize for calling an acrostic a poem. I’m thrilled it works, but it’s sort of sad that I have to leave my pride at the door when I go to work every day.

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