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We All Know Bernard

There’s only one Bernard, but every teacher has a Bernard. He epitomizes everything we loathe about teaching adolescents, everything we love about teaching adolescents, and everything we loved about being (and still love about being) adolescents. He loves to argue and will pick fights with you about almost anything — but it’s all because he’s asking for limits. Once you give them to him, firmly and with clear explanations, you’ve earned his trust. Depending on my own energy level, I can handle conflicts with this student in one of two ways: one that enforces his perception, and or one that patiently and gently guides it into a strong sense of justice and a keen understanding of how to advocate respectfully and effectively for himself.

I’d like to share an example of the latter, not just because I’m proud of it but because I think conflict resolution with authority figures is one of the most important skills we can teach young people — particularly young people of color who are so often the victims of harassment and unjust targeting. I hope others will share strategies for addressing the Bernards in their lives.

Bernard arrived late to my classroom yesterday (as usual). Unbeknowst to me, he had accidentally brought his phone to school with him and (miraculously) it had not been detected by the scanners through which every student must pass. When he realized it was there, he panicked. He couldn’t let a teacher see it, or it would get confiscated. But the pocket he’d kept it in — a mesh pocket on the outside of his backpack — was too obvious. He didn’t want to keep it in a pocket of his backpack, lest someone steal it. He apparently walked into my room completely preoccupied with what to do about this situation.

Students were writing essay, and one girl had asked to type on my laptop. I’d let her sit in Bernard’s front row seat so the computer cord could reach the outlet. Bernard, despite being late, was furious and refused to sit anywhere except his seat. Exasperated and worried about losing time, I asked Bernard to step into the hallway and planned to negotiate with him in a moment when I was finished getting the other students working.

Peeking through the window of my doorway, Bernard could see that Jesse was wearing sweatpants with deep pockets. He beckoned Jesse, who swiftly asked to use the bathroom, into the hallway to ask if he could hide the phone in his pocket. Jesse agreed, but as he was handing the phone over, the guidance counselor caught sight of it. She confiscated it and chastised the two boys for talking and laughing in the hallway during class. When I came out to see what was going on, Bernard was already stalking away from the classroom. When I tried to call him back, he called out an obscenity and kept walking.

Bernard came back into my room about 20 minutes later, having obviously cooled down. I spoke to him in the hallway and explained my reasoning for sending him out: he’d disrupted what had otherwise been a productive period so far, he was late, and I knew that if he and I spoke privately we’d be able to work something out so that he could get his essay finished. Does what I’m doing make sense? I asked him. He nodded. Can you come in and work productively on your essay? He nodded again.

After class, I asked both Jesse and Bernard to stay.  I’d already addressed Bernard’s behavior in my class, but I wanted to address how he’d treated me and the guidance counselor in the hallway.  That was when Bernard finally had the opportunity to explain the whole phone saga.  I saw that he simply hadn’t known what to do with the phone.

“In the future,” I said, “the best thing for you to do would be to let an administrator know you have your phone and ask them to store it for you some where or help you find a safe place for it. That way, you wouldn’t get in trouble. The problem with what you did was that you made it look like you were doing something wrong — and that’s what’s going to get you in trouble. The more honest you are, the more you will be trusted.” (Of course, there are many cases in which confessing to breaking a rule could be dangerous for Bernard. I am lucky to be at a school where students know all adults, from teacher to administrator to security guard, want to help him succeed, and will help him in any way they can.)

“I also,” I told Bernard, “want to address the word you used to address me and Ms. Alexander on your way down the hallway.”

“I wasn’t cursing at you,” he responded. I struggled to keep my face relaxed as my temper flared. How dare he focus on technicalities when cursing at all is such an obvious misstep? But then, this is why I love Bernard. He’ll argue with you to the root of the matter, but it’s because he really does want an explanation. And not to belittle any of the unique gift his other teachers have to offer, but what I’m about to say is why he loves me: I’m willing and able to give it to him.

“No, you weren’t. But you were cursing, and that is an inappropriate way to deal with your anger in that particular situation. Don’t you think I ever want to curse when I’m angry at school?” Like right now, for instance?

“Yeah,” he said, “but you’re a teacher. That would be inappropriate.”

“Well,” I said, “I’m preparing you for a profession where it will also be inappropriate. It doesn’t matter what you do — you can’t handle your anger by cursing in a professional environment.” He nodded in agreement and apologized.

I understand why some schools would not have allowed Bernard to wander the halls for his manly cool-off time. I understand why they might not be interested in his excuses for being heated and cursing at two teachers in the hallway. But what Bernard just got — instead of the discipline or even arrest he might receive at some schools — is a precious opportunity to learn conflict resolution skills. I’m grateful, not just because I like him or because I like a healthy spar with a hard-headed teenager. I’m grateful because the ability to speak one’s mind professionally in the heat of a conflict is one he will need long after he forgets everything else he learned from me. In a city of stop-and-frisk and scanners wherever he goes, knowing how to argue could mean the difference between fighting for his life and arguing, articulately, for what he knows is right.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.