When I threw the chair across the room
Something inside of me snapped that day. It was a moment right out of the movies. It was in the late 80’s, I was 31 years old. I had my first teaching job in the public-school system. I was teaching drama to junior high school kids in a lower middle-class hispanic neighborhood in Miami, Florida.
It was going okay except for my last class period of the day from 3 to 4 pm. This class was filled with the most delinquent adolescents in the school. 8th and 9th graders at the height of puberty in their most rebellious and ornery of hormonal-ism. They arrived to class late, no books, blatantly dis-respectful to me and each other.
It was right out of the movies, the ones where the teacher would quietly go home in tears every night. Each Sunday I couldn’t wait to look in the classified section of the paper for another job.
Even the assistant principal walked by my class one day, pulled me aside and remarked,
“You have the all the worst kids in the school in your class!”
I vehemently responded, “Yes, but don’t just tell me what I already know, DO something about it!”
Then one day everything changed. Being new to the public school system, I was exposed to every cough, cold and germ floating around. My immune system hadn’t yet caught up to speed, so after about 6 weeks of work, I came down with a flu and missed work on a Thursday. When I returned on Friday, the permanent substitute teacher sought me out immediately.
“Miss Fine, in my nine years of substitute teaching I have never had a class as bad as yours was yesterday. They were running up and down the halls, throwing books out the window at the kids in the gym class outside, yelling and screaming. They were utter hooligans.”
I was beside myself. I couldn’t afford to quit my job. I knew if I didn’t do something drastic, they would make my life hell for the rest of the year. But WHAT to do?!
I spent my lunch period in the teachers staff room that day asking every seasoned teacher for advice.
The gym teacher advised, “Just grab him by the scruff of the neck and throw him against the locker.”
“Are you kidding?! Look at me! These kids are way bigger than me.”
“Just keep them after school,” was another offer. I didn’t want to spend one extra minute with any of them.
After gathering all suggestions I could, I was distraught. Nothing any of them offered would be impactful enough to make a difference.
Then I remembered something my Cuban boyfriend told me that he did when he was trying to study. His family would be screaming and fighting in the other room and he would wreck the house. He would walk into the living room where the fight was going on and turn over furniture, scare the *#!*# out of them and only then it would quiet down.
Just before the last period of the day, I took a giant piece of paper and wrote in HUGE intimidating letters, “ENTER IN SILENCE OR YOU WILL RECEIVE AND IMMEDIATE DETENTION.” I posted it on the outside of the classroom door so they would see it before they entered.
This was the drama classroom and we had a small stage at one end of the room. I pushed the giant sofa on the stage to the center and sat on it, arms crossed with an angry look on my face. The bell rang, the students arrived to sit at their rectangular desks, some late. They sat with quiet giggles and wonder, while taking brief temperature glances over at me seated on the stage, glaring at them. When the late bell rang, for the first time in 6 weeks of teaching, it was silent in my classroom.
I used the silence. I stood up, arms crossed and sauntered angrily, slowly, across the room.
“You want to act like animals in my class? I’m going to treat you like animals.”
I picked up a chair and I threw it across the room!
Crash, crash, bang, bang it went into a bunch of other tables and chairs.
Gasps! “Miss Fine!” They were stunned. I had their undivided attention, finally. But I was pissed.
“Today’s lesson isn’t going to be about this.” I pointed to the chalkboard where I had all written all these acting terms. “It’s going to be about this…” I wrote in huge letters on top of all the other info on the board, A – N – G – E – R. “Because I’m angry.”
“Take out a piece of paper. You have 60 seconds to write a list of 10 things that make you angry. And if my name isn’t on the list, it will be before the end of the class, so ADD MY NAME. Oh…you didn’t bring paper or pencils…HERE YOU GO.” I walked from table to table and threw the paper and pencils in their faces, where they then scattered all over the floor.
“Pick that up off the floor!” Scramble, scramble, scramble. They picked up the paper and pencils off the floor. Next, I picked out the biggest, most apathetic 13 year old boy in the room who used to come in to class, put his head down on the table and proceed to sleep through the hour, every single day.
“Nan, STAND UP!” I was shocked! Nan, stood up!
“Read your list.” Nan read his list, I gave him a pillow and had him slam the list on the table as he spoke. I made two rows of students and had them face each other and do the same thing. The entire class came alive, became attentive and present. I had them.
The moral of the story…
Something inside of ME broke that day. I had to make a decision. I had to make my happiness; my peace more important to me than wanting them to like me. That was BIG for me. I went into the classroom that day being utterly TERRIFIED to act mad. I went into this believing they would truly despise me. But I did it. I didn’t care anymore. And the thing that broke inside me was my wimpy-ness, my fear of confrontation, my cowardice, my selling myself out. My fear of entering the unknown without knowing the outcome.
These kids needed to feel my boundaries. They needed to feel passionately cared for enough that I would fight for them by fighting with their impulsive meanness. They didn’t really want to act out on every impulse but had never been taught how. They were not provided with a strong, caring boundary. They needed me to be stronger than their lower self impulses.
There’s a power in the unknown. There is a way to learn how to be with that power instead of avoid it. I’ll be teaching that in a one-time two-hour workshop in Los Angeles in January. Read more about that HERE.
After that day, they became my best class. We made a movie and showed it to the entire school. Nan was the cameraman.
The last day of the school year, one of the students asked me, “Miss Fine, that day you threw the chair across the room, was that real or were you acting.” I looked at them and said,
“You’ll never know.” And that’s acting. 😊
With love and gratitude,
Therapist, MFT degree, MA,
Author, Counselor, Coach, Transformational Workshop Leader