I got hired on a Thursday, but I didn’t get the keys (and therefore access) to my classroom until that Friday. School started the following Monday, so there was no time to deal with the district warehouse for classroom furniture – I had to furnish my room with what was left after all the other teachers had done their rooms, because I was the last hire.
I found a set of double desks – two desks attached to each other so that the students sat side-by-side, with little open cubbies underneath for books and such. They are definitely space-savers, and some teachers love them. I do not.
I knew almost nothing about my students on Day 1, except their names, birthdates and last known phone numbers (about a third of which were disconnected, I quickly learned.) So I paired their nametags up as best I could, putting boys next to boys and girls next to girls. I put a boy named Aidan next to a boy named Ferdinand, who was and remains to this day the largest child I have ever taught. By the time Ferdinand was in fifth grade he was taller than me and outweighed me by at least 40 pounds. In third grade we were about even. Aidan was a scrawny little kid, smaller than most of the third graders, even though he had also repeated a grade.
I quickly discovered neither Aidan nor Ferdinand could read more than ten or so words in English, although they had both been here since kindergarten. Ferdinand wasn’t sure whether his name was spelled Ferdinad or Ferdinand, and Aidan couldn’t tell me his middle name. I also quickly realized I was going to have to keep an eye on Aidan. My BTSA¹ mentor had been his first grade teacher and she told me she did most of her teaching that year with her arm around his upper half just to keep him from hurting other students and destroying their work. Great.
On the second day of school I moved Aidan and Ferdinand to the front of my room to keep an eye on them and so that I could help them out more unobtrusively. They both needed a check-in every four or five minutes.
At about 10:15 on the second day I moved them one row back from my desk because several handfuls of small things from the top of my desk had gone missing. Stamps, stickers, erasers, a few dry-erase markers and a teabag. Walking behind their desk while they were supposed to be reading their decodables² to each other, I spotted all of my missing stuff in Aidan’s desk. I asked, “Aidan, that stuff belongs to me. What are you doing with it?” I received a reply that I was to hear for the rest of the year.
“Noooo! That stuff is all mine! I didn’t take it! Ferdinand took it!”
Ferdinand: “Noooo! You took it off Ms. Cracker’s desk! I saw you! Look! He’s got more stuff in his pockets!”
Rest of the Class: “He took it!” “Every time you turn around -” “He always took stuff from the second grade teacher too -”
Ferdinand: (reaches into the waaaaaaay back of Aidan’s desk and pulls out TWO whiteboard erasers) “See?”
Aidan: “Noooo! That’s not mine!”
Me: “Well, you’re right about that! How about you cool off back at the big blue table, Aidan?”
Silence. Aidan doesn’t move.
The big blue table was where all the crap I hadn’t had time to deal with was stacked according to an organizational scheme that I had made up as I went along.
Aidan swept a foot-tall stack of decodables that I had sorted but not yet found a home for onto the floor. Somewhere in that stack were the forty decodables I was supposed to pass out and teach from that morning.
Back to the front row for Aidan. There’s twenty minutes of instruction that I’m never getting back.
A few days later I noticed that Ferdinand was leaning weirdly toward Aidan, like he was trying to body-block his reading partner. He also had his whole meaty forearm inside his desk all the time, with his elbow angled directly into Aidan’s side. I told him to take his arm out of his desk (it was his writing arm, after all), tried to pick up my train of thought, and had it totally derailed when Ferdinand shoved Aidan and his chair away from the whole desk five seconds later.
Me: “What is going ON?” I had been a real teacher for less than a week, and I had already lost all pretext of speaking in a calming, gentle voice.
Ferdinand then showed me that keeping his arm all the way inside his desk and his elbow an inch away from Aidan’s ribs was the only way to keep Aidan from completely plundering his desk and ripping pages out of Ferdinand’s books when there was nothing left to plunder.
Aidan: “Noooooo! He rips his books!”
Ferdinand and the other 18 kids: “Nooooo! You did it, Aidan!”
Aidan threw up both of his hands in a “search me!” gesture, and a shower of confetti that used to be part of a textbook came flying out of his desk. Ferdinand pulled the mutilated book out of his desk and held it up like a scorecard.
I sent Aidan back to second grade for an hour or so, and while he was gone I moved all of his stuff into a spare double desk. So now Aidan had a double desk to himself at the back of the classroom, Ferdinand had a double desk to himself at the front of the classroom, and the rest of the class was jealous.
By the way, this whole time I was supposed to be teaching.
Once there was only one kid’s worth of materials in Ferdinand’s desk, the desk was now considerably lighter than Ferdinand. So whenever he pushed his chair back from his desk to get up or get into his cubby, the chair (and Ferdinand) stayed put and the desk moved forward. When he had gotten what he wanted, he didn’t pull the desk back; he grabbed the bottom of his chair and pushed himself back in. This went on all year; in fact the thrice-hourly desk migrations began to cover greater distances as Ferdinand grew and his reach increased.
I made everyone straighten their desks out before recess and lunch so as not to single Ferdinand and his hugeness out. I put tape on the floor to mark where Ferdinand’s desk should always be, and Aidan peeled it up immediately. I drew circles around his desk feet with Sharpie after that, but the desk still ended up two feet from its starting point each day, and I learned to back away from the front of Ferdinand’s desk before I gave instructions of any sort. Sometime around Spring Break I had an idea.
Krazy Glue™ is a wonderful thing. It comes in these little tiny purse packs, with four teeny single (or double, if you’re careful) use tubes. Like this:
After school that day, I used an emery board that came with my desk to rough up the surface of the floor and the desk feet, and Krazy Glued Ferdinand’s desk to the floor. I used two whole tubes, and then gathered up some work and sat on the desk for thirty minutes while the glue set. The next morning I gingerly leaned against the desk. It didn’t move. I leaned a little harder. Nothing. I tried lifting it up. Then I tried a little harder. It didn’t move.
It turned out Ferdinand had been just as annoyed by the desk as I had been. He loved the desk being glued to the floor, and told me so several times that first morning. He grinned at me every time he pushed against the desk and his chair moved instead of the desk.
Right before recess he showed Aidan.
Right after recess Aidan ran to Ferdinand’s seat, planted his feet, braced his hips against one corner, gripped the opposite corner with both hands and twisted that goddamned desk right off the floor. It took a chunk out of the floor with it too, and I could see the striations of wax and grime going back at least a decade.
I could not believe it. Ferdinand was so mad.
He begged me to glue the desk down again, and I did – two more times, including once when I let the glue cure over a weekend. Aidan, who couldn’t read a sentence or memorize an addition fact family, understood the relationship between force, torque, linear momentum, angular momentum and position better than any third grader I’ve ever met.
Your vocabulary for today includes one bureaucratic acronym and one word that only teachers use:
¹BTSA = Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment – a program that each new teacher in California has to do for two years to get a “Clear” or semi-permanent, credential. Failure to complete the program in two years results in revocation of your credential. It involves being observed, evaluated and coached by a more experienced teacher, it involves making a portfolio that usually runs around 100 pages, and it involves tons and tons of paperwork. It takes hundreds and hundreds of hours, and you don’t get paid for any of it.
²Decoding is sounding a word out. (Encoding is spelling a word.) Decodable books are books containing only letter-sound patterns that have already been explicitly taught, and usually focus on a sound-spelling pattern that we’re working on this week. They are often four or five little pages folded and stapled, and sent home with kids. They are a tremendous pain in the ass, and for a class of 20 I had to make 750 of those suckers. The second year and third year I had parent volunteers to do it.